The Visible Confederacy

By Dr. Ross A. Brooks

My older brother brought the American Civil War into my outer suburban Melbourne world. It came in the form of “The How and Why Wonder Book of the Civil War.” I was perhaps eight and he returned home with it as spoils from a trip to the city with my grandmother. It was new, it was attractive, and I took every opportunity to sneak glimpses. Its fifty pages of text and pictures of exotically uniformed battling soldiers became imagination fodder and started a lifetime interest in this era of history.

Other interests developed parallel to what my family saw as an obsession with the Civil War. The challenges and rare delights of Art and Design also hooked me. This not only carried me into a career as an educator in this field, but also sharpened my awareness about visual things and the Civil War. I became aware of the disparity between the North and South in this area. Nearly every image published in books came from a Northern producer. My books told a similar tale when it came to soldier’s dress. While the Union fielded uniformed armies, Confederate soldiers wore whatever they could get. The rarity of Confederate visuals made me value any reference to an artwork, uniform or other artefact I found. It also led me to search out descriptions or examples of them. Through these I learnt about the people who made them and the context in which they were produced.

My reading and research not only led me to unpublished material but also broadened my understanding of the Confederacy and deepened my curiosity. I became aware that historians used things like soldier dress or visual matter in building their narratives. Confederate apologists wove the shortage of both into the story of a people struggling against the odds. By contrast, others discerned a lack of national will in the South’s inability to sustain or create a unique Confederate visual presence. The information I collected provided a way of exploring and evaluating ideas like these. It also revealed patterns of thought that aligned and intersected with written history and a range of actors in the Confederate story. And, eventually, led me to work on the project that became my book The Visible Confederacy.

The Visible Confederacy explores the ideas present in the Civil War South through images and objects produced within the borders of the Confederate States of America for public consumption: theatrical productions, printed pictorial material, military equipage, manufactured goods, exhibited fine artworks, and the imagery used by the government. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the producers who made these works seasoned them for Confederate audiences, fashioning depictions of slavery, race, gender, their enemies, themselves and the impact of the war in which they found themselves. Using the methods of studying visual and material culture these artefacts provide another lens for examining Confederate ideology.

Many of these ideas are present in one Confederate engraving that didn’t make it into The Visible Confederacy. Produced by Englishman Alfred Maurice, the illustration “A Romantic Introduction” appeared in The Southern Field and Fireside’s serialization of Susan Petigru King’s Gerald Gray’s Wife. Published September 12, 1863, the scene illustrated the point in the tale soon after the heroine, ‘Ruth Desborough,’ meets ‘Gerald Gray.’ As he moves to greet her, he hands his gun to one of his “servants.” Though at first glance the image and the text seem innocuous, it carried deeper meanings. Alongside messages about gender relations, Maurice used the pseudo-science of physiognomy to convey messages about each figure’s personality. The Southern Field and Fireside’s decision to include pictures when for its five year’s existence they hadn’t, reflected the growth in the number of domestically produced pictorials in the Civil War South.[1]

While many characteristics of this engraving are shared by other Confederate images, Maurice’s depiction of an armed slave is unique. Its rarity reflected the relationship between black people and firearms in the South. In his study of gun laws and black people in pre-war North Carolina, Antwain Hunter describes weapons as carrying great “racially charged social and cultural weight.”[2] And, indeed as John Hope Franklin pointed out, deadly weapons formed an essential part of slaveholder’s “machinery of control.”[3] In this context, law makers placed restrictions on free or enslaved black use and ownership of firearms. Enslaved people, like the man represented in Maurice’s picture, could only carry guns if allowed to by an owner or overseer. The Civil War overturned this situation. The picture of black subservient ‘loyalty’ offered shallow comfort to the Confederates readers of the September 12, 1863, issue of The Southern Field and Fireside. At that time thousands of armed black troops served in the Union Army and worked to defeat their nation. Moreover, the casual and familiar way in which the black man handles the weapon would have done little to ease Southern white’s ever-present fears of slave uprising. Indeed, the overall problematic nature of this subject matter probably lay behind the lack of other examples of images of armed slaves by Confederate artists.

Regardless of his lack of skill or touch as an artist, Maurice continued his work with The Southern Field and Fireside until other factors curtailed his employment. His tale, and others, are also part of the story told in The Visible Confederacy. My tale is continuing. Finishing the manuscript did little to cure my addiction to researching and reading about Confederate history. In fact, as my writing filled gaps, stories, and answered questions, it revealed others: the descriptions of prints and paintings that make we want to find extant examples; incomplete photographic series of Confederate soldiers in camps; or things like the machinations behind the production of Confederate currency. And then there is the cross-pollination that comes from the ever-unfolding scholarship by others equally obsessed by this period of history. Never a dull moment.

 


Ross A. Brooks is a research associate at La Trobe University and head of visual arts at a leading independent school in Melbourne, Australia.

[1] The Southern Field and Fireside, September 12, 1863.

[2] Antwain K. Hunter, “‘In the Exercise of a Sound Discretion, Who, of This Class of Persons, Shall Have a Right to the License’: Family, Race, and Firearms in Antebellum North Carolina,” Journal of Family History, 44 No. 4 (2019), 393.

[3] John Hope Franklin, The Militant South, 1800-1861 (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), 69-70.