Racial Stereotypes of the Civil War Era

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Dominating the wartime debate in the north about what should be done with slaves were three recurring questions:

    • Could they learn?
    • Would they work?
    • Could they be civilized?

And a fourth was added as the war continued and the need for troops became more desperate: Can they and will they fight?

These questions reflected stereotypes about race that could be traced back at least as far asquestions raised by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson had conjectured that blacks were inferior to whites with respect to their capacity for reason, imagination, and sentiment. By the 19th century, American "craniometrists" claimed to use science to prove that blacks and whites were from different species.

The popularity and persistence of these stereotypes in the North can be seen in articles and cartoons published in Northern newspapers that represented African-Americans as unwilling to work and incapable of learning and being civilized. Often represented as pathetic, comically or exotically picturesque, or hilariously or horrifyingly grotesque, African-Americans were seen as the "other." White Northerners liked to think of themselves as a hard-working, educated, and moral people, and African-Americans were typically stereotyped as lazy, ignorant, and uncivilized: an inverse image of what it meant to be an American.

This website explores the ways how these stereotypes were sometimes reinforced and sometimes rebutted by Northern newspapers and by the letters of freedmen and their teachers. It also suggests the ways these images helped shape Northern discussions about the war.

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The Wartime Debate in the North: Four Questions about African-Americans

During the 18th and 19th centuries, supporters of slavery in America argued that blacks were suited to servitude because they lacked the intelligence to learn, lacked the initiative to work independently, and lacked the qualities of morality and domesticity necessary for living in a democratic society.

In response, abolitionists had argued that it was the institution of slavery itself that kept African-Americans from demonstrating and developing intelligence, industry, and virtue since, for example, most slaves were forbidden to learn, forced to work for others, and separated from their spouses and children whenever it suited the economic interests of their masters.What advocates of slavery saw as a fact of nature, opponents explained as a consequence of nurture. And yet, the fact that both the proponents and opponents of slavery talked about the same three issues of learning, working, and civilization reflected a broader acceptance of racial stereotypes in popular culture.

The war only intensified the debate in the North over whether African-Americans were capable of being part of American society, since it meant that a series of decisions would need to be made about what to do with the slaves who would come under the control of Union forces. Should slaves freeing from their confederate masters be returned to their owners, even though the slaves were being used to support the Southern military effort? Should slaves captured by the Union army be forced to continue working on plantations for the benefit of the North? Should former slaves be sent to colonize a remote area of the West or to an island in the Carribbean? In each case, concerns about the ability and willingness of African-Americans to learn, earn, and live as civilized citizens, shaped the policies adopted by the federal government and the behavior of private individuals and groups.


Consider the ways in which the following primary resources below raise depict African-Americans in ways that raise or answer questions about their ability to learn, work, live civilized lives, and fight for freedom. Do they suggest that "nature" or "nurture" are the real issue? In other words, do they suggest that the experience of freedom would transform the former slaves into model Americans?


Douglass Describes His Life as a Free Man
in a Letter to His Former Master

I therefore made an effort so to improve my mind and deportment, as to be somewhat fitted to the station to which I seemed almost providentially called. The transition from degradation to respectability was indeed great, and to get from one to the other without carrying some marks of one's former condition, is truly a difficult matter. I would not have you think that I am now entirely clear of all plantation peculiarities, but my friends here, while they entertain the strongest dislike to them, regard me with that charity to which my past life somewhat entitles me, so that my condition in this respect is exceedingly pleasant. So far as my domestic affairs are concerned, I can boast of as comfortable a dwelling as your own. I have an industrious and neat companion, and four dear children—the oldest a girl of nine years, and three fine boys, the oldest eight, the next six, and the youngest four years old. The three oldest are now going regularly to school—two can read and write, and the other can spell with tolerable correctness words of two syllables: Dear fellows! they are all in comfortable beds, and are sound asleep, perfectly secure under my own roof. There are no slaveholders here to rend my heart by snatching them from my arms, or blast a mother's dearest hopes by tearing them from her bosom. These dear children are ours—not to work up into rice, sugar and tobacco, but to watch over, regard, and protect, and to rear them up in the nurture and admonition of the gospel—to train them up in the paths of wisdom and virtue, and, as far as we can to make them useful to the world and to themselves. Oh! sir, a slaveholder never appears to me so completely an agent of hell, as when I think of and look upon my dear children. It is then that my feelings rise above my control.

--from Frederick Douglass, Letter to Thomas Auld, September 3, 1848, published in The Liberator, September 22, 1848


Is it not astonishing, that while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses and constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, and copper, siler vand gold; that while we are reading, writing, and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants, and secretaries, having among us layers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators, and teachers; that while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises commmon to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, breeding sheep and cattle on the hillside; living, moving, acting, thinking, planning; living in families as husbands, wives, and children; and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian's God, and looking hopefully for immortal life beyond the grave; -- is it not astonishing, I say, that we are called upon to prove that we are men?"

--Frederick Douglass, "A Pertinent Question," The Freedmen's Book, Lydia Maria Child, ed. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields:, 1865): 93.


The First and Last Paragraphs of Edward Pierce's Report on
"The Freedmen at Port Royal"

JOHN ADAMS’S axiom, that civil society must be built up on the four corner-stones of the church. the school-house, the militia, and the town-meeting, receives new illustration, of the most distinct kind, as we work out the great problem of to-day. Whichever panacea is presented to us in the great work of the admission of the four million negroes into our civil society, and the establishment of their social rights, fails to pass test till we have so extended the proposed arrangements that, in its work of blessing, all four of the essential rights of religion, education, self-defence, and self-government are provided for. Thus, it is of little use to give the negro a vote, unless he can read it; nor, if he can read it, unless he can defend himself from being shot down like a dog as be offers it; while, again, voting and defence both suppose a conscience fitly trained for their right exercise.

The negroes will work for a living. They will fight for their freedom. They are adapted to civil society. . . . They have shown capacity for knowledge, for free industry, for subordination to law and discipline, for soldierly fortitude, for social and family relations, for religious culture and aspirations; and these qualities, when stirred and sustained by the incitements and rewards of a just society, and combining, with the currents of our continental civilization, will, under the guidance of a benevolent Providence which forgets neither them nor us, make them a constantly progressive race, and secure them ever after from the calamity of another enslavement, and ourselves from the worse calamity of being again their oppressors.

--Edward L. Pierce, "The Freedmen at Port Royal," The Atlantic Monthly,September, 1863, 291-315


April, 1864, Civil War Cartoons Collection, American Antiquarian Society


Proclamation of Emancipation, [New York]: L.N. Rosenthal, 327 Walnut Street, 1865.

Click on individual sections of the poster above for larger versions,
or click here for a larger version of the whole..


The lithograph above offers the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, framed above by portraits of Founders (including Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington), bracketed above by the images of William Penn and John Wesley and to the sides by the faces of female abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Lydia Maria Child.Lincoln holds the central position at the bottom of the broadside, and he is surrounded by a variety of individuals, each of whom played some role in the process that had lead to the emancipation proclamation. Included are Wendell Phillips, Gerritt Smith, Salmon Chase, Henry Ward Beecher, and General Butler.

On one side of the proclamation are images of slavery, including classic scenes of slaves being whipped, a slave family on the auction block, a manacled slave, and a slave being hunted by bloodhounds. Presiding over that side of the lithograph is the image of a fallen angel bearing manacles; directly below her three faces peer from the shadows.

The other side features iconographic representations of life under liberty. An angel (probably representing fame) presides over sequence, which includes the image of a schoolroom with black students, a well-dressed and happy family in a room with pictures and books, a black farmer cultivating his fields, and a man (dressed exactly like the hunted fugitive slave on the opposite side) kneeling before Columbia and surrounded by the symbols of commerce, progress, and education.


One Source of Those Questions: Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia

While Thomas Jefferson proposed the elimination of slavery in his eary drafts of the Declaration of Independence and proposed a gradual system of emancipation in Query XIV of Notes on the State of Virginia, his comments on blacks in Notes suggest that he harbored questions about whether they were, in fact, human beings. Explaining why he believed that colonization was the only way of dealing with free blacks, Jefferson referred to the "deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained" and "the real distinctions which nature has made."

What were the so-called "real distinctions" that Jefferson thought separated blacks from whites?

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

The terms "memory, reason, and imagination" would have been particularly significant for Enlightenment thinkers who had been influenced by Bacon's belief that all human understanding could be classified into exactly those three categories.

Detail from William. K. Rhinehart, "Fourth of July celebration, or, Southern ideas of Liberty-- July 4, '40," , ca. 1840



In terms of imagination, Jefferson saw blacks as inferior not only to whites, but to Native Americans as well.

The Indians, with no advantages . . . will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry-.-Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.



By far the most important of the three types of understanding, however, was reason. While conceding that most slaves "indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society" Jefferson went on to remark:

Yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad.

Jefferson even used his observation that slaves were disposed to sleep when not at work as evidence of their lack of a capacity for reason.

In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.

The fact that Jefferson chose to describe the sleeping African-American as "an animal whose body is at rest" seems, in this context, more than coincidental. The belief that blacks performed poorly in two of these three categories would have weighed heavily in the mind of a man like Jefferson, who placed such a high value on these concepts that he had organized his own extensive library into sections based on "memory," "reason," and "imagination."



While it would be hard to overstate the importance of reason in 18th century thought in England and America, rationality did not rule alone The ability to feel and express sentiment was also regarded by Jefferson and other "enlightened" thinkers of that time as an important characteristic of civilized human beings .

In his book, Sentimental Democracy, Andrew Burstein argues that Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers believed that human beings were "at once sentient and rational" and thus "needed to maintain a proper balance between these two facets of their behavioral system in order to achieve happiness." According to Jefferson, blacks failed to live up to this standard as well. He observed: "They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation."

A creature of "sensation" rather than "sentiment" would not only be incapable of true love, but also of morality. As Burstein explains:

[Adam] Smith described the sensations of sentiment and passion as "affection of the heart from which any action proceeds," and he characterized virtue and propriety, the experiences of grief and joy, taste and judgment, concord and discord, opinions and moral standards. . . . The man of virtuous sentiment, cultivating a sense of duty, overcame the impulse of self-love through reason principle, and conscience--by reflecting on the precariousness of existence and discovering "the man within."

Jefferson might have wondered how slaves could learn "virtue and propriety" if, as he claimed: "Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them"? And since the man of sentiment learns virtue through the action of reason on emotion, how could an African-American ever live up to the 18th century conception of the man of sensibility?


19th Century Claims that Science Proved the Inferiority of African-Americans

Although Jefferson assumed that the perceived inferiority of blacks to whites might only indicate they were a separate "genus," there were other writers willing to argue African-Americans were a separate species and support for this view continued to be gathered by the advocates of slavery. As early as 1817, Edward D. Grifin, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey opened a sermon preached to collect money for the benefit of The African School by stating:

I rise to plead the cause of a people who until lately have seldom had an advocate . . . They who have wished to find an apology for the slave-trade . . . have cast the Africans into another species, and sorted them with the ape and the orang-outang. In every plea for the improvement of the African race, this, or an approach to this, is the prejudice with which we have chiefly to contend.

--"A Plea for Africa: A Sermon Preached October 26, 1817, in the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, Before the Synod of New York and New Jersey," (New York: Gould: 1817) 3.

In the 1830s, the field of "craniometry" purported to offer evidence collected from many populations that blacks had smaller brains than whites. The opponents of abolition argued that because blacks were unable to learn, they would never be able to vote intelligently, contribute to the market economy, or even read the Bible. 


Comments by Craniometrists

Permanent subjection to a foreign yoke, is the result of an inferior aggregate development of brain, animal, moral and intellectual, in the people subdued, to that possessed by the conquering tribes . . .

Independence, civilisation, and political freedom, are the results of large aggregate size of brain, the moral and intellectual regions predominating in the majority of the people, aided by long cultivation. This combination characterizes the British, Anglo-Americans, and Swiss.

--Samuel Morton, Crania Americana, 1839

The lengthy arguments concerning the intellect of the negroe drawn from history, and the numerous explanations of his mental inferiority, which have at various times been given, (without supposing him of a distinct species,) are rendered totally useless, if it can be shown, that the portion of his brain, which presides over the animal functions, exceeds, to any great extent, that from which the mental endowments arise. Furthermore, although we are not believers in physiognomy, (as a science,) yet we cannot avoid making a remark upon the negro's face, which may not be entirely overlooked--although we may thereby risk the commission of a tautology.

His lips are thick, his zygomatic muscles, large and full* (*"These muscles are always in action during laughter and the extreme enlargement of them indicates a low mind." Lavater)--his jaws large and projecting,--his chin retreating,--his forehead low, flat and slanting, and (as a consequence of this latter character,) his eyeballs are very prominent,--apparently larger than those of white men;--all of these peculiarities at the same time contributing to reduce his facial angle almost to a level with that of the brute--Can any such man become great or elevated?--the history of the Africans will give a decisive answer. Even the ancients were fully aware of this kind of mutual coincidence, between the facial angle, and the powers of the mind: consequently, in their statues of heroes and philosophers, they usually extended the angle to 90 degrees,--making that of the Gods to be 100: beyond which, it cannot be enlarged without deformity. Modern anatomists have fixed the average facial angle of the European at 80--negro 70,--ourang outang 58--all brutes below 70, the average angle of quadrupeds being about 20.. . .

If then it is consistent with science, to believe that the mind will be great in proportion to the size and figure of the brain: it is equally reasonable to suppose, that the acknowledged meanness of the negroe's intellect, only coincides with the shape of his head; or in other words, that his want of capability to receive a complicated education renders it improper and impolitic, that he should be allowed the privileges of citizenship in an enlightened country! It is in vain for the Amalgamationists to tell us that the negroes have had no opportunity to improve, or have had less opportunities than European nations; the public are well aware that three or four thousand years could not have passed away, without throwing advantages in the way of the Africans; yet in all this time, with every advantage that liberty, and their proximity to refined nations could bestow, they have never even attempted to raise themselves above their present equivocal station, in the great zoological chain.

--Richard H. Colfax, Evidence Against the Views of the Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the Natural Inferiority of the Negroes, 1833

Look at the Negro, so well known to you, and say, need I describe him? Is he shaped like any white person Is the anatomy of his frame, of his muscles, or organs like ours? Does he walk like us, think like us, act like us? Not in the least. . .

The past history of the Negro, of the Caffre, of the Hottentot, and of the Bosjeman, is simply a blank--St. Domingo forming but an episode. Can the black races become civilized? I should say not: their future history, then, must resemble the past. The Saxon race will never tolerate them--never amalgamate-never be at peace. . . .

Wild, visionary, and pitiable theories have been offered respecting the colour of the black man, as if he differed only in colour from the white races; but he differs in everything else as much as in colour. He is no more a white man than an ass is a horse or a zebra: if the Israelite finds his ten tribes amongst them I shall be happy.

--Robert Knox, The Races of Men: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race Over the Destinies of Nations, 1862


Robert Knox, The Races of Men: a Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race over the Destinies of Nations, 2nd ed. London: Henry Renshaw, 1862 p. 404


Northern Visions of Race in the Civil War Era: The Comic

"The political cartoons published in the popular press in the North on the occasion of the Emancipation Proclamation provide a useful way of understanding Northern attitudes towards African-Americans at that time. Accompanying the cartoons are collections of quotations from writers who helped promulgate those stereotypes including Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Jefferson, and southern advocates of slavery.

"Quashee's Dream of Emancipation" is a cartoon that appeared in the popular northern publication, Frank Leslies Illlustrated Newspaper, during the Civil War. What made it funny?

The supposed humor of the cartoon, "Quashee's Dream of Emancipation," was based on the assumption that readers shared the belief that blacks were lazy, unintelligent, and uncivilized. In fact, the very use of the name Quashee would have conjured up a set of racist stereotypes in the minds of 19th century readers.

In his controversial 1849 essay, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" (later slightly expanded and printed as a pamphlet under the title Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, influential British political thinker and writer Thomas Carlyle had criticised England's emancipation of slaves in the West Indies, arguing that blacks were inherently indolent and barbarous and therefore ill-equipped for independence. Carlyle insisted that God, the "Supreme Proprietor" of a business-centered world, gave custody of the earth to those prepared to exploit it to the fullest.

Because Quashee was one of the most popular names among West Indian blacks, Carlyle chose it as a way of referring to all the former slaves of the colony. In this way, the name Quashee came to serve as a shorthand for the popular racist stereotypes of the period.

Although Carlyle's comments provoked a storm of protest from abolitionists both in England and the United States. they were widely circulated with approving comments by proslavery forces in America. After all, Carlyle was simply reiterating myths that had long circulated in America--and which continued to circulate during and even after the Civil War. Because those stereotypes function as the source of the "humor" of "Quashees Dream of Emancipation," the cartoon can be used as a way of understanding the racist stereotypes of that time.


Carlyle and "Quashee"

. . . Far over the sea, we have a few black persons rendered extremely “free” indeed. Sitting yonder, with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor teeth ready for every new work, and the pumpkins cheap as grass in those rich climates, while the sugar-crops rot round them uncut, because labor cannot be hired, so cheap are the pumpkins; and at home we are required but to rasp from the breakfast loaves of our own English laborers some slight “differential sugar-duties,” and lend a poor half million, or a few poor millions now and then, to keep that beautiful state of matters going on. ***

The West Indies, it appears, are  short of labor, as indeed is very conceivable in those circumstances. Where a black man, by working about half an hour a day (such is the calculation), can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice, he is likely to be a little stiff to raise into hard work! Supply and demand, which science says should be brought to bear on him, have an uphill task of it with such a man. Strong sun supplies itself gratis, rich soil in those unpeopled, or half-peopled regions almost gratis; these are his “supply,” and half an hour a day, directed upon these, will produce pumpkin, which is his “demand.” * * *

And now observe, my friends, it was not black quashee, or those he represents, that made those West India Islands what they are, or can, by any hypothesis, be considered to have the right of growing pumpkins there. For countless ages, since they first mounted oozy, on the back of earthquakes, from their dark bed in the ocean deeps, and reeking saluted the tropical sun, and ever onwards till the European white man first saw them some three short centuries ago, those islands had produced mere jungle, savagery, poison-reptiles, and swamp-malaria till the white European first saw them, they were as if not yet created — their noble elements of cinnamon, sugar, coffee, pepper, black and grey, lying all asleep, waiting the white enchanter who should say to them, awake! Till the end of human history and the sounding of the trump of doom, they might have lain so, had quashee and the like of him been the only artists in the game. Swamps, fever-jungles, man-eating Caribs, rattlesnakes, and reeking waste and putrefaction, this had been the produce of them under the incompetent Caribal (what we call Cannibal) possessors, till that time; and quashee knows, himself, whether he could have introduced an improvement. Him, had he been by a miraculous chance wafted thither, the Caribals would have eaten, rolling him as a fat morsel under their tongue; for him, till the sounding of the trump of doom, the rattlesnakes and savageries would have held on their way. It was not he, then; it was another than he! Never by art of his could one pumpkin have grown there to solace any human throat; nothing but savagery and reeking putrefaction could have grown there. These plentiful pumpkins, I say therefore, are not his; no, they are another’s: they are his only under conditions.

--Thomas Carlyle, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, Communicated by Thomas Carlyle, (London : Thomas Bosworth), 1853.


The Stereotype of the Lazy Slave

All three of the panels on the left side of the cartoon derive at least some of their humor from the notion that blacks are unwilling to work

In the first, Quashee "dreams that massa and he exchange positions." While his master musters a hoe, the former slave and a friend and shown merrily dancing and playing instruments.The image of the capering, banjo-playing slave was a popular way of suggesting that blacks were both lazy and carefree; for example, a similar image appeared in "Butler Hanged-The Negro Freed-On Paper-1863,"Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun, February 1, 1863 commenting on the Emancipation Proclamation. Thomas Jefferson helped perpetuate this stereotype when he wrote:

"A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning . . . Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them."

--Thomas Jefferson, "Query 14," Notes on the State of Virginia, 1784

The second panel of the cartoon depicts an African American stretched out on the floor in a leisurely fashion, drinking alcohol and reading abolitionist Horace Greeley's newspaper while the lovely white woman who he used to serve now waits on him. The caption: "He dreams that his young missis humbly waits upon him hile he reads the Tribune." In this panel, as in the first, part of the presumed comedy comes from the idea of whites working instead of blacks. Additional comedy--and shock value--would have derived from the idea of a black man married to a white woman. The contrast between her apparent refinement and his lack of civilized manners (note their different modes of dress) would have reenforced the point.
Although the African American men depicted in the third panel are working, the caption describes them as employed in "all the light and easy employments of the North." In addition to joking about the supposedly indolent nature of black people, this image also appealed to popular stereotypes about African American's love of finery and attraction to white women.

The stereotype of the lazy slave is a common element of cartoons on the subject of the Emancipation Proclamation. Below are two examples:


Slavery Defended by One of Its Advocates
on the Grounds that Blacks are Inherently Lazy

Humane individuals have, from time to time, freed their slaves . . . The multitude are by no means as well fed or clothed, and otherwise provided for, as the slaves in their vicinity. They make but little provision against the inclemency of winter, and in sickness are often the objects of public charity. A disposition to live by petty depredations upon society, instead of by honest industry, and a general depravation of morals, are characteristic of the caste. Their retrograde tendency is so obvious, that no doubt is entertained among men of reflection that, but for the props and checks thrown around them by the laws and usages of civilization, they would soon relapse into the savage state.***

The African will starve rather than engage in a regular system of agricultural labor, unless impelled by the stronger will of the white man. When thus impelled, experience proves that he is much happier, during the hours of labor in the sunny fields, than when dozing in his native woods and jungles.

-- Samuel Cartwright, "Dr. Cartwright on the Caucasians and the Africans," Debow's Review, Volume 25, Issue 1 pp. 45-56


The Stereotype of the Stupid Slave


In two images above, which appear in the right hand column of "Quashee's ream of Emancipation," a comic effect was supposed to be created by the clash between the grand ambitions of the African Americans depicted and the audience's recognition of the limitations of their abilities and status. In the first panel, an African American is courted by admiring politicians and "solicited to stand for Congress," and in the second, "he imagines himself a Brigadier-General nested in a stagebox at Wallach's Theatre." Note that both pictures connect political status and social status. At the same time, these panels probably contained a not-so-subtle warning about the dangers of giving freedom to African-Americans: what would happen if they entered the military and political worlds.


Southern Advocates of Slavery Who Argued that
Blacks Lack the Capacity for Learning and Civilization

There is not a single circumstance in the history of the whole of this race which indicates an intellectual appetite beyond an embryonic state.

--John Campbell, Negro-Mania, 1851

Of the many slaves whom I have known capable of reading, I have never known one to read anything but the Bible, and this task they impose on themselves as matter of duty.

-- Chancellor William Harper of South Carolina Comments on the Education of Slaves, 1852.

Slavery educates, refines, and moralizes the masses by separating them from each other, and bringing them into continual intercourse with masters of superior minds, information, and morality. The laboring class of Europe, associating with nothing above them, learn nothing but crime and immorality from each other, and are well described by Mr. Charles Dickens as "a heaving mass of poverty, ignorance, and crime.' Slavery is necessary as an educational institution, and is worth ten times all the common schools of the North. Such common schools teach only uncommonly bad morals, and prepare their inmates to graduate in the penitentiary, as the statistics of crime at the North abundantly prove.

-- George Fitzhugh, "Southern Thought"

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads to progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately, for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.

-- South Carolina Senator James Henry Hamond, "Cotton is King," Speech Before the United States Senate, March 4, 1858  [Link to AAS Catalog Record. For responses to "Cotton is King" see these catalog records.]

The Africans of this country, in common with minors, imbeciles, and uncivilized persons, have a right to be governed and protected, and to such means of physical comfort and moral improvement as are necessary and compatible with their providential condition. That which it is their right to have as slaves, it is the duty of masters to secure to them.

-- William Andrew Smith, Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery, as Exhibited in the Institution of Domestic Slavery in the United States: with the Duties of Masters to Slaves, 1856 [Link to AAS Catalog Record.]

Negroes are by nature tyrannical in their dispositions; and if allowed, the stronger will abuse the weaker; husbands will often abuse their wives, and mothers their children, so that it becomes a prominent duty of owners and overseers to keep peace, and prevent quarrelling and disputes among them; and summary punishment should follow any violation of this rule.

-- Dr. Robert Collins, "Essay on the Management of Slaves," Debow's Review [Link to AAS Catalog Record]


Northern Visions of Race in the Civil War Era: The Pathetic


"Contrabands Accompanying the Line of Sherman's March Through Georgia," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 18, 1865, 405

“Contrabands on the March.”

It was a most suggestive sight, the train of contrabands, who gathered as our army marched along, “like a black snowball,” as the genial Mr. Osborne of the N.Y. Herald termed the conglomerated mass of humanity who had been suddenly converted from slaves to freemen by the mere echo of Sherman’s tread. The shameless men who advocate so inhuman a system as slavery should have seen the wretched and yet jubilant groups of sable brotherhood as they dragged their wearied wives and little ones along with them. The often expressed fallacy that they preferred slavery to freedom would have been “crushed to earth,” as Bryant says error was, never to rise again. Helper, in that remarkable book, which, like the trumpet of Scripture, blew the walls of Jericho down, has truly said: “It is not alone on account of the negroes that I bewail the curse of slavery, but also by reason of the degradation it has entailed on the white race. As a white man myself, and as a former slaveowner, I denounce the system as entailing the most horrible results upon the superior race.” The American people have made up their minds upon the subject, and nothing can now restore the foul stain of slavery on this continent.


Northern Visions of Race in the Civil War Era: The Picturesque

The term "picturesque" was frequently used to describe African-Americans in the Civil War era. Theories of the picturesque developed by art historians provide different ways of understanding the term, and some critics have even suggested that there is more than one type of "picturesque."

However, the picturesque usually invites the viewer to stand back and contemplate something--or someone--distinctively "other." Determining whether or not a particular example of what might be called the "racial picturesque" is racist may depend on how the concept is used and the type of response it was designed to provoke.

"Picturesque" was a word used not only in articles demeaning African-Americans in the late 19th century, but even in letters written by some freedmen's teachers. Was the teachers' use of the term "picturesque" an indication that they, too, saw the freedmen in stereotyped terms, or was it a way of provoking a sympathetic response from those reading the descriptions?


Edwin Forbes, "Officers' Cooks and Servants,"
Thirty Years After: An Artist's Memoir of the Civil War

The mantle of daily industry--"domestic work," as we may call it--fell upon the shoulders of the colored men or boys, for the drudgery of camp-life came to them alone, and the most laborious duties were performed by them with a never-failing cheerfulness that is seldom found in positions of servitude. I sometimes heard it stated that their good will came from a feeling of emancipation from arbitrary masters, and also because of the chance to earn a few independent dollars; but I often watched them closely under the most toilsome and exasperating circumstances, and was convinced that in most cases the willingness came of conscientious scruples to do the best they knew how for those engaged in what they regarded as the fight for their freedom.

The officers' cooks and servants were varied in appearance, but at all times picturesque in costume and figure. With peculiar characteristics, they sometimes caused anxiety to their employers, but the amusement which their droll ways and odd sayings occasioned more than made amends. Some of the colored men were the experienced servants of good families, and were adept in the administering of ease and comfort. Others were field hands; yet, if not trained like the house servants, they were eager to be satisfactory, and the rough elements of cooking gleaned from plantation kitchens served a fair purpose. In winter camp the cooks' duties were easily performed; for, as the commissary was near by with necessary stores, sold at about cost price, the officers' tables were readily supplied.

The cook's kitchen was placed behind the quarters of the officers, and was usually a canvas-covered log house with a great stone chimney at the rear end. Around the sides of the kitchen hung cooking utensils, and in the corner stood the mess-chest, from whose capacious interior necessary condiments were supplied. And here, on a bright fire of pine logs, most appetizing dishes were cooked. Chickens were roasted to a turn, and when good fortune directed a rabbit to the hand of a colored cook a stew was furnished whose savor was long talked of by the partakers. ham and eggs, griddle cakes, and all concoctions which the surroundings could produce or willing hands prepare were placed before the officers.

During a summer campaign the commissary supplies were generally with the main wagon train; and the necessity of supplying the mess, in a great measure, by what could be found from day to day made the duties of the cooks quite arduous. Temporary supplies were generally carried on pack-mules or in a mess-cart, the latter being found during a march at the rear of the column. A good cook was apt to be a good forager, and secured many delicacies along the roadside farm-houses that a less persistent and appreciative person would miss. When camp was pitched the best the mess-chest afforded would be quickly converted into something palatable for the table, and the inevitable coffee, which served the double purpose of quenching thirst and supplying nutriment, was never forgotten.

The officers' body servants were as a rule colored boys, and like all youth,were sometimes careless and forgetful. In a general way, however, they served good purpose, and their natural grotesqueness and sense of humor afforded much amusement for the men.

Instances of bravery among the colored servants were not rare. At the battle of Cedar (or Slaughter's) Mountain, Knapp's battery, which was posted near the left of the line, had a colored man and boy in service as cooks. When action commenced they were ordered to the rear, but the man said: "No, Cap'n; I'll stay with you and fight." He worked faithfully at a gun during the greater part of the engagement, and when danger seemed almost passed the poor fellow's head was taken off by a solid shot. The boy had thus far steadily and efficiently carried water for the gunners from Cedar Creek, in the rear of the battery, but when he saw the mutilated body of his comrade he became terror-stricken, and fled to the rear.

--Edwin Forbes, "Chapter XXXVIIII. Officers' Cooks and Servants," Thirty Years After: An Artist's Memoir of the Civil War, (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1890, 149-150   [Link to AAS Catalog Record]



It is only a few years since Mr. Homer's name became known to the public. He is the youngest among the men to whom we look for a high order of excellence in the treatment of purely American subjects. . . .Mr. Homer is very skilful in the delineation of negro characteristics. The engraving which we print on this page, copied by the artist from the original painting entitled "The Bright Side," seems to us to be in his best manner. Of course the broad effect of sunlight attained by oil-colors cannot be reproduced in a wood-cut. Three picturesque-looking Contrabands, loving the sunshine as bees love honey, have stretched themselves out on the warm side of a tent, and, with their ragged hats slouched over their brows, are taking "solid comfort." Something to eat, nothing to do, and plenty of sunshine constitute a Contraband's Paradise. The scene is one that was common enough in our camps down South during the war; but the art with which it is painted is not so common.

While Mr. Homer was engaged on this canvas, he suddenly found himself in want of a model for one of the figures. In Italy or France there are men and women who earn their livelihood by serving s models for the painters; but this class does not flourish very well in our country, and Mr. Homer was somewhat puzzled as to how he should find his man. In one of the cross-streets near the University lives a colored person whom we shall call Mr. Bones,--if we were to use his real name he might resent it as a liberty. Mr. Bones (formerly) "belonged to one of the first families of Virginia," but at the time of which we are writing, was engaged in the lucrative profession of bootblack,--a profession of which he is still a shining ornament.

It occurred to our artist, that Mr. Bones would serve his purpose excellently well. One morning, as Mr. Bones was passing the University on his usual tour in search of customers, he was accosted by the painter, who explained his artistic wants. If Mr. Bones's head had been iron-clad, it could n't have resisted anew idea more successfully. He was at length induced to enter the University, and, after great trouble, --Mr. Bones at the foot of each stairway evincing a desire to run away, was finally conducted to the artist's studio. In order that his prize might not escape him, the painter quietly locked the door. No sooner did Mr. Bones perceive this movement than he gave vent to a series of unearthly shrieks, and proceeded to roll himself up into a ball, much after the fashion of a sow-bug--a cunning little creature, that can, at will, make itself look for all the world just like large-sized buckshot.

The cause of this singular conduct on the part of Mr. Bones was afterwards accounted for. It appears the simple fellow had somehow conceived the idea that the artist was "a medicine-man," (i.e. an army-surgeon,) and that he had lured him, Mr. Bones, into his den for the purpose of relieving the said Mr. Bones of a limb or two, by the way of practice. This is one solution of our friend's terror. Our own impression is, however, that the profound gloom of the University turned his brain.

--Excerpt from "Among the Studios," Our Young Folks, July, 1866, 396-397   [Link to AAS Catalog Record for Our Young Folks]



When Homer's painting of three African-American mule-drivers relaxing during a break from work was first exhibited in 1865, Americans immediately responded to "The Bright Side" as a comic work. When a slightly modified version of the image was published as a woodcut the following year in Our Young Folks, a children's magazine, it was described in the accompanying text as an example of Homer's "skilful . . . delineation of negro characteristics."

In both cases, viewers responded to the depiction of the resting muleteers as an embodiment of the traditional stereotype of the lazy negro. The article in Our Young Folks observes: "Something to eat, nothing to do, and plenty of sunshine constitute a Contraband's Paradise." (If you would like to consider for yourself whether the nature of the teamster's job would make him welcome an opportunity for rest between assignments, consider Civil War illustrator, Edwin Forbes' lithograph, "The Supply Train.")

The text in Our Young Folks goes on to tell what it claims to be the story of the person who posed for this picture, here dubbed "Mr. Bones" to evoke the image of the central figure of the minstrel show. The article strives to create a comic effect by appealing to familiar 19th century stereotypes of African-Americans as ignorant, superstitious, and fearful.


Definitions of the Picturesque

PICTURESQUE, a [Fr. pittoresque; It. pittoresco; from the L. pictura, or pictor. In English, this would be picturish.] Expressing that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture, natural or artificial; striking the mind with great power or pleasure in representing objects of vision, and in painting to the imagination any circumstance or event as clearly as if delineated in a picture.

-- American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828

The first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller, is the pursuit of his object—the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view. We suppose the country to have been unexplored. Under this circumstance the mind is kept constantly in an agreeable suspense. The love of novelty is the foundation of this pleasure. Every distant horizon promises something new […] new objects, and new combinations of them, are continually adding something to our fund, and enlarging our collection: while the same kind of object occurring frequently, is seen under various shapes.

--William Gilpin, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 1792

Beauty and picturesqueness are indeed evidently founded on very opposite qualities; the one on smoothness, the other on roughness; the one on gradual, the other on sudden variation; the one on ideas of youth and freshness, the other on those of age, and even of decay.

--Uvedale Price, On the Picturesque, 1810

In The Stones of Venice Ruskin wrote that the "whole function of the artist in the world is to be a seeing and feeling creature; to be an instrument of such tenderness and sensitiveness, that no shadow, no hue, no line, no instantaneous and evanescent expression of the visible things around him, nor any of the emotions which they are capable of conveying to the spirit which has been given him, shall either be left unrecorded, or fade from the book of record" (11.49). The lesser mode of the picturesque, however, necessarily reduces the artist to a seeing creature, forcing him to ignore the emotional — human -- implications of his subject. This form of art, which requires an unhealthy dissociation of faculties in the artist, can only appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of fragmented modern man. An example of the immoral abstraction implicit in the lower picturesque appears in Sir Charles Bell's Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression in the Fine Arts, which Ruskin several times quotes in his Modern Painters: "In Roman Catholic countries the church-door is open, and a heavy curtain excludes the light and heat; and there lie about those figures in rags, singularly picturesque" (6th ed., London, 1872, p. 16). Uvedale Price relates an anecdote which can serve as a parable here: One day when Reynolds and Wilson, the two painters, were looking at a scene, Wilson tried to point out a particular detail to his companion. "'There,' said he 'near those houses‹therel where the figures are.' — though a painter, said Sir Joshua, I was puzzled. I thought he meant statues, and was looking upon the tops of the houses; for I did not at first conceive that the men and women we plainly saw walking about, were by him only thought of as figures in a landscape" (An Essay on the Picturesque, 379n). For Ruskin, [230/231] taking delight in figures in rags corrupted the artist and audience alike. . . .

In contrast to the "surface-picturesque" (6.16), which dwells on texture at the expense of emotion, the noble picturesque is produced by "an expression of sorrow and old age, attributes which are both sublime" (6.10). In other words, since the "higher condition of art . . . depends upon largeness of sympathy" (6.19), the noble picturesque, the form practiced by Turner, arises, not from neglect of the meaning of the scene depicted, but from concentration upon it. It is produced, then, by expression "of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart. Nor only unpretending, but unconscious. If there be a visible pensiveness in the building, as in a ruined abbey, it becomes, or claims to become, beautiful; but the picturesqueness is in the unconscious suffering" (6.14-l5). The noble picturesque, a form of the gentler sublime, is an associated, subjective aesthetic pleasure which demands the projection of human characteristics upon old buildings. Indeed, old buildings are to be considered as old, noble men. Much of this sad, pathetic sublimity is created by age. In the first volume Ruskin had written of the beauties of age itself, and these are apparently part of the sublime emotion which creates the noble picturesque: "There is set in the deeper places of the heart such affection for the signs of age that the eye is delighted even by injuries which are the work of time; not but that there is also real and absolute beauty in the forms and colours so obtained" (3.204).

--George P. Landau, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin

One of the most insistent impulses of such picturesque art is the multiplication of narrative strands, and the sketches are representative in this as well. Both characterize themselves reflexively as narratives of discovery, presenting pictures of things their writers have never seen before to Euro-American citizens of the republic who have not seen them either. In this, they are examples of the narrative convention of the picturesque excursion—‘in pursuit of the picturesque’—with which an emergent Euro-American culture set out to survey the aesthetic resources of the nation and its peoples.


Picturesque art, as Martin Price observes, is ‘a drama more than a composition’—which is to say that it enacts a drama of composition—‘and our response is to the presentation of character rather than to the internal coherence of the object.’


Beauty is discovered in “the near, the low, the common”; in forms not yet completed, in forms dissolved by age or deformed by violence; in the elusive harmonies between forms apparently unlike. For American versions of the picturesque, eclecticism defines a world in which nothing is purely beautiful or purely sublime, but also a world in which nothing is without a measure of beauty and sublimity, however impure or incomplete or transient.

--John Conron, American Picturesque, (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press: 2000), 6   [Link to AAS Catalog Record]


Freedmen's teachers sometimes described incidents involving African-Americans in painterly terms, almost seeming to invite those reading the letters to pause and appreciate the picturesque quality of the scenes. Does this ability to step back and enjoy the sensation of aesthetic delight at the sight of people in difficult circumstances suggest an emotional and moral detachment on the part of the teachers? Or is their representation of these scenes as appealing pictures a way of expressing their own attraction to or sympathy for the freedmen, and a way of provoking a sympathetic response from those reading the descriptions? The answer to this question depends both on one's understanding of the picturesque, and the ways in which the teachers deploy the picturesque in their letters.

Since most of the teachers of the New England Educational Association were white men and women from Massachussetts who found themselves among African-Americans in the South, perhaps it should not be surprising if the novelty of their surroundings sometimes made them seem picturesque. However, if the descriptions below seem merely to express an aesthetic delight in the sight of the freedmen's "irregular" or ragged condition, then these excerpts from freedmen's letters probably represent what Ruskin would call "the surface picturesque." If, on the other hand, the scenes are described in a way that seems to express an appreciation of character, or to communicate sympathy on the part of the viewer and/or provoke feeling on the part of the reader, then these texts may serve as examples of Ruskin's "moral picturesque."

Examples of the "Picturesque" in Writing by Freedmen's Teachers

After dark, Sarah and I took a pour prendre conge stroll, when we longed for you all to bear us company. Fires were blazing in the fire-places of the lonely chimneys, and picturesque groups were crooning over the embers. Out on the plain blazed fires, the centre of just such groups as you have heard of “Groups for a painter!” As we drew near one circle, we Oh’d for a Darley, a Walter Brown,2 or a lead pencil. Facing us, sat an old man, with his withered, whisker-shaded face almost lost under his slouched hat; with his shoulders comfortably and cozily raised, as if to fondle his good-natured cheeks; and with his hands resting on the shoulders of a little child who stood between his knees. Around him stood all ages, sexes, sizes and conditions, but prominent amongst them all was the pomegranate young mother, the young wife of the old man upon whose loving and really lovely face all eyes were fixed, because her hand held the skillet, with its promise of supper. That out-stretched hand, grasping the long iron handle, its kindred in color, the golden steaming corn-cake, the fond and hungry children, the crackling fire, doing its best in a picturesque way, outlining each figure til it became a shining mark, the evening darkness, the desert plain, the long rows of house-deserted chimneys, the water all around and very near, and Sarah and I looking upon it all! . . .

Around one fire the boys had gathered to dance and make merry. The door of a fallen barrack was their springkeeping and upon it they performed their jigs and horn-pipes, time to a variety of strange accompaniments the rapid and regular falling of the hands upon the knees, the beating of feet, or the pleasing accompaniment of a tenor and base voice singing alternate strains of music. Of one of their Union songs I remember a few words “Richmond town is burning down.” “High diddle diddle inctum inctum ah.” The byplays and interludes were as good as the play. If a well-to-do dancer had his coat-sleeve pulled or was threatened with a tripe be turned from his partner, and almost before he was missed was rolling and tumbling with his teaser in the sand. Then all were challenged when one boy said, “You can’t spell every.” “Ev -ev ry ry- evry,” said one and another each trying, all interested, and those who could say, with the pride of sure knowledge, “Ev- ev, Er-er- Ever-y,” looking, for a moment, every inch the pedagogue. Spelling is with them an exciting pastime. When at work toting the barrack-boards to the wharf, men, women and children spelled aloud for their own private ears, though we heard now and then “B-o-a-r-d, Board,” “H-o-u-s-e, House.”

Under the fallen roofs some of the evening fires were built. in doors and out many families were preparing for a feast of rats! Under every barrack the dogs have found more rats than they had power to worry. One hundred and sixty huge rats were found under one barrack. Let many or few come to light, when the floors are raised, the negroes eagerly seize them, skin them, cook them and eat them. “Oh, they taste like chickens,” you are told. “What are you cooking, Aunty?” “Some calls em squirrels, but they ‘r altogether too tame for squirrels; I call em pigs. They ran all round my head last night, crying ‘Peat weet.’ They’ve lived long enough on my good things to be good eating. One night they ate up the whole of my ration of meal and meat, and now I’m going to take my pay. I reckon they’r as good eatin as possum. They only eat bread, and such like. I don’t see any-body around here that won’t eat em, any way. They say no, at first, but I have not seen any-one who did not say yes, after the first taste.”

* * *

It was a very pretty sight to look upon the confused crowd of the animate and inanimate floating at our side. Barrel-heads and human heads, canvas-bags without number, all in-doors turned out of doors; looking strangely “not at home.” All enlivened by dashes of brilliant color on the head of or shoulders, and in the faces too, for there is an amazing variety in the hue African. Give me some vermilion, some blue, and some white, and you shall see a tint to be proud of. Lo, behold, this is the blood that runs in my family. Now give me some cadmium, golden cadmium, the very “Rays of the Sun’ ‘—Dont be afraid to take too much of it. No matter if ‘tis the most costly of colors shall it not picture the blood of the F.F.V’s. The blood of the F.F.V. ‘s, enriched and beautified by its admixture with the sang d’Afrique? Give me some Lake too, some. Prussian blue and some white. But I wont neglect the darker skins. The warm chesnut nut color, shining as the nut from which it borrows its name; enriched and glowing as no white complexion can be with its rosy blood. Purples that might well be called “Royal!’ ‘—and Browns of many shades— I notice as much individuality in the faces of Negroes as I do in those of the whites. Their features are so much lost in the single shadow with which Nature has veiled their faces, that I once fancied that they would be bard to find and recognize. Every shade that light drops upon our faces lifts some feature into greater prominence. But black Sue looks herself as well as white Sue.

--Lucy Chase to her Family, Craney Island, VA., September 30, 1863

The people, being mostly employed in working on the farm, came in small parties to school through the day: in the evening, the larger portion came, —a dark mass, seen by the light of one candle. They sometimes staid till ten o'clock; the scholars sitting on the floor when the seats were full; following, with fingers uncouthly pointed, the words a neighbor read, and their faces already slowly but surely getting illuminated with the light breaking slowly but surely from the strange page before them. Their books in many cases were worn as constantly as their clothes; and when they went to labor, dressed in every variety of grotesque raggedness:— the ploughers, men and women too, seated on their "condemned" horses or mules,—often the soiled end of their much-valued book would be seen protruding from a pocket; and while for a moment resting themselves, or their poor worn-out animals, the book was sure to be on duty. To say that these refugees are all angels or intellectual wonders, were to be absurd; but experience has taught me that they are capable, in an unusual degree, of being instructed, not only from their fair intellectual ability, but from their docility and affection.

--M. H. C., "Letters from Virginia," Extracts from Letters of Teachers and Superintendents of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, Fifth Series, October 15, 1864   [Link to AAS Catalog Record]

The Sunday after our arrival we attended service at the Baptist Church. The people came in slowly for they have no way of knowing the hour, except by the sun. By eleven they had all assembled, and the church was well filled. They were neatly dressed in their Sunday attire, the women mostly wearing clean, dark frocks, with white aprons and bright-colored head-handkerchiefs. Some had attained to the dignity of straw hats with gay feathers, but these were not nearly as becoming nor as picturesque as the handkerchiefs. The day was warm, and the windows were thrown open as if it were summer, although it was the second day of November. It was very pleasant to listen to the beautiful hymns, and look from the crowd of dark, earnest faces within, upon the grove of noble oaks without. The people sang, “Roll, Jordan, roll,” the grandest of all their hymns. There is a great, rolling wave of sound through it all.  

“Mr. Fuller settin’ on de Tree ob Life,
Fur to hear de yen Jordan roll.
Oh, roll, Jordan! roll, Jordan! roll, Jordan Roll!


“Oh, roll, Jordan, roll! oh, roll, Jordan, roll!
My soul arise in heab’n, Lord,
Fur to hear de yen Jordan roll!  

“Little chilen, learn to fear de Lord,
And let your days be long.
Oh, roll, Jordan! roll, Jordan! roll, Jordan, roll!


“Oh, march, de angel, march! oh, march, de angel, march!
My soul arise in heah’n, Lord,
Fur to hear de yen Jordan roll!"

The “Mr. Fuller” referred to was their former minister, to whom they seem to have been much attached. He is a Southerner, but loyal, and is now, I believe, living in Baltimore. After the sermon the minister called upon one of the elders, a gray-headed old man, to pray. His manner was very fervent and impressive, but his language was so broken that to our unaccustomed ears it was quite, unintelligible. After the services the people gathered in groups outside, talking among themselves, and exchanging kindly greetings with the superintendents and teachers. In their bright bandkerchiefs and white aprons they made a striking picture under the gray-mossed trees. We drove afterward a mile farther, to the Episcopal Church, in which the aristocracy of the island used to worship. It is a small white building, situated in a fine grove of live-oaks, at the junction of several roads. On one of the tombstones in the yard is the touching inscription in memory of two children, — “Blessed little lambs, and art thou gathered into the fold of the only true shepherd? Sweet lillies of the valley, and art thou removed to a more congenial soil?” The floor of the church is of stone, the pews of polished oak. It has an organ, which is not so entirely out of tune as are the pianos on the island. One of the ladies played, while the gentlemen sang, — old-fashioned New-England church-music, which it was pleasant to bear, but it did not thrill us as the singing of the people had done.  

--Charlotte Forten, "Life on the Sea Islands" The Atlantic Monthly, May and June, 1864

Here is a quaint 'Hyme' or 'Praise' which I once heard sung in a log cabin, crowded with earnest devout people--a feeble fire flickering on the hearth--a tall slender woman holding gracefully above her head a torch of light wood, which shone on the faces and the curious objects about the room--making a most striking picture--The swaying motion of the body and the music are necessary to a clear idea of the effect of these 'Himes'

You must watch the Sun
And see how she run.

Cho. For I hope for to get up inter heaven--

--Sarah Chase to Fred W. G. May, Norfolk, Virginia, January 23, 1865


Northern Visions of Race in the Civil War Era: The Grotesque

This man born in degradation, this stranger brought by slavery into our midst, is hardly recognized as sharing the common features of humanity. His face appears to us hideous, his intelligence limited, and his tastes low; we almost take him for some being intermediate between beast and man.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

Among the terms which turn up repeatedly in Civil War era descriptions of African-Americans are "droll," "comic," "ludicrous," "picturesque" and "grotesque." Oddly, these terms are also frequently combined with one another, so images seen as "picturesque" or "grotesque" are also regarded as humorous. But what exactly do these words mean when used in connection with race?

Definitions of the grotesque vary, but some of the meanings commonly assigned to the term seem to reflect racial stereotypes of the late nineteenth century that viewed blacks as not fully human. The exaggerated features, slavish or foolish poses often assigned African-Americans in pictoral representations of the period, or the animalistic or child-like behavior ascribed to them in textual representations are all consistent with the idea of the grotesque as "a kind of negative example, the other side of the coin to the beautiful and sublime. In addition, the fact that images that would normally inspire a sense of horror or sympathy in a viewer were sometimes perceived as comic when the central figure was black suggests the degree to which white Americans in that period regarded African-Americans as "other."


Definitions of the Grotesque

GROTESQUE, GROTESK, (from grotto.) Wildly formed; whimsical; extravagant;of irregular forms and proportions; ludicrous; antic; resembling the figures found in he subterraneous apartments in the ancient ruins of Rome; applied to pieces of sculpture and painting, and to natural scenery; as grotesque painting; grotesque design. Dryden.

Grotesque, Grotesque, n. Whimsical figures or scenery. A. In a fantastical manner

--.American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828

By the word grottesco the Renaissance, which used it to designate a specific ornamental style suggested by antiquity, understood not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one, a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid.

--Wolfgang Kaiser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 1957

It is perhaps easier for us, living in the second half of the twentieth century, to . . . insist on a component of horror or something similar in the grotesque. It may be said that our notion of the grotesque is conditioned by the many examples from modern and contemporary literature of the comic inexplicably combined with the monstrous, of the interweaving of totally (disparate elements, producing a strange and often unpleasant and unsettling conflict of emotions. Yet there are several writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who emphasize the serious and powerfully unsettling nature of the grotesque. These writers include such unlike natures as John Ruskin and Victor Hugo, Friedrich Schlegel and Walter Bagehot, but they all have in common the tendency to see in the grotesque something more than outlandish exaggeration or wild burlesque. Even the classical-minded Victorian Bagehot, who makes no bones, in his essay "Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning; or, Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art in English Poetry" (1864), about preferring pure to ornate and both to grotesque art, is ready to admit the legitimacy of the grotesque as a kind of negative example, the other side of the coin to the beautiful and sublime.

--Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, 1972


Illustration from a Civil War Envelope

Although definitions of the term vary, many writers agree that "grotesque" often refers to something--or someone--created from an unnatural mixture of elements: a plant/animal, a beast/man. Tocqueville's observation that "we almost take [the slave] for some intermediate between beast and man" reflected some of the theories of racial differences put forth in 18th and 19th century America (see above) and helps explain why people sometimes described the freedmen as "grotesque" and produced pictoral representations of them that exaggerated their features in outlandish ways.

The article excerpted below seems to start out by objecting to the popularity of stereotyped images of African-Americans. But as it continues, it's language seems to emphasize the freedmen as adoes it go on to emphasize the humanity of the freedmen, or to represent them as a grotesque spectacle, with the writer commenting that the steamer "literally jammed with niggers, who grinned and chatted like so many monkeys."



Excerpt from "Emancipation Day in South Carolina," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,

Whatever our readers' politics may be, they cannot fail to feel a stern satisfaction in the simple fact that within a few miles of that "most erring of sisters," Charleston, Emancipation-day, as it is called, was celebrated with great pomp, and that one of the chief rejoicers on the occasion was our old acquaintance, Sambo, who, generally speaking, is always accompanied by the inevitable banjo. Thousands take their notion of Indians from Cooper's imaginary Uncas, and other impossible Redskins, and just as many build their ideal of a colored person on George Christy's inimitable caricature. Two-thirds of our boarding-school misses believe that a contraband is a dark gentleman with a triangular collar of some two feet high, new pumps and broadcloth, a set of white ivory, a fine tenor voice, a rather handsome banjo and a remarkably bad hat. But we must return to our sketches of some of their doings on January 1, when, accompanied by the correspondent of the New York Herald, and other notable persons, our Artist embarked at Hilton Head on board the Boston, for Camp Saxton and Smith's Plantation, which are about ten miles distant; but we will tell the story in his own words.

"The object of my visiting the above place was to witness the scenes and incidents relative to the celebration of 'Emancipation-day' in South Carolina by all the contrabands in this Department, under the auspices of Gen. Saxton and the 'Freedmen's Association.' We had for passengers, on this occasion, what a rebel would esteem his fortune--being no less than scores of colored individuals of all stripes, sizes, modes of dress and hue. Upon our arrival at our destination we landed our sable freight in boats, noticing also the arrival of the steamer Flora from Beaufort, which was literally jammed with niggers, who grinned and chatted like so many monkeys.




The word "grotesque" is also associated with a wild or exaggerated appearance, a look that Philip Thompson describes as "the other side of the coin to the beautiful and sublime."

The lithograph below, Max Rosenthal's "The Dawn of Liberty," appeared in 1864, the year before the Civil War came to an end.

At a time when many Americans were seeking out parallels between the war for independence and the war between the North and the South, the decision to depict a moment from the revolutionary era probably made good business sense.

And yet, consider the contrast between the representation of the young boys in the picture, whose facial expression and bearing seem expressive of intelligence, independence, and civility, and the grovelling pose and grotesque facial expression of the African-American stationed behind General Gage.

Why would a lithographer working in the north during the Civil War, depicting a scene about American independence at a moment in history when a battle was taking place ostensibly to bring about a new "dawn of liberty" suggest such an unflattering contrast?

Interestingly, a year later, Rosenthal would produce a lithograph of "The Emancipation Proclamation" depicting African-Americans in what seem to be more sympathetic terms.




Comic Responses to the Representation of the Racial Grotesque

In the forefront of the picture immediately below a white officer is shown being transported to land on the back of a freedman. Although the image also shows a large number of white troops carrying their fellow-soldiers, the accompanying article introduces the story as a "ludicrous incident" and goes on to mention only the "contraband wharf."

An earlier section of the same article describes the work of a landing party as it explores newly occupied territory in Beaufort, South Carolina. It describes a deserted plantation where the artist had seen

Books scattered around, ladies hoops, beds ripped open--in a word, the wretched slaves had shown to what a depth of depravity slavery plunges the negro race.

While the writer described slavery as the cause of the problem, his characterization of the slaves as "depraved" contrasts in an interesting way with the image of the smiling contraband carrying the officer to shore. This contradictory idea of the innocent savage seems typical of representations of African-Americans in the Civil War period.



A Contraband Wharf.

War has its ludicrous situations. It is hard to fancy Julius Caesar making his first landing in Britain on a Roman soldier's back, to save his sandals a wetting--but now in these times the classical has gone out and the comfortable come in. One of our engravings illustrates the unheroic but highly sensible manner in which our officers landed at Fort Walker, improvising an intermediate wharf by the substitution of a contraband back. Our Artist, who availed himself of this moveable wharf, prefers it to wading through the surf.

--Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, December 7, 1861, article page 44, picture page 39



Another Item in the Same Article:
A Union Landing Party Explores Newly Conquered Territory



"Negro Firemen's Ball, "Sabbatry Hall," Charleston, S.C. Sketched by William Waud, See page 67," New York Illustrated News, December 6, 1862, 77


During the Winter a number of balls are given by the colored population of Charleston both slaves and free. The engraving represents one given by a Fire Company, at which our artist was present. The hall was fashionably crossed and the ladies and gentlemen (all slaves) well, and in some cases, elegantly dressed; the mistresses often attiring their favorite female servants with great care, providing them with dresses, and lending them their own jewels. The excessive gallantry of the men, and the coy little airs of the colored bells were very amusing; everything was conducted in the most orderly manner, the city furnishing them with a couple of policemen (one of whom is represented in the cut) to prevent the intrusion of evil disposed persons. A supper followed the ball, excellently laid out, and very choice in material, the only restriction being placed on wines and liquors, none of which is allowed to be introduced. The overpowering politeness displayed to the ladies during the repast, and afterward in the shawling and escorting home, was beyond all praise. One curious feature of the assembly was the small number of mulatto or light-colored women, while the men ranged from ebony to light coffee and cream color, the ladies were of the most somber hue, the yellow women not liking to “associate with niggers.”

--"Negro Firemen's Ball," New York Illustrated News, December 6, 1862, 77


Below are samples of two articles published in illustrated Northern periodicals during the Civil War as well as an excerpt from a book published after the war by an artist who had provided illustrations for newspapers during the fighting. All three depict moments that would normally provoke a feeling of distress: the separation of husbands and wives as men depart for war, the march of tired troops through mud, and the torment of a man who is enclosed in a coffin and told he is to be shot. And yet, all three are represented in a light-hearted fashion, clearly because the central characters in these stories are African-American.

How can we make sense of the fact that ideas and images that are horrifying to us passed as comedy? Does it suggest the degree to which white Americans saw black Americans as something other than human beings like themselves? Did it suggest a discomfort with African-Americans--or with their own treatment of African-Americans?

The quotations below offer some possible ways of understanding these puzzling phenomenon of a comic response to depictions of events that would ordinarily be regarded as tragic or at least painful. Read the theories, and then consider how you might interpret the examples that follow.


Making Sense of Our Responses to the Grotesque

We may well ask ourselves what our response to this passage [of grotesque description of a family in Samuel Beckett's Watts] is, or ought to be. The question is likely to arise because chances are that the reader's reaction will be somewhat confused, or at least divided. He will presumably respond to the tragic, disgusting or deformed nature of the unfortunate Lynches with a certain amount of horror, pity—perhaps even nausea. On the other hand the undoubtedly comic aspect of the description will rather induce him to respond with amusement or mirth. Indeed, it may be difficult to resolve this conflict in response. Re-reading may serve only to reinforce what is essentially a clash between incompatible reactions—laughter on the one hand and horror or disgust on the other. In seeking to explain this peculiar mixture in our response, we might point to a similar clash in the text itself, between—on the most obvious level—the gruesome or horrifying content and the comic manner in which it is presented. And in searching for words to convey this clash we should probably come up—along with a number of other more or less accurate descriptions—with the word 'grotesque', if only on the vague basis by which the same word in phrases such as 'a grotesque scene' conveys the notion of simultaneously laughable and horrifying or disgusting. What will be generally agreed upon, in other words, is that 'grotesque' will cover, perhaps among other things, the co-presence of the laughable and something which is incompatible with the laughable.

--Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, 1972

No "we" should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain.

--Susan Sontaag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003

Looking at these photographs, you ask yourself, How can someone grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being? . . . And you feel naive for asking, since the answer is, self-evidently, People do these things to other people., , , They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people: it was all fun.

--Susan Sontaag on the pictures of Abu Ghraib, "Regarding the Torture of Others," The New York Times, May 23, 2004


"The Grotesque Attempts of the Darkeys to Spell"



Never has Shakespeare’s line, “To what base uses may we not return,” had a more fitting illustration, than the picture we give on page 164 of the distribution of the clothes of the captured rebels among the contrabands. As one of the Southern chivalry said, “This is adding insult to injury. You first entice our property to run away, and then you clothe them in the glorious uniform of the South.” It is needless to add that no insult is intended; it is simply the inevitable result of war, and as such must be accepted. Our sketch represents the headquarters of Vincent Collyer, Superintendent of the Poor, at Newberne, with the process of turning a darkey into an external rebel in full blast. Mr. Collyer, a most able and indefatigable man, has inaugurated a school for these benighted darkeys, and his labors will doubtless not be lost, although Mr. Schell says the grotesque attempts of the sable scholars to spell are mirth-provocative to all the white spectators.

-- “The Campaign in North Carolina—Headquaraters of Vincent Collyer, Superintendent of the Poor at Newberne—Distribution of Captured Rebel Soldiers’ Clothing to the Contrabands—From a Sketch by Our Special Artist, J.H. Schell," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 14, 1862, illustration page 164, text page 171.



"The Grotesque Mixture of Tragedy and Comedy"

"Carrying the War into Africa!"--A Portion of the First Carolina Contraband Brigade Leaves for Hilton Head on Board the Steamer Mattano--From a Sketch by Our Special Artist, W. C. Crane--See Page 147," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 7, 1862, 145


In the Northern popular mind every contraband is associated with a white row of ivory, "yah! yah!" and a banjo. That, like an Englishman's h's, an Irishman's jokes, a Yankee's whittling, or a Southerner's whip, is supposed to be "the make-up" of that "sable race" which forms the "peculiar institution" of our Republic. As all our readers are aware, Gen. Hunter has ordered the formation of a Negro Brigade, as a set-off to the Slave Regiments of the South. Not to degrade the Anglo-Saxon race by putting the sons of Ham beside the sons of Alfred and the countrymen of Washington and Shakespeare, but to warn the rebels of the danger they run in bringing that peculiar element into play-for it requires no prophet to tell us what would be the result of a National Negro Brigade marching through the Cotton States. The torch tied to the fox's tail among the cornfields of the Philistines would be faintly significant of the terrible results, and for which the rebels would alone have themselves to thank. Our Artist declares that nothing could exceed the grotesque mixture of tragedy and comedy exhibited by the dusky recruits and their relatives; some, forgetting that they were always exposed to be torn apart by a merciless Legree, howled over a temporary and profitable absence, undergone at the option of the chief party concerned. So unreasoning has oppression made this race! Others were as proud as though their beloved contrabands were going to be made commanders-in-chief, with no fighting to do, double pay, and extra rum and repose. As a significant phase of the war, our Artist sends us the two sketches we have engraved for the present number.

--"Carrying the War Into Africa: The Black Brigade, or the Darkey Division--Contraband Conquerors--The Sable Sharpshooters--The Negro Minstrel Military," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 7, 1862, 147

"The Comic and the Coffinly"

"Punishment of a Negro at Richmond," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 29, 1865, 349


"My Sense of the Ludicrous Was Aroused"

From Edwin Forbes’ Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War:

Interspersed through the column were negro servants of officers, many of them grotesque. They were all proud of their new-found freedom, and stepped gleefully chattering along as if to the “Happy Land, far, far away.” Some of them had confiscated old mules and horses, over which they had slung kettles and camp utensils in ridiculous fashion, and seated astride some of the animals were the pickaninnies, trusting to an unknown future with their happy parents. And so the last scene of this wonderful panorama of human beings passed by, and the resident whites and negroes of the locality ventured out from their hiding-places and picked up the too-plentiful clothing, as if to say, “There is no great loss without some small gain.”

XIV. Marching Through the Rain.

In the rear of the infantry column came the artillery, literally smothered in mud, clouds of steam arising from the heated bodies of the horses as they tugged away to what seemed their utmost at the harness; and yet the poor creatures made renewed effort to cross the soft spots, when the drivers urgently cracked their whips and made hortatory remarks! Back and forth on the flank of the column staff-officers were hurrying, to urge the men into rapid and continuous movement so that the line should not be broken and distance lost. Although in sympathy with the brave men who suffered so much discomfort, my sense of the ludicrous was aroused at the grotesque appearance of the officers’ contraband servants; cooking utensils were slung over their backs or upon poles, and some were leading horses and mules which were laden with full paraphernalia of a camp-kitchen. They seemed demoralized and generally despondent, given to sighs and groans as they marched along. Last of all came the wagon-trains, escorted by infantry-guards, the mules doing splendid work under the incessant lashing and urging of the dusky drivers.


While Forbes sympathized with the offices, his "sense of the ludicrous was aroused at the grotesque appearance of the officers' contraband servants." What was sad when experienced by whites was comic when experienced by African-Americans. And yet, Forbes frequently depicted African-Americans in sympathetic terms in his drawing and writing. As just one example, consider his inspiring lithograph, "The Sanctuary." It is difficult to know how to explain this oscillation between the comic, the heroic, and the tragic. One might say that the different types of representations appealed to different parts of the market for Forbes' art, and yet both images appeared in the same book. Is it possible that Americans responded both to racist stereotypes of African-Americans as grotesque figures and to pathetic--and even occasionally heroic--depictions of blacks?


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An American Antiquarian Society Online Resource
Curated by Lucia Z. Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College

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