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.
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>.
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: