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


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.”


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.



-“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.



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:



Battle of Little Bighorn: The Education of Marcus Albert Reno

Portrait of Marcus Albert Reno, Western History Department, Denver Public Library, format photo on glass plate, contributor Barr D.F., 1874

Marcus Albert Reno studied at West Point military academy. He was quite the trouble maker in his tenure at the school. He was placed on probation and had to sit out for two year-long stints. You would think someone in the military would not be defiant of the rules but Marcus finally graduated in 1857. As an officer in the military he was commended for his bravery and during the Civil War where he was a captain in the Union Army. Among his troops, however, he was found to be a unpleasant person to be around and some called him a heavy drinker. The more I look into this guy the more I realize why people did not like him.

The Battle of Liberty Place – Badger’s Wounds

Justin A. Nystrom’s book New Orleans After the Civil War has given me a lot of good information so far. I learned that the Battle of Liberty Place struck a great blow against the Republican Government of Louisiana and also the state militia, which was disbanded just a few years after the battle. I also found out that Algernon Sidney Badger was wounded more seriously than I initially thought. He was shot four times and only survived because his enemies admired his courage and brought him to a hospital. Not only that, a former member of the Metropolitan Police, who was fighting under Badger at Liberty Place, attempted to murder Badger in his office in the Customs House several years after the battle. A final interesting note I discovered was that the heaviest fighting during the battle took place where Harrah’s casino now stands.

Louisiana Woman – Women’s Rights

National Anti-Suffrage Association, 1911 (?). Harris & Ewing, photographers. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.


In looking up more information on Caroline Merrick, I found an article by Samantha LaDart called “Caroline Merrick and Women’s Rights in Louisiana” published in Loyola University (N.O) Student History Journal.   As it turns out, Merrick is somewhat famous not as obscure as I hoped.  But, just the same, I believe most people would not be that familiar with her unless they have studied much about women’s rights.

LaDart begins by spelling out how the southern woman was expected to be a model of virtue, a guardian of youth.  Also, she points out that the ideal woman in the South differed from her counterpart in the North.  As we have been reading in class, Northern women in the nineteenth-century experienced a shift of the female power in the home, to make the home a haven from the workplace.  LaDart explains the woman’s weakness in the South is her strength and her only right is to be protected.  With this right to protection she is obligated to obey.  So the southern woman was expected to be nervous, fickle, and delicate so the man will worship and adore her.  (Scarlet O’Hara?)

The article by LaDart,  explains the feminine ideal was an essential part of the psychology of the institution of slavery.   This struck me as I never associated the two, i.e., women’s rights and slavery.  Submission to the master from the household was expected by all family members so as not to threaten the whole and therefore slavery itself.

However, the Civil War challenged the “right to protection” and the “obligation” that went along with it.  During the war and Reconstruction women in Louisiana took on new roles for the first time.   LaDart brings out how these changes in roles began Caroline Merrick on the road to lead women’s rights in Louisiana.

Merrick did many things during the war such as nursing the sick and wounded for both sides.  She would often take dangerous voyages on the river for supplies.  Additionally, she nursed her family and slaves on the plantation during the war years.  Caroline Merrick enjoyed these new duties and she felt she had to use every faculty of her mind.

As an outcome of these new roles, women in Louisiana pushed for more responsibilities after the war; they could not go back to the pre-war days.  Merrick pushed for the rest of her life for women’s rights and they were slow in coming.  But progress she did make.  She fought for women’s representation and the right to vote.  She was the first woman to organize a woman’s suffrage association in Louisiana.  It was called the Portia Club.

I plan to go more into this very important part of her life in the final blog.  Hopefully, this whets the appetite.  Also, please note the picture above how men were opposed to women’s rights!

Source: http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1990-1/documents/CarolineMerrickandWomensRightsinLouisiana.pdf

Louisiana Woman – Slavery in the Household

As I continue to read Caroline Merrick’s memoir, I find that she narrated many aspects of her life.  She wrote of her home life, rumors of Civil War and there are personal accounts of living under Union occupation.  She also mentioned her relationship with the enslaved people in her household.  One day, for instance, Caroline’s nine-month-old needs to nap.  She handed her child over to the nurse, a slave, to put the child down to sleep.  The baby was evidently fussy and would not oblige the nurse. Merrick went into the room at the moment she caught the nurse, named Julia, inflicting a hard blow to the baby.  Merrick immediately grabbed the child and told the slave never to touch her again.  What was interesting about the sad event is Ms Merrick, “You are free from this hour!”  That seemed strange to me that to free her was her punishment.

Some days later Julia, the nurse, begged Merrick to take her back.  After two weeks of Julia crying and begging, Merrick took her back in.   Julia even had other slaves approach Merrick to let her back in the household instead of taking off with her freedom.  However, it took awhile for the child to want to be near the nurse.  This just seemed as a different sort of account between a slave and the mistress.

Algernon Sidney Badger’s life in Postbellum New Orleans

I’m still not 100% sure, but I think I want to do my microhistory on Union officer A. S. Badger. After reading some of Stuart Omer Landry’s book The Battle of Liberty Place, I learned that A. S. Badger was stationed in New Orleans as a Colonel in the Union army during the City’s occupation, and would move to New Orleans after the war (Landry 77). During the battle of Liberty Place, Badger was in command of a force of Police officers that were stationed at the Cabildo, fighting on the side of William Pitt Kellogg and the Republicans (Landry 96). After a bit of digging, I found  Justin A. Nystrom’s recent book,  New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom.  Nystrom mentions that Badger led the Rex parade on more than one occasion, and I would like to see if I could find more on this part of Badger’s life (Nystrom 134).