A View from the Civil War

Inspired by the presence of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s traveling exhibition Photography and the American Civil War at the New Orleans Museum of Art this spring, graduate and undergraduate students studying the history of the Civil War at the University of New Orleans have each chosen one image from the exhibition and written about it.  Fitting with the theme of the blog, they considered how the experiences of individuals can advance our understanding of the war and its effects on American society and culture.  Over the next week or two, these essays will be posted on 19thcenturylives.org.  While we could not reproduce all of the exhibition’s images, alternate copies of many of the photographs, on deposit at the Library of Congress and other public archives, and have been included here.

 

[Private William Sargent of Co. E, 53rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, in uniform, after the amputation of both arms]  Bundy & Williams, photographer ca. 1861-65 1 photographic print on carte de visite mount : albumen ; 9.7 x 6.1 cm (mount) Library of Congress

[Private William Sargent of Co. E, 53rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, in uniform, after the amputation of both arms]
Bundy & Williams, photographer
ca. 1861-65
1 photographic print on carte de visite mount : albumen ; 9.7 x 6.1 cm (mount)
Library of Congress

Duty on the Home Front: Elizabeth Porter and Civil War Women by Kevin McQueeney

[Two unidentified women reading letters] ca. 1860-1870 1 photograph : approximate ninth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 7.4 x 6 cm (case) Library of Congress

[Two unidentified women reading letters]
ca. 1860-1870
1 photograph : approximate ninth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 7.4 x 6 cm (case)
Library of Congress

Introduction

Ken Burns’s The Civil War documentary, viewed by more than forty million Americas when it first aired in 1990, introduced its viewers to a little-known Union major from Rhode Island, Sullivan Ballou, who was killed at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Ballou’s last letter to his wife, written just hours before he was killed, predicted his own death and fascinated viewers with its poetic language. He promised his wife that he would watch over her, that they would meet again after death, and that “when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name.”

Ballou’s letter may be the most well-known of letters written by soldiers of the conflict, but it is not the only one to receive attention and analysis. Historians have repeatedly turned to letters in a quest to find a larger narrative for the war. Scholars and non-academics alike have continually used letters to try to understand the experience of the common soldier, as a way of humanizing and relating to the participants of the war.

Yet, often left out of this narrative are the voices of women. Women have been part of the dialogue, but more frequently as the intended audience of the soldier’s letter home, than as contributors themselves. Much like the omission of Sarah Shumway, Ballou’s wife and the subject of his pre-death musings, historians have largely omitted the voices of the wives of soldiers.

This work seeks to address that issue, focusing on the wartime letters of Elizabeth Porter of Auburn, New York, to her husband Lansing Porter, a captain in the Union Army from 1861-1863. This article examines the larger overall topic of the home experience during the conflict, expanding the scope beyond the battlefield, and seeking to address some of the following questions. How did the war affect the lives of those at the home front? What did the wives of soldiers think of the war? How did the absence of their husbands change their day to day lives and activities? This work argues that by examining the experience of Elizabeth Porter and other women we can understand how women during the Civil War became active heads of households and entered the “public space.”

Elizabeth and Lansing Porter

Lansing Porter was born on March 18, 1817 in Auburn, NY. He attended Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, graduating in 1838. He attended Wesleyan University for a year and was then enrolled in Yale Theological Seminary from 1839-1842. He returned to Auburn after and married Elizabeth Curtis, born on 1822, on August 22, 1844. They eventually had three children, two daughters (Elizabeth, born 1847, and Anna, born 1850) and a son (Lansing, born 1852).The couple moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he served as pastor of the Congregational Church from 1844-1846, and then a series of other churches throughout the state until 1855. They returned to Auburn, NY, where he, like many Americans, worked as a farmer until the war.

Lansing enrolled in the New York 75th Volunteers on October 9, 1861. Her served as a captain in Company I, primarily stationed at Fort Pickens in Pensacola Florida and later served in Louisiana. Granted a leave of absence in March 1863, he was granted discharge the following month. Elizabeth died in 1895 and Lansing died in 1902.

The correspondence between Elizabeth and Lansing help us understand the war time experience of women at the home front through her explicit purpose in writing the letters, which was to fill him in on the events taking place at home.  The correspondence also reveals her experiences as the head of household. Elizabeth informed Lansing on February 18, 1862: “so you see I plan to let you know something about everyday.” She described for him the friends of his that asked about his well-being, the sermons at church on Sundays, the changes in the weather and the impact upon the farm’s crop; the illnesses of the children and her father; the progress of the children in school; the raising and selling of livestock; and the general events in town. Her life was kept busy with her many tasks; in the same February 18th letter she wrote: “You wonder what I find to do…But somehow every day brings its cares and its duties. How well it is so.”

Elizabeth attempted to recreate for Lansing as much as possible the home life he had left behind through her words; she also sent care packages that included local food, asking him in her February 18th letter “Did it not taste like home?” She also described how she tried to keep herself busy with work around the house and farm: Yet, she feared boring him with the details of her life: “I hope I do not write too often that you get tired of reading them” (January 22, 1862).

Elizabeth also shared with her husband the news she had heard of the war, noting events like the capture of New Orleans, the Union losses at the battle of Fredericksburg, and the problems with recruiting new soldiers at in Owasco. In February she described her feelings over the surrender of Fort Donaldson:

there was a merrymaking last evening and today the reports are confirmed that Savannah is ours…There is a great rejoicing and a very general feeling that the tide is in our favor. Rather that the Lord is on our side. But what a wicked costly war it is, and how little need       of it. I mean of the causes, for I know that as a nation we needed such a judgment, for we had sinned, and thus it seems could we be brought to see it. Our punishment has been great, may be we by it be purified and forsake every evil way. May prosperity soon be in            all our land and peace in all our borders. And oh, how much this means, for how many are desolate, how many hearts mourn. How many must mourn while the nation rejoices at this great victory we have gained, but we do not forget the brave men who have fallen. On for peace, peace founded upon righteousness, justice and mercy.

Elizabeth’s belief that the cost of the war was a punishment for the country having the system of slavery was similar to the views of others in the North during the time period.

Much of her writing spoke of anxiety and uncertainty, and guilt that her personal wishes conflicted with the sense of civic duty. Elizabeth lamented that her commitment to the war was tested by her desire to have her husband home. She noted in January 22nd that not everyone in Owasco was doing their full duty in support of the war effort, and questioned herself: “the fault may be in my own heart…I have not had that earnest desire I have sometimes felt” and again on February 13th: “Oh dear! I do not think my patriotism will hold out much longer as I do believe you must come home.”

Elizabeth continued to try to support the war, even telling her husband in the January 22nd letter that she would join the fight if able:  “but what of all these little trials-it must be done and if I were a man I too would shoulder a musket and go.” Yet, she struggled to understand the larger overall significance of the war: “do let me ask, why does not the work go on? What does it mean?” and on December 11th: “I cannot yet comprehend this long journey by sea, this strange country and work in which you are engaged. What does it mean? When the end be? What will it be?” On March 23, 1863, she described her unease on whether or not the “revengeful proud rebels” would accept the federal government if they are defeated.

A further source of anxiety concerned money. Lansing complained in several letters of not receiving his money on time to send to his family. Elizabeth told her husband on February 16th of her difficulty in paying the family’s bills and mentioned two days later she had discussed with her father the possibility of selling twenty acres of the farm to ease their financial burdens.

Uncertainty and anxiety were heightened by the difficulties in communication. On December 11th, 1861 she wrote that one of her letters had been sent back because the post office had been unable to determine where he was stationed at the time, a common occurrence during the war. In May and July, she despaired of her lack of correspondence from her husband, particularly troubling as others she knew had received letters. Rumors further agitated the situation. In September she noted that there was talk that the regiment was being sent North but was upset as she did not know where he was at the time.

Perhaps hardest to deal with was the December, 1862 rumor that he had been captured or killed in combat. She spoke of her spirituality as a comfort in the trying situation: “our trust is in He who orders all things…Oh is it not a comfort then to commit all into His care? Surely he will watch over and keep you so that no evil shall befall you. We are safe everywhere in his keeping.” Lansing was not killed or captured during this incident but the delay in information led to days of uncertainty.

One small source of comfort or connection for Elizabeth may have been a photograph of Lansing. A marked difference in the way that separation was endured in the Civil War and previous wars was the proliferation of photographs. Elizabeth was able to look upon Lansing’s photograph while he was away, making it perhaps the first war in which wives and children could look at photographs of the departed soldier. She also sent him a picture of the children when he was stationed in New Orleans. She wrote in her letters of looking at his photograph when she was lonely, although, she told him on February 13 that a dream had in which he told her he was coming home “was better even than looking at your picture.”

Analysis

One could examine these letters and conclude Elizabeth Porter’s life was difficult in the year a half of her husband’s absence. She had no way of knowing how long he would be away, whether he would be wounded or killed, anxiety exasperated by long stretches of no letters home and rumors in town; she had to tend to the farm, raise her children, and take care of elderly family members while worrying about having enough money to pay the bills; and she had to grapple with her own support for and understanding of the war.

However, an analysis of the letters also reveals the significance of Elizabeth’s new role during her husband’s absence. Better understanding her life and the lives of other women on the home front helps to create a more complete picture of the Civil War, demonstrating how the conflict affected not just soldiers in the battlefields and camps but also the families and friends they had left behind. Women became the heads of families while men were away-about one third of soldiers were married; this change challenged the existing system of patriarchy. Elizabeth Porter was both the head of the household and the manager of the farm; she was a businesswoman who engaged in the selling of her crops and livestock on the market; she was in charge of the family’s finances; and she also served as a teacher and helped run the town’s asylum.

Elizabeth also viewed herself as a participant in the war effort through her roles. She wrote several times to her husband of her “duty” at home as being similar to his duty as a soldier. Both she and her husband spoke of taking pride in the patriotism of their children as well; pointedly, Annie told her father in a letter on November 29, 1862, that she did not want him to come home until the war was won. Clearly another one of Elizabeth’s role was a teacher to her own children of patriotism and political values. She also repeated her wish that she could fight in the war, noting in a June 12, 1862 letter that as a woman her “wings are clipped.” Yet, this did not stop her, despite being considered a non-political actor due to her gender, from expressing her political beliefs including her support of the passage of the Confiscation Act in summer 1862, an act allowing the seizure of and freedom for slaves that were used by the Confederate army and any captured slaves whose masters were supporting the rebellion. She also wrote of her support for using African American soldiers on July 8, 1863: “We long to see the slaves their own avengers.”

Conclusion and Further Research Suggestions

Elizabeth Porter’s experience demonstrates the change in the roles of women during the Civil War; yet women are often left out of the focus of most research on the time period. This work contributes to the existing literature on women during the Civil War and urges similar research on related questions.

A second area of further research would be on the post-war impact upon marriage and families. How did the return of Civil War soldiers impact family relationships? How did the long periods of separation, as long as four years for some soldiers, affect their relationships with their spouses and children? Divorce petitions, for example, can be studied to determine if there was a rise in divorce rates nationwide between ex-soldiers and their wives. Court records and coroner reports can be studied to see if there was a rise in domestic violence and other incidents of violence when the soldiers returned.

A further area of research unrelated to gender concerns age. Although the primary focus of this work was on Elizabeth Porter, one fact about Lansing Porter that warrants future attention is his age. Lansing was forty-four years old at the time of his enlistment and forty-six when he left the military. This fact is worthy of attention because of the rarity of men his age serving; the average age of soldiers in the Union army was 25.8 years and less than 10% were over the age of 30, with soldiers in their forties extremely atypical. Porter’s age in fact placed him outside of the 18-35 age range that was set for the first Union draft in March 1863, meaning he would not have had to serve unless he had volunteered.

Soldiers within his age group, however, have generally received little scholarly attention. Instead, there has been a focus on the opposite end of the age spectrum, child soldiers like John Lincoln Clem; an estimated 10% of soldiers were under the age of 16. However, minimal research has been done on older soldiers. In general, research on Civil War soldier demography remains a neglected field.

The Civil War is one of the most studied time periods in American history. The proliferation of scholarship, though, does not mean there are not further areas to explore. The incorporation of under-studied groups like women and the turn away from an exclusive focus on the battlefield to include the experience of the home front offers new opportunities for research. These new works will help contribute to a more holistic picture of the conflict and its aftermath.

 

Sources

-“Two Unidentified Women Reading Letters” AMB/TIN no. 2075, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36461

-The correspondence between Elizabeth and Lansing, as well as letters to and from their children, can be accessed at the Louisiana Research Center, Tulane University. Lansing Porter family papers, 1861-1863. LaRC/ Manuscripts Collection 1065. Louisiana Research Center, Tulane University.

Further Reading

-Sullivan Ballou’s letter and life are the subject of an 864 page 2006 work by Robin Young. Robin Young, For Love and Liberty: The Untold Civil War Story of Major Sullivan Ballou and His Famous Love Letter (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006).

-An example of scholarly work that analyzes the writing of soldiers is Chandra Manning’s 2007 book on the meaning of the war to soldiers on both sides. Manning argued both Union and Confederate soldiers understood slavery to be the cause of the conflict and used she used their writings to explore their understandings of and attitudes towards slavery and emancipation. Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2007).

-For an analysis of the writing of soldiers and the way they conceptualized ideas see Peter S. Carmichael, “Soldier-Speak,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011): 273.

-Further information about Lansing’s life can be found in the 1850 and 1860 federal censuses as well as biographical backgrounds in the Auburn Seminary Record Volume 1: 1905-1906 (Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundations, 1924) and the General biographical catalogue of Auburn Theological Seminary, 1818-1918 (Auburn, NY: Auburn Seminary Press, 1918). His Civil War enrollment and discharge can be found in the New York State Archives, Cultural Education Center, Albany, New York; New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900; Archive Collection #: 13775-83; Box #: 304; Roll #: 1178-1179.

 

-Lansing and Elizabeth ran a farm before and during the war. The most common profession amongst soldiers was farming. Forty-eight percent of Union soldiers and 69% pf Confederate soldiers were farmers. “Civil War Facts” National Park Service (2014).  http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/facts.htm.

-There is a growing field of scholarship on women during the Civil War. Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) examined the impact of the Civil War on patriarchal attitudes for elite white women in the South.

-Victoria E. Olt, Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War (Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) looked at the experience of adolescent women from slaveholding families.

-George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) argued white women in the South were strong defenders of slavery.

-Anya Jabour, “Days of lightly-won and lightly held hearts: Courtship and Coquetry in the Southern Confederacy,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) and Steven E. Nash, “Love is a Battlefield: Lizzie Alsop’s Flirtation with the Confederacy,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) looked at the changes in Southern courtship patterns, arguing there was a relaxing of social norms allowing women more freedom in courting.

-Joan Cashin, “Hungry People in the War Time South: Civilians, Armies, and the Food Supply,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) and Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) examined the impact of food shortages which led to women petitioning the Confederate government and leading food riots in some cities.

-Alecia Long, “(Mis)Remembering General Order No. 28: Benjamin, Butler, the Woman Order, and Historical Memory,” in Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation in the American Civil War, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009) argued women in New Orleans were political actors through their resistance to federal occupation.

-Several works have focused on women in the Northern home front, particularly looking at the impact of women’s role in medicine and other forms of soldier relief. See Judith Giesberg, Civil War Sisterhood: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women’s Politics in Transition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000); Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the Civil War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Elizabeth D. Leonard, Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).

-Betty L. Alt and Bonnie D. Stone, Campfollowing: A History of the Military Wife (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1991). Michele Nacy, Members of the Regiment: Army Officers’ Wives on the Western Frontier, 1865-1890 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2000) looked at the role played by women who lived with their husbands in military camps.

-An example of work on marginalized women like immigrants, African American, and working class women is Judith Giesberg’s Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

-For an in-depth analysis of mail during the Civil War, including the differences between the North and the South, see Harry K. Charles, Jr., “American Civil War Postage Due: North and South,” Postal History Symposium (November 2012). http://stamps.org/userfiles/file/symposium/presentations/CharlesPaper.pdf.

-Hacker et al. (2010) looked at changes in white marriage patterns from 1850-1880 based upon census information; the article, focusing primarily on the South, argued there was a “marriage squeeze” due to the high number of Confederate casualties leading to a delay in marriage for many Southern women or marriage to “less appropriate” husbands. J. David Hacker; Libra Hilde; and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns,” Journal of Southern History 76 (2010): 39-70.

-David Silkenat’s 2011 work on North Carolina during the Civil War time period offers one model of scholarship that looked at post-war changes. Silkenat argued strain from long separation and changing values led to an increase in divorce between veterans of the war and their spouses. David Silkenta, Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).

-Stephen Berry, “The Historian as Death Investigator” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) examined court records and coroner reports and concluded there was a dramatic drop in spousal abuse, suicides, and the murder of babies during the war due to the majority of men being away from home to participate in the war.

-For further information about the demographic makeup of soldiers on both sides see James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997).

-For more information on children soldiers in the Civil War and other American wars see Eleanor C. Bishop, Ponies, Patriots, and Powder Monkeys: A History of Children in America’s Armed Forces, 1776-1916 (Del Mar: The Bishop Press, 1982).

 

A Portrait of Death: Photography and Death Ritual During the Civil War by Jessica Dauterive

Unidentified soldier of the 26th New York Infantry Regiment with revolver in front of painted backdrop showing camp scene ca. 1861-63 1 photograph : sixth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 9.4 x 8.4 cm (case) Library of Congress

Unidentified soldier of the 26th New York Infantry Regiment with revolver in front of painted backdrop showing camp scene
ca. 1861-63
1 photograph : sixth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 9.4 x 8.4 cm (case)
Library of Congress

The Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs at the Library of Congress houses hundreds of individual portraits like this one, titled “Unidentified soldier of the 26th New York Infantry Regiment with revolver in front of painted backdrop showing camp scene.” When thinking of Civil War images, larger and more provocative shots of dead soldiers and ruined cities often come to mind. However, portraits of unidentified soldiers fill Civil War photography collections, more than any shots of the war itself. These images provide a source for historians to examine social change during wartime. Portraits blurred the line between the battlefield and the home front, providing a coping mechanism for soldiers and civilians to deal with death during the Civil War.

Photography was already a popular medium before the Civil War began. By the 1860s, technological innovations allowed average Americans to participate in the photography industry. The wet plate collodion process of developing images allowed for mass production, and made photographs accessible to a wide range of Americans. The image of this unidentified soldier is a sixth plate ambrotype. Sixth plate refers to the size of the image, which is smaller than a playing card and most common during this period, and ambrotype means that the image was printed on glass, as compared to tintypes that were on thin sheets of iron. A gold frame surrounds the image, another common feature for portraits in the nineteenth century. The frames hinged shut, protecting the image inside. The accessibility and durability of these portraits contributed to the role they would play for soldiers and civilians during the Civil War.

The portrait of this unidentified soldier is a typical example of Civil War-era portraits. Families visited photography studios at home to send soldiers off with portraits of loved ones. For the first time, common soldiers were able to take a lifelike piece of home with them to war. Soldiers could even take the portraits into battle, due to their small size and protective cases, and could gaze at the face of their mothers, wives, or children in their bleakest wartime moments. For those soldiers far away from home, or even those nearby, the gap between army life and civilian life was vast. Photographs helped to narrow the gap, providing soldiers with an image of home.

As soldiers began to head to the fields, many photographers followed. The most famous of these photographers was Matthew Brady. He and his crew traveled with mobile studios, what on-looking soldiers reportedly called “What-Is-It Wagons,” in an effort to document the war. These itinerant, or traveling, photographers developed the modern concept of photojournalism. However, the process of producing a photograph during the nineteenth century made mobility and action shots difficult. The wet plate collodion process required bulky equipment, many chemicals, and a dark space in which to change the plate for each exposure. Also, slow shutter speed did not allow for shots from life. Therefore, most images were “after” shots; images of ruined cities or dead bodies strewn across battlefields. These images brought the war to civilians in a way that could not be documented through words. However, these photographs could only be seen printed in newspapers or displayed in exhibitions. Portraits were also made in the field, and provided a way for civilians to conceptualize the war in a more personal way.

Hundreds of itinerant photographers profited from the market for portraits in army camps. Itinerant photographers were already involved in the photography industry, and continued their operations in a mobile setting during the war. Isaac H Bonsall, a little known photographer, is exceptional because he also formally enlisted in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His obituary, published in the Arkansas City Daily Traveler, identifies Bonsall as the photographer attached to the army of the Cumberland, mostly responsible for photographing maps and other official documents. However, a photograph exhibited in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibit, reveals that Bonsall also ran a mobile photography studio of his own. The image displays a large tent identified as the “Headquarters for Photography,” and shows a soldier outside of the tent, gazing at what seems to be a portrait of himself just taken inside. Bonsall’s obituary claims that he continued to run a photography studio in Kansas after the war, and city directories from Cincinnati, his birthplace, claim the same. Bonsall’s involvement in wartime photography, as well as other itinerant photographers, reveals that soldier’s portraits were certainly in high demand.

Itinerant photographers played a role in bridging the gap between the battlefield and the home front for soldiers. Their mobile studios were often quite similar, at least in process, to the permanent studios found at home. In the image of Bonsall’s tent, an open skylight near the front suggests that soldiers would step inside to pose for the portrait under the light, and then the photographer would develop the photograph in the rear of the tent. Posing for portraits was not a frequent activity for nineteenth century Americans, but did provide a setting more peaceful and familiar than the life of a traveling soldier. Perhaps, for the five to twenty seconds of exposure time, soldiers were able to escape the rough and foreign life of army camps for one that reminded them a little more of home.

The soldiers’ portraits served a similar function of replicating place for the families at home. Soldiers arrived in their uniforms, and props were displayed to signify the soldiers’ role in the army. Some posed with instruments, canteens, or, as in this photo, their weapons. Painted backdrops, like the one of an army camp behind the unidentified soldier, were sometimes included to make the image appear more “realistic.” Otherwise, there was rarely any indication on the image of who the soldier was, where he fought, or even who the photographer was. The personal nature of these portraits did not require such identification, as they were soon sent home to the soldier’s family. The stylized composition of soldiers’ portraits recreated the camp life of a soldier in a romanticized way. The soldiers appeared strong and dignified, and provided a sense of comfort for families at home. Any emotions expressed through soldiers’ letters were masked in these portraits, and provided families with a felt connection to the men in the fields.

Portraits held particular significance for soldiers and families in the event of death. As Drew Gilpin Faust discusses in her article “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying,” death rituals were drastically compromised during the Civil War. Nineteenth century Americans were not prepared for the violent, sudden and vast nature of death during the war. One aspect of a “good death” that was compromised, for both the living and the dying, was the ritual of dying surrounded by loved ones. A Civil War soldier, either Union or Confederate, was far removed from the comforts of home, especially in death. The last few moments of a soldier’s life that ended on the battlefield or in a hospital were not only painful, but lonely. Families were not able to comfort their loved ones, or begin to mourn for them. The Civil War created a setting where there was no peace, even in death.

Photographs seem to have provided a symbolic connection to family at the moment of a soldier’s death. In her article, Faust gives an example from a publication during the war reporting that a soldier was found dead with pictures of his children in his hands. Another such story describes soldiers pulling out family portraits in their final moments and speaking to them, as if their families were standing around them. These instances were witnessed in hospitals, but Michael DeGruccio describes similar instances on the battlefield in his article “Letting the War Slip through Our Hands: Material Culture and the Weakness of Words in the Civil War Era.” He discusses the findings of J. Howard Wert, who scavenged the bloodied battlefields of the Civil War for goods and mementos. Wert finds so many images of loved ones scattered among the remains of the dead that “he had enough images of small children alone to fill a small mahogany box.” DeGruccio notes that there are also records of dead soldiers found on the battlefield with photos of loved ones in their hands. Photographs of family members seem to have provided comfort to the soldiers seeking a “good death” during the Civil War.

The examples from Faust and DeGruccio demonstrate the role photographs played for soldiers, but the phenomenon of battlefield scavenging itself provides another way to view the blurred line between the battlefield and the home front. DeGruccio writes that many different groups gathered in the battlefields to recover relics from the dead, including family members who lived near recent battles. The items found ranged from bullets to valuable medals and coinage to personal letters and photographs. The desire for material tokens of war during this period signifies a need for American civilians to feel close to the soldiers at war. Families waded through dead bodies, partly hoping to find their dead relative, but mostly hoping that he made it through to the next battle. Burial remains an important part of death ritual for the living, but the nature of the Civil War meant families were not afforded the opportunity to properly inter their dead. Instead, families clung to the last remnants of the dead, including those that could be found on the battlefield. Portraits played a similar role, providing families with a surrogate site of mourning.

Inside the home, civilians also expressed the desire to protect the material memory of the dead. In Ruin Nation, Megan Kate Nelson discusses the destructive manifestations of the Civil War. Not only were cities and buildings destroyed, but also psychologies and social structures. In one section of the book, Nelson discusses the destruction of Southern homes by Union soldiers. Although the destruction of shelter was devastating enough, women fought vehemently for the preservation of personal items, particularly photographs. When war renders human lives disposable and death sudden, the material possessions they leave behind become ever more important. Nelson discusses instances when invading troops destroyed personal items out of spite. Women frequently lamented the loss of these irreplaceable items more than for the loss of their homes. Portraits represented not only a site to mourn, but also the last living image of a dead family member.

The Civil War’s implications reached far beyond the battlefields and the politics of war, affecting the social practices of nineteenth century Americans. Photography bridged the emotional gap between soldiers in the battlefields and their families at home. Photographers in permanent and mobile studios created portraits that provided a felt connection between soldiers and families during wartime, and a sense of comfort upon soldiers’ death. DeGruccio implores historians to look more closely at these material remnants of the war. Examining these Civil War portraits provides insight into the humanity of war, and even the humanity of death.

The faces of Civil War soldiers in these portraits are anonymous to us today. Rarely can we distinguish who these soldiers were or where they fought. However, each image tells a story. Look at this unidentified soldier. He was someone’s son; someone’s brother; possibly even someone’s husband or father. Although the pose suggests tranquility, the emotions of war—fear, uncertainty, homesickness, fatigue—were certainly running through his mind. We can’t know if he died on the battlefield, in a hospital, or made it through the bloody conflict. However, his picture still survives and so, too, does his memory. As DeGruccio eloquently insists, these images have not survived for “museum curators or antique collectors but instead for intense immediate psychological and spiritual needs of those who sought them.” The survival of this photo, and thousands of others, signifies the ancestral importance portraits held for nineteenth century Americans.

Primary Sources

Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lilj/; Arkansas City Daily Traveler, September 7, 1909; U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989

Further reading:

For a brief history of photography, see Cornell University’s exhibition site “Dawn’s Early Light,” http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/DawnsEarlyLight/index.html. For a discussion of death rituals in the nineteenth century, see Drew Gilpin Faust’s article “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying,” The Journal of Southern History (2001). On material culture during the war, see Michael DeGruccio’s article “Letting the War Slip through Our Hands: Material Culture and the Weakness of Words in the Civil War Era,” published in Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, 2011). On the destruction of homes during the Civil War, see Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Athens, 2012), chap 2.

The Civil War and White Slave Propaganda by Brandan Bonds

Learning is wealth. Wilson, Charley, Rebecca, and Rosa. Slaves from New Orleans  Charles Paxson, photographer c1864 1 photographic print on carte de visite mount : albumen ; 10 x 6 cm. Photograph shows Wilson Chinn, Charles Taylor, Rebecca Huger, and Rosina Downs, sitting, reading books Library of Congress

Learning is wealth. Wilson, Charley, Rebecca, and Rosa. Slaves from New Orleans, Charles Paxson, photographer, c1864,  1 photographic print on carte de visite mount : albumen ; 10 x 6 cm.Photograph shows Wilson Chinn, Charles Taylor, Rebecca Huger, and Rosina Downs, sitting, reading books
Library of Congress

Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana--Also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves c1863 carte de visite Library of Congress

Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana–Also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves, c1863, carte de visite
Library of Congress

On January 30, 1864, American political magazine Harper’s Weekly printed images of photographs, titled “Emancipated Slaves from New Orleans” depicting adults and children who had been brought North from Louisiana by Colonel George H. Hanks and set free by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. The groups made a series of public appearances and were photographed as part of a campaign to raise funds for public schools for freed slaves, the first of which was established by Major General Banks in October 1863. The majority of the photos were produced by New York photographers Charles Paxson, and Myron Kimball, who took the initial group portrait later reproduced as a woodcut in Harper’s Weekly.

While the nation was fighting in the Civil War over the question of slavery, abolitionists were moving toward a new fight of educating emancipated blacks. The biracial children in the photograph are written off as “white slaves” as a way to invoke compassion in white Northerners, who although thought slavery was immoral, weren’t particularly supportive of the idea of educating blacks. Kathleen Collins, author of Portraits of Slave Children, writes that the pictures of “Caucasian-featured children” would, sympathetically, push “Northern benefactors to contribute to the future of a race to which these children found themselves arbitrarily.” Although according to the “one-drop rule” those children would have been considered black, the reports in the article showed Collin’s conclusion with the children described as being “as white, as intelligent, as docile, as most of our own children.” Collins then proceeds to write that slavery destined the children to the “fate of swine.”

The photos and accounts written in Harper’s Weekly were all a part of a battle of the progressive few to improve the status of blacks in America. The photos confirm an American society more accepting of people of light skin tone. Of the eight slaves sent North from New Orleans, four children – Charley, Augusta, Rebecca, and Rosa looked white. The article accompanying the group portrait in Harper’s Weekly affirmed, they were “perfectly white;” “very fair;” and “of unmixed white race.” Their light skin tone contrasted sharply with those of the three adults, Wilson, Mary, and Robert; and that of the fifth child, Isaac –”a black boy of eight years; but none the less intelligent than his whiter companions.” In the eyes of Northerners that abolitionists sought to gain empathy and money from, blacks simply weren’t good enough. If they had been, there would have been no need to portray biracial children as “white slaves.” The images show the parallels of then and now, and makes one question how much has really changed. This paper will analyze the photo, Learning Is Wealth in comparison to, Wilson, Branded Slave from New Orleans from the series. Specifically, this paper will explore the life of Wilson Chinn and how his participation in the photograph influenced the publicity tour and the Civil War as a whole.

In January 1863, thousands of slaves that lived in the Confederate states discovered that they had been “freed” thanks to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Though this was correct, the task of providing free and equal status to the newly emancipated slaves would prove to be difficult. With no money, education, or experience fending for themselves outside of bondage – not to mention the additional challenges of living in a war-torn and racially-prejudiced country – the formerly enslaved faced seemingly impossible odds to find some means of survival. Northerners and abolitionists quickly deployed relief organizations such as the Friends Association of Philadelphia for the Aid and Elevation of Freedmen and the Freedmen’s Relief Association of New York. These groups worked tirelessly to obtain supplies, establish schools, and provide other forms of support, but resources were limited. Additionally, it was not easy to provoke the sympathy of countrymen who were preoccupied by war, and more often than not, ambivalent to the issue of African-American slavery.

In December 1864, most of Louisiana was occupied by the Union army. According to Catherine Clinton, author of Orphans of the Storm: Steering a New Course, ninety-five schools serving over 9,500 students –  including almost half of the African-American children in Louisiana –  were running under its sponsorship. Keeping these schools operational would require ongoing financial support. Therefore, the National Freedman’s Association, in collaboration with the American Missionary Association and interested officers of the Union Army, launched a new propaganda campaign. The authors of this campaign were pursuing an unforeseen and quite effective strategy for arousing sympathy for blacks – they portrayed them as white.

Wilson Chinn, one of three adults in the traveling party, appears in only one photo aside from the large group portrait by Myron Kimball. He is shown in Learning is Wealth with Charley, Rebecca, and Rosina (Rosa). In the photograph, Rosa appears unable to hide her frustration which suggests that Wilson is given the role of the teacher in the photograph.  The Harper’s Weekly news article publishes Wilson’s biography as follows:

Wilson Chinn is about 60 years old; he was “raised” by Isaac Howard of Woodford County, Kentucky. When 21 years old he was taken down the river and sold to Volsey B. Marmillion, a sugar planter about 45 miles above New Orleans. This man was accustomed to brand his negroes, and Wilson has on his forehead the letters “V. B. M.” Of the 210 slaves on this plantation 105 left at one time and came into the Union camp. Thirty of them had been branded like cattle with a hot iron, four of them on the forehead, and the others on the breast or arm.

Knowing that Wilson Chinn is about sixty years old and was raised by an Isaac Howard in Woodford, Kentucky, it can be concluded that Chinn was born around 1804. The census data from 1820 provided by Ancestry.com reveals records proving that there was an Isaac Howard living in Woodford, Kentucky. Since Wilson was not sold until the age of twenty-one, he would have probably been sixteen in 1820, possibly making him one of two male slaves, fourteen through twenty-five owned by Howard, as reflected on the 1820 census report. The use of props in the photograph also deserves consideration. In Portraits of a People, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw studies the way props were used to imply that the subjects shared the viewers’ values. Other photos taken by Charles Paxson in the series include props prominently displayed in the arrangement. This photo depicts each of the subjects holding a book that recalls the purpose behind the whole project, raising money for schools in Louisiana.

In contrast, the photo Wilson, Branded Slave from New Orleans presents a stark difference in subject matter for Wilson Chinn. In this photograph, Chinn is standing sideways with what appears to be a punishment collar on his neck, often used to prevent slaves from lying down. In his hands, appear shackles and a wooden paddle with holes. The holes in the paddle increase pain when hit against the skin. This image, taken by Charles Paxson illustrates how the power of these photos stemmed from allusions to physical abuse and torture. The initials “V.B.M” branded on Wilson Chinn’s forehead offer unquestionable evidence of the torture inflicted upon him by his cruel owner, Volsey B. Marmillion. In contrast to the “colored slaves,” who are racially distinct by the color of their skin – and in the case of Wilson Chinn by his physical scars – the “white slaves” are free of any such racial implications. They are – with the exception of Augusta Broujey, who was slightly darker than the other three children – “to all appearance of unmixed white race.” When compared to other articles in the same issue of Harper’s Weekly, the inference in the portrait of white slaves to the white masters’ sexual exploitation of their female slaves is evident. In Visualizing the Color Line, Carlos Goodman notes that the editor of Harper’s Weekly contends that the most significant sin of slavery is that it allows slaveholding “gentlemen” to seduce the most friendless and defenseless of women” (Goodman). Furthermore, Mary, as she is described in Harper’s Weekly, has more than 50 rawhide-scars on her arm and back. A 2009 article from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education explains,

“Two hundred years ago slave owners had no concerns about leaving physical signs of the torture on slaves. For the torturers, there was no problem about having to hide what they had done. In fact, scars and other marks of torture were effective visible signs that were used to put slaves on notice so they would know how they might be punished for disobedience.”

Torture and physical abuse during the Civil War exemplifies the extent to which slave masters and others went to restrain African-Americans. The physical and mental toll the effects of torture and abuse had on the slaves is devastating. Including this type of abuse in propaganda is a way to evoke empathy, and perhaps most importantly, money from a Northern audience.

The attire of each of the subjects in the photograph evoke an emotional response. The apparel of the individuals is not normal clothing that would be worn by emancipated slaves in the South. Wilson’s attire does not appear to be much different than the children’s. Mary Niall Mitchell highlights in Rosebloom and Pure White, Or So It Seemed, the significance of the fact that the majority of the photos in the series were portraits of young, white, and well-dressed girls. She asserts that such photographs took advantage of the demeaning tendencies of the Northern Victorian public, calling upon the viewer to protect the purity, innocence, and “whiteness” of youthfulness and femininity. Furthermore, Mitchell suggests that though it is difficult to know who viewed or purchased the images, their production at a time when white working-class people were openly opposing the Civil War – especially during the New York Draft Riots of 1863 – suggests that they were meant for a “broad northern audience” rather than just limited to middle class viewers. The location of Wilson Chinn in the first photograph further illustrates the photographer’s idea of Wilson supposedly teaching the children. In the photo, the children are seated leaning towards Wilson. This position suggests that the children are learning to read from Wilson, further provoking the audience to consider donating money to the cause.

The use of Propaganda to influence and twist opinions during the war, was partially the work of voluntary propagandist groups and partly the inevitable product of war psychology. Official propaganda like governmental use of the press, platform, theater, and the like for the distribution of stereotyped ideas and interpretations, was not regularly practiced by the leaders either of the Union or the Confederacy, except in the attack upon opinion abroad. Both the Union and the Confederacy had regular propaganda service for the influencing of foreign emotion.

The propaganda created out of the Civil War era generally relied upon patriotic fervor to advance the goals of the Union and the Confederacy. It is definitely true that many Southern states seceded and practiced slavery, while the North generally supported President Lincoln (enough to not, as a whole, threaten secession) and did not own slaves.  It was not set in stone, however, that because one lived in the North that they would automatically support the Union, support the abolition of slavery, oppose secession, or support these so much so that they would fight on behalf of them (or vice-versa for the South).  This was the primary  purpose propaganda served during the Civil War – the solidification of North vs. South identity, pro-abolition vs. anti-abolition.  The effectiveness of each respective side’s propaganda can still be felt easily today, close to one-hundred fifty years since its occurrence.

Abolitionists who photographed the white children of New Orleans, arm in arm with black slave children, and who emphasized at every turn, the intelligence and good behavior of these children, were fighting fire with fire, using the fairly new art and science of photography to counter visually, the beliefs of the country’s most famous leaders and racists who insisted that the two races should not and could not be mixed. This further supports the notion that, from a Northern perspective, blacks simply weren’t good enough to provoke people to donate money to the campaign. If they had been, there would have been no need to portray biracial children as “white slaves.” The images help one see the parallels of then and now, and provokes one to consider how far the nation has come since the Civil War has ended, and the challenges that lie ahead.

 

Sources

Ancestry.com. 1820 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

Collins, Kathleen. “Portraits of Slave Children.” History of Photography 9.3 (1985): 187-210. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

Clinton, Catharine. “Orphans of the Storm: Steering a New Course.” Civil War Stories. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998. 41-80.

Goodman, Carol. “Visualizing the Color Line.” Mirror of Race. Suffolk University, n.d. Web. 01 May 2014.

Harper’s Weekly. Vol. 8 No. 370 (January 30, 1864): 66, 69, 71.

Kimball, Myron. Wilson Chinn, a Branded Slave from Louisiana–Also Exhibiting Instruments of Torture Used to Punish Slaves. Digital image. Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.

Paxson, Charles. Learning Is Wealth. Wilson, Charley, Rebecca, and Rosa. Slaves from New Orleans / Chas. Paxson, Photographer, New York. Digital image. Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.

Mitchell, Mary Niall. “‘Rosebloom and Pure White,’ Or So It Seemed.” American Quarterly 54.3 (September 2002): 369-410.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Emancipated Slaves” by Myron H. Kimball. Accession number 2005.100.92.

Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. 154-161.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. “In the Slavery Years Torture Was a Standard Instrument of Racial Control.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 64. Summer (2009): 42-43. JSTOR. Web. 03 May 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40407478&gt;.

 

For further reading see:

On the children’s public tour, see Mary Niall Mitchell, Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery (New York, 2008), chap. 3. On the New York Draft Riots, see Iver Bernstein, The New York Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York, 1990). On slave torture and living conditions, see Nicholas Boston, The Slave Experience: Living Conditions (PBS, 2004).

 

For the related article see:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/the-young-white-faces-of-slavery/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

 

Poor Wrecks and Noble Heroes by Ashlyn Wink

Portrait of Pvt Robert Fryer, Company G, Fifty-second New York Volunteers Reed Brockway Bontecou, photographer April-July 1865 Albumen silver print [found on Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/344243965240098687/

Portrait of Pvt Robert Fryer, Company G, Fifty-second New York Volunteers
Reed Brockway Bontecou, photographer
April-July 1865
Albumen silver print
[found on Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/344243965240098687/

Private Robert Fryer, five foot two and eighteen years old, looks out from the oval frame of an 1865 carte de visite, straight-backed and unsmiling, with his right hand at his breast. At a cursory glance, the hand appears to be half-hidden, tucked into his jacket in a pose common to portraits of the time. In fact, half of Private Fryer’s hand is missing. It was mangled by an artillery shell at the Battle of White Oak Road, where he fought with the 52nd New York State Volunteers. At Harewood Hospital in Washington, D.C., Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou amputated the young man’s middle, ring, and pinky fingers. Not long after, the doctor took this photograph.

The image belongs to a collection of medical photography compiled by Dr. Bontecou, believed to be the first collection of its kind. The doctor cataloged bullet and bayonet wounds, the damage wrought by artillery, the ravages of infection, and the stumps of amputated limbs. He even photographed a pile of severed feet, which he titled “A Morning’s Work,” in a graphic representation of the alarming regularity of amputation in Civil War hospitals. The scale of the carnage meant that in the years after the war, a large percentage of the population was disabled. This required extraordinary efforts to compensate them for their losses and to provide for those no longer able to provide for themselves.

Amputees’ recompense took concrete form in the establishment of pension systems, and it took the form of social capital in the valorization of the “empty sleeve” and the moral authority accorded to those who wore it. However, these measures could not truly make amputees whole again. Their very visible sacrifices became symbols of masculine bravery, but their disabilities made traditional masculine self-sufficiency difficult or impossible to achieve. Amputees were seen both as noble heroes whose service merited just compensation and as “poor wrecks” doomed to unmanly dependence on others.

This mix of admiration and pity can be seen in an 1865 editorial in the Staunton Spectator, urging the Virginia legislature to provide for disabled Confederate veterans, who were ineligible for federal pensions. It was Virginia’s “solemn and sacred duty” to her “maimed and scarred sons.” The paper stressed the heroism of those who “labored and suffered” for the cause, framing a state pension as payment for service in the field and for duties fulfilled. Yet, “brave and chivalrous” as they were, disabled veterans were also described as “helpless” and vulnerable to “pin[ing] in want and neglect.” Their “prospects in life” had been “blasted” by their misfortune. Their scars and stumps were both badges of honor and symbols of helplessness.

In the North, the pension system was enacted in 1862, before the draft went into effect. It was intended as an incentive to volunteer, and eligibility was tied to injuries incurred in the line of duty. In the years after the war, eligibility requirements were altered considerably to cover more soldiers, their dependents, and their widows. The scale of the program made it incredibly expensive, and by the end of the century over one third of the entire federal budget went towards the pension system. This massive expenditure has been called America’s first social security program and the precursor to the modern welfare state. Like the welfare state, the pension system attracted criticism for perceived corruption and overly generous benefits. One political cartoon from 1882 portrayed a soldier with a spoon in each of his many hands dipping into a bowl labeled “U.S. Treasury,” captioned “The Insatiable Glutton.”

The potential for corruption could be seen in an 1891 Pension Office investigation into allegations that Dr. Bontecou, who served on the local board that rated veterans’ level of disability, had been extracting bribes for more highly-compensated ratings. Bontecou seems to have walked away with his reputation intact, thanks in large part to a letter of support signed by fifty of his veteran patients. Despite these criticisms, the size and expense of the program were a testament to the national commitment to provide recompense for soldiers who had sacrificed their health for the union.

Unfortunately, the establishment of this massive pension system did not necessarily restore amputees’ “blasted prospects.” In the years after the war, Dr. Bontecou received a letter from a self-described “poore reck,” a former patient named Alexander Rider, who was wounded in South Carolina in 1862. “i have paide well dear for fighting for my contrary,” Rider wrote, “and can never enjoy the fruits of it i have not walked for thirteen years.” His pension, which he decried as insufficient, appears to have been his only form of support. He practically begged the doctor for a visit and, as a special favor, for the gift of an accordion, as music was the only thing that could “drive away the dark clouds from [his] sick room.” Exaggerated for sympathy (and an accordion) as it might have been, Rider’s letter painted a bleak picture of a veteran pining in want and neglect.

This helplessness, specifically the inability to provide for oneself or one’s family, carried a heavy stigma. As historian E. Anthony Rotundo explained in his 1992 book American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era, participation in the workforce was a vital component of masculine identity at the time: “If a man was without ‘business,’ he was less than a man” (168). To remedy this, state governments instituted policies of preferential hiring for veterans. Social conventions in favor of patronizing the businesses of veterans also sprang up, as illustrated by a notice in the Staunton Vindicator in 1866. The paper announced that Colonel Peyton had opened the Virginia Hotel Feed and Livery Stable and Repairing Shops, and took care to inform readers that the colonel had lost an arm at Second Manassas. “We bespeak for him the patronage of a generous public, who should always take pride in rewarding a gallant and unfortunate soldier.” Gallantry became social capital, convertible to cash in a roundabout way.

Preferential access to trade permits was another form of compensation. An 1865 editorial in the New Orleans Times argued that, “This is a mercantile nation, and it is befitting that military reward should not be in the shape of ribbons and crosses… but in… mercantile privileges.” This would help the veteran to help himself, allowing him to achieve masculine self-sufficiency and take on a provider role for his family. However, the complex bureaucracy that arose to administer such privileges grew into an “intricate labyrinth of petty formalities,” which could sometimes require a pension attorney or other specialist to navigate. The editorial condemned the bureau for forcing a man “whose empty sleeve and scarred face” were evidence of his character, like other veterans, to “beg as a favor what they should claim as a right.” Dr. Bontecou’s patient Alexander Rider may have sought charity, but other veterans were uncomfortable with even the appearance of it – and with good reason. To be perceived as a “poore reck” could be socially costly.

Men’s traditional roles as providers meant that the financial consequences of disability could very easily become romantic consequences. Before the war, a man who had lost a limb was usually considered unable to support a family and therefore unmarriageable. To return to a sweetheart or fiancée with an empty sleeve was to risk rejection. James H. Berry, a second lieutenant from Arkansas with a missing leg, was flatly told to “let the whole matter drop” when he asked his sweetheart’s father for her hand in marriage, on the grounds that he would never be able to “provide a good living.” The couple married despite her father’s wishes, causing a seventeen-year family rift. John Redding, a Confederate soldier from Georgia, offered to release his fiancée from their engagement after his leg was amputated in 1863, as did another man from the same county. Both women chose to marry their wounded soldiers. Not every amputee was so lucky. Confederate General John Bell Hood, who lost a leg and the use of one arm, tolerated the ambivalence of pretty Sally Preston for more than a year before she broke off their engagement. Where some women saw noble heroes, others saw maimed and helpless wrecks. Confederate leaders promoted special consideration and affection for amputated veterans as exactly the kind of recognition due to those who served the cause. “To the young ladies,” Jefferson Davis advised in an 1864 speech, “I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve.” Those who had sacrificed were to be compensated with respect and status.

Among those women who took his advice, some discovered a particular kind of power in their sweetheart’s dependence on them. When her fiancé, Major General Richard Ewell, lost a leg in 1862, Lizinka Campbell Brown wrote to him: “whereas I thought before you ought to marry and could very well marry a younger woman, now I will suit you better than any one else, if only because I will love you better.” His blasted prospects and considerably narrowed romantic options served to strengthen her sense of security in the relationship.

Another shift in the gender balance of power was reflected in the popular sentimental literature put out by publications like Harper’s Weekly. In an 1865 short story, “helpless, one-armed” Captain Harry Ash arrives home to the unpleasant surprise that his dainty sweetheart, Edna, has learned to drive a coach. “I grieve to see a woman unwomanly,” he says, until Edna persuades him of the necessity of her taking on conventionally masculine tasks to compensate for his disability. After they marry, she holds the reins when they travel, but “his eye is on the road and his voice guides her; so that, in reality, she is only his left hand and he, the husband, drives.” Though his helplessness gives her the freedom to take the reins, the story is careful to preserve his leadership role in the relationship. The accompanying illustration, however, shows her holding the whip and reins confidently, her husband closemouthed next to her as if he is simply along for the ride. For many amputees, disability necessitated some reversals of the traditional relationship between husbands and wives. A man reliant on his wife to button his coat, pin his sleeve, or cut his food had to become accustomed to a woman protecting and providing for him to some extent. To compensate for this emasculating dependence, the literature of the time emphasized veterans’ physical limitations as evidence of heroism. “I should think a woman’s love would grow deeper with every scar and wound,” declares one female character in the Dollar Monthly Magazine, “for each one is a living witness of his nobleness!”

This nobility lent amputees a level of moral authority that was reflected in their popularity as characters in the more didactic works of sentimental literature. Whether they were portrayed as heroic or helpless, disabled veterans often imparted moral lessons to the characters around them. Publications like Our Young Folks featured stories in which a child learns the importance of charity through kindness to a “poor lame soldier, who had to walk on crutches.” In another moralistic story, a child expresses pity for a one-legged man, only to be corrected by his mother. The man’s missing leg is proof of valor, she says. Ennobled by his suffering, the amputee is qualified to offer words of wisdom to the child about perseverance in battling the devil and the temptations of sin. His moral authority extends even to the realm of religion.

War wounds served as badges of honor in another way: a missing limb gave added weight to a veteran’s political opinions. In 1868 an editorialist in Portland, Maine’s Daily Eastern Argus came to the defense of the attendees of a recent Veterans’ Convention. “Mendacious correspondents” had tarred these politically active veterans as “bummers, thieves, and deserters.” In response to this “infamous slander,” the editorialist characterized one of the veterans as “a man of irreproachable character… who, with his one remaining arm, bore up the colors of his country, for his devotion to which he wears an empty sleeve.” Here, the empty sleeve is held up as irrefutable proof of patriotism and personal integrity. In another example from 1874, an anonymous veteran wrote to the Daily Inter Ocean to express his concern over the anti-African American and anti-Republican violence in Louisiana. “I have one arm now, and wear an empty sleeve,” he wrote. “I do not grumble, I am content, only my wish is that my good arm may not have been taken in vain.” As the “bloody shirt” provided justification for righteous retribution, so the empty sleeve did rhetorical work for those who wore it. This man used it to advocate for compelling loyalty again “at the point of the bayonet.” He was otherwise willing to “cease regrets for [his] losses during the rebellion.” Here the heroism and not the helplessness is the source of the moral authority.

Private Fryer left no record of his feelings on the matter. He returned home to New York, applied for a pension, married, became a minister, had two children, and eventually settled in Indiana. His pension was transferred to his wife after his death in 1918. His missing fingers seem to have interfered very little with his professional life; in the 1880 census records, the box next to his name for “maimed or disabled” remained unchecked. He has left us no written statement about what those three missing fingers meant to him. There is only the photograph, in which he sits, proud almost to the point of defiance, holding up his hand for the camera. What was ostensibly a picture of a wound, “healing kindly” as Bontecou noted, became instead a dignified portrait of a painfully young man who appears unashamed of the damage done to his body.

 

Primary Sources:

Primary documents for the 52nd New York State Volunteers can be found: The 52nd New York State Volunteers.

Primary documents on Robert Fryer found at Ancestry.com

Daily Eastern Argus, June 27, 1868

New Orleans Times, Jan 25, 1865

Staunton Spectator, Oct 24, 1865

Staunton Vindicator, June 8, 1866.

 

Further reading:

On the portrayal of disabled veterans in postwar sentimental literature, see Jalynn Olsen Padilla, Army of “cripples”: Northern Civil War Amputees, Disability, and Manhood in Victorian America (University of Delaware, 2007). On romantic relationships of disabled Confederate veterans, see Stephen Berry, Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Part 6) (University of Georgia, 2011). On the history of masculinity in this country see E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (Basic Books, 1994). On the history of the welfare state see “Historical Background And Development Of Social Security” (http://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html).

 

 

Louisiana Woman – Caroline Merrick Summary

merrifp

“There is a word sweeter than mother, home, or heaven, and that word is liberty.”  These are the words of a Southern Lady and Louisiana Woman, Caroline E. Merrick.

The nineteenth century changed the lives of a nation, a century which experienced industrialization, slavery, the Civil War and women’s suffrage.  It is through the eyes of Caroline Merrick that we may bring to life this period of history. Caroline Elizabeth Thomas Merrick was born Caroline Elizabeth Thomas November 24, 1825.

During the 1830’s, industrialization had been changing the role of women.  However, the experiences of women in the South differed from their northern counterparts.  According to Samantha LaDart in her article, “Caroline Merrick and Women’s Rights in Louisiana,” the Southern woman was expected to be a model of virtue and a guardian of youth.  The ideal, LaDart writes, was not connected to any gain of female power in the home, nor was it dependent on industrialization.  Another author, Drew G. Faust in her book, Mothers of Invention, explains further what it meant to be a Southern woman.  She writes that the Antebellum South had defined and therefore understood themselves in relation to categories:  race, gender, and class. These differences became hidden in society to provide distinction of wealth, power and education in order to lay claim to honor and gentility.

Conversely, many women in the North were not so fortunate during the 1830s.  Many young women left their small farm towns for rural settings to work in cotton mills to earn wages to help support their family and build a dowry.  The irony is the North was opposed to slavery but the cotton grown and harvested by slaves in the South was shipped to the North to feed cotton to the mills where the Northern woman would earn her living.  Marriage was the hope for many Northern women so as to escape the labor of the cotton mills through the support of the higher wages her husband could earn.

As discussed earlier in the blog, chores such as doing laundry would be one such way to earn a living.  The arduousness of it is hard to imagine today.  But for Southern women, such as Caroline, many had slaves to do their daily menial chores; however, the burden of overseeing the slaves often fell on the mistress of the plantation.

When Caroline was married at age fifteen to Edwin Thomas Merrick, Esq., they moved to Bouligny, Jefferson City. At what is present day Washington Avenue and Prytania Street in the Garden District of New Orleans, Caroline and Edwin had four children, Laura, Clara, David and Edwin, Jr.  In order to enjoy all the finer amenities of a nineteenth century home, the couple came to set up house in a large, spacious square with an old-fashioned, double cottage at 1404 Napoleon Avenue.

Slavery has been the stigma of mankind from the beginning.  As far back as the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt man has been enslaved.  The New America was no different.  Slavery is a terrible scourge on history.  Nevertheless, it was embedded in the fabric of society.

As opposition to slavery began to surface, rumors of war started.  Caroline in her memoirs does not justify or condemn the Civil War, but her recollections of her life would not be complete. Caroline stated that, “personal records are the side-lights of history and in their measure the truest pictures of the time.”

It was a time of great anxiety and Caroline said no woman wavered in her allegiance to the Southern cause.  Her son David, at age seventeen enlisted in the war, and though he ultimately survived, suffered grievous injuries including the loss of the sight of one eye, his hearing and the paralysis of his face due to a damaged nerve. As may be the case with most memoirs, we can see only through the prism given to us by the author as in Caroline’s case.  I do believe her character and strength is as strong as presented but, for instance, during the war it became very complex especially as the women left behind were transformed as a result of the multitude of complexities caused by the Civil War.

In Faust’s book, Mothers of Invention, she writes about how the Civil War changed the traits of the Southern Woman slowly at first and completely by the end of the War, some of which were mentioned in earlier blogs.

When the war was over, the Merrick family moved back to their home in New Orleans and Caroline devoted herself to her family and domestic affairs.  As mentioned previously, she would lose her daughter Laura to Yellow Fever.  Yellow Fever assaulted New Orleans for sixty-seven summers.  Before the cure was discovered thousands of people would succumb to this dreaded disease.

Caroline was encouraged by her husband after Laura’s death to pursue her passion for Women’s Rights.  She was further encouraged by Mrs. Elizabeth Saxon, a suffragist, to speak out and help other women to help Caroline work through her grief.  When the World’s Industrial Cotton Exposition came to New Orleans, she would met with other noted women dedicated to Women’s Suffrage.  She spent her sunset days fighting for Women’s Rights.

I am tempted to imagine leaving her now, as she goes back to her own time, disappearing beneath the southern oaks that have become a symbol of the nineteenth-century South.  As Merrick’s life reminds us, though, contrary to romantic visions of this era, hers was a time not of serenity but of tumultuousness–still, she lived it well.

This has been a preview of the journey through the nineteenth century as witnessed through the eyes of one Louisiana Woman – Caroline Merrick who I believed lived up to the love of a word sweeter than ‘mother, home, or heaven,’ and that word is liberty.

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Sources:  Merrick, Caroline E. Old Times in Dixie Land A Southern Matron’s Memories. New York: The Grafton Press, 1901

Faust, Drew G. Mothers of Invention. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

LaDart, Samantha. “Caroline Merrick and Women’s Rights in Louisiana.” http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1990-1ladart.htm.

Photo Source:  Maarquette, Bonnie.  “The Greenwood Plantation’s Oak Alley on a Misty Morning.”  L’Amore E Forte Come La Morte.  http://sonocarina.wordpress.com/category/life/.

The Battle of Little Big Horn – Major Reno’s Last Stand

Portrait of Marcus Albert Reno, Western History

Department, Denver Public Library, format photo on

glass plate, contributor Barry D.F., 1874

Marcus Albert Reno was a Major in the 7th Calvary of the United States Army. He was second in command to General George Armstrong Custer during the Battle of Little Big Horn which lasted two days, from June 25 and 26 of 1876. At this time of the nineteenth century, the United States was expanding at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, the expansion came with the highest price imaginable, human life. This desire for expansion drove campaigns for Indian Removal. Federal officials told Native Americans who were living in areas the government wanted for white settlers that they must move to reservations or face the consequences of war and forced extraction.

Map of the Lakota Nation Revealed, Digital Journal, http://digitaljournal.com/article/248353 , K.J. Mullins, January 4, 2008

The Lakota Indians who fought Custer and white men lived in the Dakota Territory. The Lakota Indians were bound together by language, although they were composed of many different tribes. After the Civil War, gold rush fever was still drawing Americans into the West, and with expansion of the country and the thought of fortunes to be had with gold mining on the horizon, it was perhaps inevitable that the Lakota Indians and the United States Army met on the battlefield. Rather than look at the more familiar story of General Custer, I have chosen to study the career of Major Marcus Albert Reno, Custer’s second in command. Reno’s story allows us to get beyond the memorialization of Custer to better understand the U.S. policy on expansion and Indian removal, the particular circumstances of the Battle of Little Big Horn, the reasons why the United States Army came to be defeated, and the significance of the battle to subsequent U.S. actions towards Native Americans.

The United States had been caught up with the vision of expanding the country’s borders and failed to see their troops suffering from the cause. After the Battle of Little Big Horn, Marcus Reno was summoned to military court for his actions during the war. The hearing seems to have been the United States Army’s attempt to find a reason for the defeat at the hands of the Lakota. The nation wanted a scapegoat, and they thought they had found one in Marcus Reno.

In the nineteenth century, the United States was still a young country compared to other nations. The country’s policies were new and immigrants were entering its ports at a fast rate and with the alarming amount of population growth came expansion. It was as early as 1804, the American government had sent Lewis and Clark to map out the continent for the future expanding of the nation. In 1851, the government drew up the Indians Appropriation Act (1). This document was a law commanding American Indians to adopt the new western culture while also removing them from their lands. After removal, the tribes would be placed in reservations. While some tribes adhered to the act and took to reservations others contested with violence. The Plains Wars started in the 1860’s, the American Army under General Alfred Sully fought the Lakota Indians commanded by Sitting Bull (2). Sully had engaged his enemy with canons and rifles, while the Lakota were armed with bows and arrows.  With every victory for the Army came a fort. Following the Missouri River, Sully’s troops won battles and built forts to discourage any tribal attacks. The Lakota attacked steam boats, forts, and wagon trains (3). It was 1876 that the Army finally caught up with the Lakota and Sitting bull.

Custer Battlefield, Reno Ford of the Little Big Horn, Western History Department, Denver Public Library, Format Photograph, contributor Barry D. F. 1886

The Battle of Little Big Horn is a famous battle that is still on the minds of historians today. The infamous General Custer is well-known for his battles with Native Americans and his defeat at Little Big Horn.  Gen. George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Calvary of the United States Army. In the Black Hills of the Lakota territories swirled rumors of gold. The gold deposits lead to an army expedition to the Black Hills led by Custer (4). At this point in Custer’s military career he had gained recognition for his valor during the Civil War. Although very little gold was found during the expedition, the army tried to get the Lakota to sign a treaty to release the land relocate to the Oklahoma territory. The army was not successful in the acquisition attempts to secure the lands. This would be the last attempt by the U.S. to remove the Lakota.

When Marcus Albert Reno reached the Black Hills, he already had a somewhat checkered military career. Born in Carollton, Illinois in 1834, he entered West Point Military Academy in 1851. The future Major did not have a stellar student record while attending the academy. For disciplinary reasons, Reno was placed on a two-year probation while studying at West Point. Throughout his time at West Point, he managed to acquire sixty-four demerits ranging from tardiness to insubordinate conduct (11). Graduating in 1857, Reno had attained the rank of Captain while fighting for the Union during the Civil War. His valor and bravery did not go unnoticed when he was promoted to Major at the end of the Civil War. Although his military record was polished, some of the men that served with Reno found him to be an unpleasant, heavy drinker (12). Great expectations for Reno rose, however, when he was assigned to the 7th Calvary underneath George Custer.

The main goal of the 7th Calvary was to remove Indians from their lands and relocate them to reservations. With many battles won by the 7th, Custer’s ego began to grow. Directly underneath Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s command was Captain Benteen, Captain McDougall, and Major Marcus Albert Reno. The Indian scouts for the 7th Calvary had discovered an Indian tribe 20 to 25 miles ahead of them while following the Little Big Horn River. First Lieutenant engineer George D. Wallace recalls the Calvary was set up in four different formations. Three companies were led by Major Reno, which contained approximately one hundred fifteen soldiers. Reno and his companies were located on the left bank of the river. Captain Benteen led three companies containing one hundred twenty-five men were to the left of Reno’s formation. Lieutenant Colonel Custer assigned himself five companies containing about two hundred and twenty-five men. Custer’s location was the right bank of the river when the Calvary were forming their march. One company led by Captain McDougall tailed behind the rest of the Calvary and acted as the pack train (5). When the scouts relayed the whereabouts of the tribes, Custer gave the command to charge from two and a half miles away. First Lieutenant Wallace testified that the men in the Calvary had been marching for four days, hungry, no sleep, and the horsed needed rest(6). Custer ignored the state of his troops and called for an offensive attack on the so-called hostiles. When Wallace was asked of the size of the Lakota village and he replied, “the length and width of it I could not tell because the timber concealed it. I know there were lots of them there. The exact size at the time I could not form no estimate of, but I saw plenty of them (7).” After some firing on the village the riders dismounted and the Calvary fell into their firing lines. The Army established the skirmish line about one hundred yards from the tree line where the Indians were located. The battle started around 2:30 pm. And it was not long before the 7th Calvary were surrounded by Indians and showing major casualties. Wallace said, “they were fighting in regular Indian style. Riding up and down, some few on foot: filling the whole space in our rear. Yelling and hooting and those within range shooting. Not many of them were standing still, and whenever they would get the opportunity they would shoot (8).” When the 7th Calvary realized the mass amount of lives being lost from enemy fire, Reno had called a retreat and during the move George Custer would not make it back to camp. He was gunned down during the retreat leaving Reno and Benteen in charge of the 7th. After the retreat, the army had gathered the able troops and prepared for the second attack from the Lakota. At 5:00 pm., Major Reno had taken command of the troops and the Lakota positioned themselves to shoot from every direction. At 9:00 pm fighting had resumed. Captain Benteen and Major Reno had to fight the Lakota until the next day when reinforcements from the 2nd Calvary had arrived. When the new Calvary made it to the battle site, the 7th Calvary was in state of disarray. Lieutenant McGuire of the 2nd Calvary reported, “some of the soldiers were crying (9).” The 7th Calvary estimates they had faced up to two thousand Indians. Less than half of the soldiers who reached the battle field made it out after the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Map of General Custer’s Battleground by James E Wilson, Western History Department, Denver Public Library, Format Photograph Contributor Barry D.F, 1886

After the Battle of Little Big Horn, The United States Army sent out special orders from Headquarters. Special Order No. 255 called for Major Marcus Albert Reno to appear in military court in Chicago, IL on January 13, 1879 (13). The case was for conduct on the battlefield, namely, Reno’s retreat during the Battle of Little Big Horn. From reading the court case, it seems that Reno had his reasons for calling a retreat at the Battle of Little Big Horn.  During the trial, Major Reno had brought in a council member named Lyman D. Gilbert. Although Gilbert was his attorney, Reno answered all questions directed at him.

In total nineteen witnesses were called to the stand, most of whom were at the Battle of Little Big Horn, save one who had arrived with the 2nd Calvary after the fight was extinguished. Most of the questions directed at the witnesses were the same. They were asked proximity to Reno before, during, and after the fight, their formation during the battle, the condition of the grounds they have traveled, and their proximity to Custer and Benteen. Each of the witnesses recognized that all orders to charge were delivered by Custer and not Reno. The only order received from Reno that was recognized by witnesses was the order to retreat.

The main goal of the trial was to see if Marcus Reno gave the order of retreat out his own lack of bravery and intoxication. All of the witnesses that were in the battlefield backed Reno’s order, finding he was right for calling the order and insisting that it actually saved the lives of those who had survived the conflict. Two witnesses in charge of the pack mules testified against Reno, claiming he was intoxicated the night before the battle had begun (14).  When the court had finally adjourned, however, the recorder read a statement that concluded Reno was not going to be charged for his actions during the Battle of Little Big Horn (15).

Was it manifest destiny or manifest massacre? For many years,Native Americans had been the target for the political juggernaut known as U.S. Expansion, but in this instance the Lakota had the upper hand. Although Marcus Albert Reno was nowhere near perfect, the trial was an effort to blame him for not winning a battle. This loss gave the American westward movement a black eye to the public. Major Reno was the one to blame. Most Native Americans eventually lost the larger battle to maintain their lands, but the Lakota are remembered in American History as the tribes that gave the U.S. Army a battle they had wished was not in the books.

Sources

(1)”Acts of Congress, Acts and Resolutions Passed at the Second Session of the Thirty Third Congress.” March 06, 1855.

(2 and 3)Anderson, Gary. Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood. New York: Harper Collins College, 1996. (2) pages 19-20 (3) page 21

(4) Anderson, Gary. Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood. New York: Harper Collins College, 1996. page 31

(5,6,7,8, and 9) United States Military, “Abstract of the Official Proceedings of The Reno Court of Inquiry 1954.” Last modified 1953. Accessed December 12, 2013.

http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/Reno_court_inquiry.html. Page 22 (6) page 25 (7) page 27 (8) page 31 (9) page 15

(10,11, and 12)Nichols, Ronald. In Custer’s Shadow. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 200. (10) page 2 (11) page 13 (12) page 6

(13,14, and 15) United States Military, “Abstract of the Official Proceedings of The Reno Court of Inquiry 1954.” Last modified 1953. Accessed December 12, 2013. (13) page 12 (14) pages 268-282 (15) page 568

Further reading

1. Nichols, Ronald H. In Custer’s Shadow: Major Marcus Reno. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2000. Print.

2. “Acts of Congress, Acts and Resolutions Passed at the Second Session of the Thirty Third Congress.”The New York Times”6 Mar. 1855: n. page. Web.

3. Abstract of the Official Proceedings of The Reno Court of Inquiry 1954 – The Stackpols Co . The Custer Myth 1954

4. Anderson, Gary Clayton. Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood. New York: Harper Collins College, 1996. Print.