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: