Unusual Depictions of Civil-War-Era Black Women

Cutting to the chase, I think most of these images were coerced or co-opted in some way.  Having Their Say means being the eye behind the lens.

woman with flag

Photographic History Collection, Division of Information Technology and Communications, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Patriotism.  That’s a good place to start since it’s often contested terrain.  What does it mean to this woman to be patriotic?  This is an Ambrotype of an unidentified washerwoman for the Union Army, c. 1865 in Richmond, Virginia.  The Museum secured it in 2005. The curator at NMAH, Shannon Thomas Perich, used the picture as part of an article called Flag of Freedom.  He points out that this picture was taken at a time when not many black women’s pictures were being formally taken. He poses these questions:

The flag (on the woman) especially raises questions as it is called out by the coloring. Why is a woman who is disenfranchised because of her skin color and her gender wearing the flag, often a symbol of freedom? Is that what it meant for her? If so, how did she describe freedom for herself and the nation? Is she wearing the flag by choice? Did she purchase this image? Did she own it? If not, then who did?

I’m thinking about our recent class discussion where we talked about digging into the context of a photograph.  I’m wondering if this woman pinned the flag on herself before arriving at the studio or did someone there ask her to wear it for the picture?  If she wore the flag of her own volition she might have been claiming her freedom, which would come at least in part in December 1865.  This woman is likely one of thousands of enslaved people who escaped to Union lines and were put to work as “contraband of war.”  I’ve never liked that term.  Contraband generally refers to smuggling goods or merchandise.  Enslaved people seeking freedom hardly seems in the same category.  It’s another way of dehumanizing a group of people.  I think the flag was pinned on her.  I don’t think a woman would pin something so close, practically on her breast.  That’s something a man might do – a man who is also a photographer or a man who feels dominion over this woman.  I wish I knew her name.

hiding woman

Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia, c. 1861. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., http://www.virginiamemory.org.

I have such empathy for this woman.  She is witnessing massive slave-trading at this place.  Although she is clearly standing and cooperating with the photographer, she also seems to be  hiding, physically behind the tree, and also emotionally.  I don’t get the sense that she wants to be known by the probably foreign-like people taking her picture? Does she work at the slave pen? It doesn’t look like she’s about to be sold with her basket? I wonder what’s inside.

woman and men with guns

This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 25 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.  Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

Thank you, Megan, for finding this picture.  It’s extraordinary.  First let me tell you what they say this photograph is about – and then I’ll tell you what I think of what they say.  They say this is a cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862. “Rockwell and Berch traveled the one hundred miles to Coffin’s house at a rapid pace. The party arrived safely and spent two days at the Coffin residence. Before sending the girl off to Racine (where the soldiers had friends ready to take the girl in), however, they posed with her for the above daguerreotype, taken at the J. P. Ball Photographic Gallery in Cincinnati.” Okay, if anyone can explain to me why after having aided a teenage runaway the men would then pay and go into a studio and take a picture with a gun pointed at her head I might consider this story.  Just because something is documented doesn’t mean it’s true – even if it is from the Library of Congress. 

group enslaved

James F. Gibson, A Group of “Contrabands,” 1862. Emancipation-era families, Foller farm in Cumberland County, Virginia. Courtesy the Library of Congress. See more at: http://southernspaces.org/2011/scales-intimate-and-sprawling-slavery-emancipation-and-geography-marriage-virginia#sthash.Swa0Tioc.dpuf

The next time you hear the word “contraband” think families.  This picture may look familiar because it’s on the Internet. How does your impression of the scene change when you look at the same image below it? What effect does color have on the tone of the picture? The website southernspaces.org is using it to discuss marriages and spatial arrangements during the Civil War.

group enslaved color

Daguerreotype of a New Orleans woman with her slave in the mid 19th century.

woman with black child slave

The sweetness of this child’s face touches my heart. On historytoday.com John Spicer used the picture in an article where he wrote that slavery was the key factor in starting the Civil War.  The partial article on this website was not very insightful but I couldn’t resist using this picture. The little girl looks like she is hoping beyond hope for a grandma. The girl is mixed race and this may well be her biological grandmother as well as her slave-owner.  The woman looks as though she is resigned to slavery – even though it has taken a toll on her as well- that and the war. I don’t see any connection between them.



Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328. Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

Are words even needed?

The article admits that “The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well. But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy”

I agree with the conclusion but not the method. An animal head and we should not get “too hung up” about it? What’s up with that?





3 thoughts on “Unusual Depictions of Civil-War-Era Black Women

  1. Pam,
    First off, I love the images that use in this post, especially the the one depicting the lone women standing inside the slave pen. Not too sound strange but it brings back some rather fond memories of the time, six years ago (man time flies, it certainly does not feel like six years) when I was an intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. One of my tasks was to compile a lesson packet for the area schools which depicted the civilian side of the war in Virginia. One of the images that I used was the one that you use on your post.
    Anyways, reminiscing aside, you raise a very valid question as to whether or not photographs from this period are staged or not. Many are, whether the particular picture in question is or not I do not know. However this raises another interesting point. If you know that a photo is staged, for example many of the battlefield shots that you see, including Gettysburg, does this make the image less historically significant? I am most certainly not an expert and have no clue as to even begin to answer the question, but it is something to think about. In some instances I enjoy a historical work that includes images of people because it humanizes the events that I am reading about. It reminds the reader that many of the events and ideologies that you are reading about are not abstract thoughts and ideas but a real forces that played a large role in people’s lives. I think sometimes when we read history we tend to forget this. (I think this is one of the reasons why many students find history boring, they have no way of connecting with it.) The images help to connect the present with the past.
    Lastly, the term patriot is one of the most misused words in existence. The Americans rebelling against the British thought of themselves as “patriots.” Both sides in the Civil War, North and South looked to the evolutionary generation as both inspiration and justification for their actions. Many on both sides considered themselves “patriots.” Even today we find many using that word to justify their means. Look at the tea party movement. They consider themselves patriots although personally I think they are wacked and are causing much more harm than they realize. The disruption of the government and intentionally dividing the polity, not to mention being historically ignorant and trying to institute a theocracy in a country that has a line in the Constitution preventing such measure is not my definition of a patriot. But then again, I am not quite sure what my definition should be.
    My apologies for ranting about the tea party, its the same as when George W. Bush would appear on television, I would get so mad I would need to leave the room. I get off on a tangent I tend to ramble on incoherently. My apologies.
    Thanks for the wonderful pictures and the insightful comments, I enjoyed them very much and learned somethings that I did not know in the process. (Always a good thing.)

  2. I really found your post fascinating, Pam. You’ve chosen to highlight some great images with and raised a few questions along the way. I think you’re right about the first image with the American flag pinned to the woman. It does look out of place and a bit awkwardly placed. However, we really don’t know the full context of the how the portrait was captured. Maybe she was really proud of her role in the Union army as a washerwoman, and wanted a photograph to commemorate her service? It really is hard to determine without knowing more about her. But I love the image.
    The other image that struck me was the colorized photo of “contrabands.” The image is already striking in black and white, but when color is applied (and rather well in this case), I think it makes the image come to life. I think the use of color helps connect people today, who are so immersed in a colorize world, connect with history in ways that a black and white photo cannot. Both images are informative documents, but the one with color contains another level of detail that is lacking from the original.

  3. Such an important assessment. Representations of women of color, particularly in this era, are so hard to come by.
    I’ve been chastised: “”What about the women?” asked my wife, after being subjected to a long, drawn out depiction of ancestral exploits. Subsequently sensitive to the fact that the dominant culture – keepers of the record – leaves many persons’ histories unrecorded, I find it particularly rewarding when I encounter documentation left by people of color.”
    In subsequent posts, I’ve tried to do more to unearth perspectives in the historical record that are not from the dominant culture.

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