Altered Images From the End of the War

Louis Masur begins the final chapter of his book, The Civil War: A Concise History (2011) with a powerful opening line: “On January 11, 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote a letter that would have been unthinkable three years earlier.”  The reference is to Lee’s endorsement for the use of black troops, a move that most Confederates had previously resisted.  But as Masur points out, the belated decision, finally approved in March 1865 (just weeks before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox) demonstrated “perhaps” the “strength of Confederate nationalism” (76).  In other words, the question had always been which motivated Confederates more, a desire for their own political rights or the continuation of slavery?  In recent years, there has been an explosion of controversy over the particular subject of “Black Confederates.”  The debate mainly concerns whether they existed at all before the spring of 1865.  Here is one image frequently circulated over the Internet:

Black Confederates

But here is the original version of the same image, unaltered, showing that these alleged “Black Confederates” from 1861 were actually Union soldiers in training near Philadelphia in 1864.

Black SoldiersJerome Handler and Michael Tuite thoroughly dissect the manipulation of this image in their post, “Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph” (2005).

Altered Image by

Actual photograph, circa 1864








Altering images is not just a modern-day phenomenon.  Print-makers and illustrators in the nineteenth-century were just as creative and calculating. In fact, the banner image from this course website provides a good example of what might be called pre-photoshop photoshopping undertaken by a commercial printer in Philadelphia following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Here is what the image looked like that year:

Emancipation Banner

Yet here is what the original illustration looked like in January 1863 when Thomas Nast first drew it for Harpers Weekly:

Emancipation OriginalThe difference is more than just color.  Nast’s allegory for emancipation has now been subtly altered to give the martyred president a greater role.

cropped-cropped-cropped-cropped-emancipation.jpgEmancipation DetailSometimes significant changes are also sometimes accidental rather than intentional. Here is a different image that was misdated for years as 1864.  Yet this is actually a detail from a photograph taken in Washington DC in November 1865.  Students in History 117 should be able to explain why that seemingly small mistake matters quite a bit.


Believe it or not, it’s also possible to enhance images by altering them.  Here is a photograph taken at Fort Sumter on Friday, April 14, 1865.  That was a special day for the Union coalition –a kind of “mission accomplished” moment as Col. Robert Anderson returned with a delegation of notables, including abolitionists like Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and William Lloyd Garrison, to raise the American flag once again over the fort in Charleston harbor where the Civil War had begun almost exactly four years earlier.

Sumter 1865 DamagedNote the cracked glass plate from this seemingly ruined photograph now in the collection of the Library of Congress.  But look what happens to this image when it is digitized at a high resolution and then magnified.

Sumter 1865 Enhanced

That’s Rev. Henry Ward Beecher speaking on the afternoon of Friday, April 14, 1865, from what he called “this pulpit of broken stone.”  Originally, scholars, using magnifying glasses, thought that William Lloyd Garrison was perhaps seated on Beecher’s left.

Garrison 1865 Option 1But now we are confident at the House Divided Project that Garrison was actually seated in a special section on Beecher’s right, with other leading abolitionists and Lincoln administration notables.

Garrison 1865 Option 2

Garrison 1865 Detail

It was obviously a moving, reflective moment for Garrison, one captured in this detail image above from right after the ceremony and by the little known story of his visit the following morning to see the grave of secessionist icon John C. Calhoun.  You can read more about this episode here and here.  Sometimes people are surprised by the stories that slip out of public memory and don’t make it into standard textbooks.  The Garrison visit to South Carolina in April 1865 is certainly one of them, but another such lost tale involves a Dickinsonian named John A.J. Creswell, who was deeply involved in the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery, which occurred in early January 1865.  Here is the image that appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper to celebrate that moment.

Thirteenth Amendment

You will notice the trio of men in the lower right hand corner, obviously prominent figures according to the illustrator.  We researched them here at the college and were thrilled to discover that one of them was a Dickinsonian.  It turns out that these are three congressman from the Mid-Atlantic (from left to right) Thaddeus Stevens, William D. Kelley, and John A.J. Creswell.  We used a detail from that image for the cover of our first House Divided e-book, which profiles Creswell, a Dickinson graduate and Maryland politician who became one of the nation’s most important wartime abolitionists.  Yet, he’s almost completely forgotten, not even mentioned in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” (2012), which concerned passage of the amendment.  You can download a free copy of Creswell’s biography, written by Dickinson college emeritus history professor John Osborne and college librarian Christine Bombaro, here.  Ultimately, that might be the best way to “alter” images from the end of the Civil War –by seeing old stories from new perspectives.

Forgotten Abolitionist New Cover

The scene at Congress on January 31, 1865 was reminiscent in some ways of an earlier scene involving a celebration of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.




Sergeant Prince Rivers receives the colors of the First South Carolina Volunteers, Port Royal, South Carolina, January 1, 1863 (Courtesy of the House Divided Project)

Sergeant Prince Rivers receives the colors of the First South Carolina Volunteers, Port Royal, South Carolina, January 1, 1863 (Courtesy of the House Divided Project)

This scene in Port Royal, South Carolina is very revealing at several levels, but as a study of the end of the war, it offers a poignant window into the revealing saga of Prince Rivers, a man who arguably is the most teachable figure from the Civil War & Reconstruction era.

Prince-Rivers Detail

Underground Railroad

William Still

William Still

The Underground Railroad was a metaphor used by antislavery activists to describe and publicize efforts at helping runaway slaves during the years before the Civil War. While secrecy was essential for particular operations, the movement to help fugitives was no secret at all. Northern Underground Railroad operatives were often openly defiant of federal statutes designed to help recapture runaways. Agents used state personal liberty laws, which aimed to protect free black residents from kidnapping, as a way to justify their fugitive work. Vigilance committees in northern cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Detroit formed the organized core of this effort. These committees often worked together and provided legal, financial and physical protection to black people threatened by kidnappers or slave-catchers. Notable vigilance leaders included black men such as William Still in Philadelphia, David Ruggles in New York, Lewis Hayden in Boston and George DeBaptiste in Detroit. There were also thousands of other individuals, often white and usually motivated by religious belief, who helped fugitives during the antebellum period. Though most of these Underground Railroad figures operated with relative impunity in the North and across Canada, southern operatives faced grave dangers and thus maintained a much lower profile. This is one reason why Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave herself, was such a courageous figure. Her repeated rescues inside the slave state of Maryland during the 1850s became the basis for her legendary post-war reputation as “Moses.” Though Underground Railroad agents such as Tubman freed only a fraction of the nation’s slaves (probably no more than several hundred each year out of an enslaved population of millions), the widespread reports about their actions infuriated southern political leaders and helped bring about the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States.

Additional Resources



GougingBackcountry, n. –a rural area or wilderness

Traditional US history textbooks typically focus on North-South sectionalism, because of the overriding importance of the Civil War.  However, students must never forget that other types of regional divisions also seemed quite powerful to American contemporaries, such as East and West, or tidelands and piedmont, or lowlands and backcountry.  The idea of the backcountry, in particular, was an especially potent one during the era of the early republic.  This was a time of rapidly changing social mores, and vast territorial expansion.  And yet it was also a period marked by relative isolation in communications and transportation.  Waterways still connected people and places faster than any other means.  The result was a society in turmoil as its leaders groped their way toward a new, post-revolutionary stability.  Few academic articles capture that moment, or the essence of the backcountry better than Elliott Gorn’s, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch”: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” which appeared in the American Historical Review in 1985.  Gorn depicts a practical orgy of violence through the stories of the rough-and-tumble fighting culture of the Southern backcountry.   Students should be able to explain what gouging was and why it was significant. Why would Americans, especially white men in the southern backcountry, engage in such behavior and what does it suggest about their changing culture?  Both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, the two most important American politicians of the mid-nineteenth century, grew up in the backcountry culture dominated by southern plainfolk.  How does their background help explain their political success?  In an even larger sense, how does the rise and fall of gouging in the backcountry help explain the story of nineteenth-century America?  Finally, how does the culture of rough-and-tumble fighting compare to the social dynamics of modern America?


Recommended Slave Narratives

Here are about two dozen of the more significant (and teachable) slave narratives published in American history, available full-text online from “North American Slave Narratives,” in Documenting the American South.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1901).

Courtesy of House Divided Project

Courtesy of House Divided Project

When Booker T. Washington recalled the outbreak of the Civil War, he claimed that, “every slave on our plantation felt and knew that, though other issues were discussed, the primal one was that of slavery” (p. 8). Washington’s memory of life as young slave on a tobacco plantation in southwestern Virginia was surely enhanced by the passage of time –he had just turned five at the time of the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861– but it is also true that his famous autobiography Up From Slavery (1901) contains a series of remarkably vivid insights not only about slavery, but also about emancipation and reconstruction.

Consider, for example, how a nine-year-old slave experienced the end of the Civil War. He listened with others on his plantation as a Union army officer “made a little speech and read a rather long paper,” which the boy later presumed had been the Emancipation Proclamation. Then his mother “kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks.” Washington recalled that she “explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see” (pp. 20-21). Washington’s subsequent recollection of the bewildering mixture of emotions that seemed to prey on ex-slaves on his Virginia plantation soon after they received news of their freedom in the spring of 1865 offers a compelling snapshot of the promise and perils of the emancipation moment for an enslaved people who were given “nothing but freedom,” as one Confederate general put it.[1]

When he was 16-years-old, Washington traveled over 500 miles from his new home in West Virginia, mostly by foot, in order to receive an education at the Hampton Institute, one of several schools established for the freed people during the era of Reconstruction. In chapter 3 of his memoir, Washington recounts his penniless arrival in Richmond on his way to Hampton. In one of the most memorable scenes in American literature, he describes how he “crept under the sidewalk” and slept outside on his first night, exhausted and hungry, but still hopeful that he could “reconstruct” his life with a real education (p. 49).   After much hard work, Washington succeeded, but he still acknowledged the challenges that loomed so large in the 1870s, such as what he called the “Ku Klux period,” which he considered, “the darkest part of the Reconstruction days” (p. 78)

As a young teacher at the Hampton Institute in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Booker T. Washington was responsible for helping to instruct and assimilate Native American or Indian men. The complexity of this assignment –a black teacher trying to instruct red men in the ways of white culture– was not lost on Washington, who recalled his anxiety over the “experiment” in chapter 6 of Up From Slavery.

Booker T. Washington first became a celebrated –and then somewhat controversial– figure, during the 1880s and 1890s, when he gained renown as the leader of the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school for African Americans in central Alabama. Washington was determined to promote self-made black people, who could thrive in American society by dint of their own hard work and positive thinking. He was adamant about that formula, sometimes to the point of alienating fellow civil rights reformers.[2] He claimed almost unbelievably, for example, that “in all my contact with the white people of the South I have never received a single personal insult” (p. 169). Washington also delivered a popular speech at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition that urged blacks to “Cast down your bucket where you are,” or in other words, to resist migration and political agitation and instead to focus on improving their lives in the South through economic self-sufficiency (p. 219). It was a message about how to achieve civil rights progress that made Washington beloved by many, and resented by others, but without doubt was the main theme of his autobiography and the central contested legacy of his notable career.


[1] Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 6.

[2] William F. Muggleston, “Washington, Booker T.”, American National Biography Online Feb. 2000 [ANB].


Founding Mothers

Martha Ballard’s diary, September 11-25, 1787

The same week in September 1787 that the Framers “delivered” their Constitution to the American people, midwife Martha Ballard was busy caring for and delivering real babies in Hallowell, Maine.  To the right, one can view an image of her diary from that very week.  Compared to James Madison’s notes of the Constitution Convention, this journal might seem insignificant, but it better represents the lives and concerns of the four million Americans who resided in the country at that time.  Most of them, whether male or female, could probably relate more easily to the terse, businesslike entries in Ballard’s diary than to the fierce but often abstract political debates over sovereignty, republicanism and governance that the Framers were having in Philadelphia.  Students in History 117 should read historian Laurel Ulrich’s account of Martha Ballard’s life and ask themselves if Ulrich has explained the case for remembering this particular midwife.  What do we learn from this account of medical care in the early republic?  How can we explain Martha Ballard’s place in a survey of American history?  And finally, what do we need to know about ordinary lives in order to better understand the context of the past?  Students should also experiment with the Do History website devoted to Martha Ballard and her story.  See especially the transcription engine and the Magic Lens.  Also, a good reference website is available from PBS “American Experience,” which did an episode about Ballard a several years ago.

Constitutional Cartoons

These images are details from the notebooks of South Carolina delegate Pierce Butler, drawn in the summer of 1787 while he was attending the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  Some scholars believe they represent quick sketches of other delegates.  The originals of the notebooks are held by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York.  You can read more about Butler and his note-taking at this page, created by GLI archivist Sandra Trenholm.

Slavery and the Constitution

WedgewoodWhat do Dickinson College history majors and Bernie Sanders have in common?  Lately, they’ve both been involved (albeit indirectly) in a pretty bitter academic debate over whether or not the original US Constitution should be considered pro-slavery or anti-slavery.   The story behind how this unlikely argument has escalated in September and October 2015 can be found in a series of blog posts from the History 404 seminar on the US Constitution.

Students in History 117 will be especially interested in that first post (Arguing Over Slavery), which includes a video clip of Senator Bernie Sanders speaking about the “racist principles” behind the founding of the US, the response in the pages of the New York Times from historian Sean Wilentz, and comments from Prof. Pinsker about how this debate might play out in our classroom.

Abortion in Puritan New England

In “Taking the Trade,” Cornelia Hughes Dayton narrates a chilling tale of two young eighteenth-century Puritans and their Connecticut families as they plunge deeper and deeper into a moral catastrophe.  The story challenges almost all of the assumptions students have about Puritan culture, but Dayton deftly uses the case involving Pomfret residents Sarah Grosvenor and Amasa Sessions to illustrate a culture in transition.  In this case, student should think about how individual actions by ordinary figures can reflect wider changes in social norms or cultural values.  Those who need additional background on Puritan culture, should seek out a succinct outline provided online by Donna Campbell, a professor of American Literature at Washington State University.  To view some key resources and even some of the actual documents in the Grosvenor-Sessions legal proceedings, see these links below from a now-defunct website created by Woody Holton, Cornelia Dayton, and Jessica Linker:

Exploring America’s Founding Myths

Courtesy of Disney

To begin the semester, students in History 117 will be reconsidering some founding American myths.  Historian Michael Puglisi offers what he terms an “ethnohistorical” summary of the famous John Smith-Pocahontas rescue / love affair at Jamestown in a provocative article that appeared in the  journal History Teacher in 1991.  It turns out that there might be more to the story than the Disney movie suggested.  Puglisi sees the 1607 encounter as a complicated struggle between two imperial forces –both the English settlers AND the Powhatan Indians.  He carefully explains the political background and strategic interests of Wahunsonnacock (or Chief Powhatan as the traditional literature has named him), demonstrating how he attempted to use the English. Puglisi provides less detail about Captain John Smith, but his brief description of the misunderstandings at stake in the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas deserves deeper consideration from students.  How should historians characterize the motivations and legacies of figures such as Smith or other members of the Virginia Company, such as John Rolfe, the man who introduced tobacco to the colony and actually did become Pocahontas’s husband?  What can anyone conclude about Pocahontas and other Powhatan Indians who cannot speak for themselves in the documentary evidence?  Images are certainly a powerful answer, and there is a fascinating online exhibition of Pocahontas’s evolving and elusive image available from PBS NOVA that will surprise students and challenge their deepest held assumptions about America’s colonial founding.

And what about Thanksgiving myths?  Students are also reading a short, insightful article from John Humins who explains the complicated political and diplomatic intrigue behind the scenes of the first Thanksgiving in 1621.  When Pilgrim separatists arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they thought they were settling in Northern Virginia.  In some ways, they found a similar dynamic with Wampanoag Indians as John Smith and the Jamestown settlers had discovered several years earlier with the Powhatan Indians.  In other words, as foreigners they were originally sized up as pawns in the political and imperial battles of the indigenous populations.  How do these articles challenge traditional modern-day assumptions about the “founding” of America?