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Visual Culture, African Americans, and the Civil War

Sketches and political cartoons were powerful sources of information during the Civil War. With the ability to give magazine readers a visual of the War waged both on and off the battle field, images were a popular way to disseminate information. When combined with an increased use of photography, the Civil War was recorded like no other war before.  These images, however, were not unbiased. Instead, they illustrated their creator’s view on subjects ranging from President Lincoln to enslaved persons.

This lesson uses a group of images to demonstrate how variables other than geographic location influenced people and the images they produced. After analyzing the provided images and applying their knowledge of the time period, students will better understand and be able to discuss the complexity of racist views and opinions surrounding African Americans.


19th century


African American

Civil War


Big Ideas

Historical Context

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.

  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context, as well as an awareness of point of view.


  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

  • Contrast multiple perspectives of individuals and groups in interpreting other times, cultures and place.

Background Material for Teacher

The first photograph, the daguerreotype, was unveiled by Louis-Jacque-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. Quickly becoming popular in the United States, the daguerreotype allowed ordinary people, who had been unable to have their portraits painted, to have a likeness of themselves. Further innovation in photography made the daguerreotype obsolete by the late 1850s. With the start of the Civil War, Matthew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner were able to capture images of the war by sending their own photographers into the field. Because of the delicate and technical process of photography, these images were limited to those of camp life and the aftermath. Portraiture in photography continued to be popular as seen by the number of pictures of soldiers and families from during the war. However, photography was not the only means to capture an image during the war.

Images printed in weekly magazines were a popular and effective source for distributing images of the fighting, both on the battleground and in politics, during the Civil War. Sir John Tenniel’s cartoons printed in London’s conservative magazine Punch first popularized the use of prints in 1841. American magazines adopted the printing of drawings as a way to record action, which the photography of the time could not do because of long exposure times. The print production process also made images of battle available to the public in about a week, a fraction of the time paintings took to complete.  After being drawn in the field, images were turned into woodcuts or lithographs to be used to print the images in magazines or to be sold individually.

The major Northern magazines Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and the New York Illustrated News had a circulation of about 250,000 among themselves. Southern illustrated magazines included Southern Illustrated News, Bugle Horn of Liberty, Confederate War Etchings, and Southern Punch. The War greatly affected the already limited publishing capabilities of Southern magazines as blockades restricted ink and paper supplies. Higher circulation of Northern magazines and scarcity of resources led to pro-Union images being more widespread. This distribution did not mean that pro-abolition or anti-slavery images were always popular. Leading up to and at the beginning of the War, magazines with both Union and Confederate distribution chose not to produce images that showed slavery for fear of alienating subscribers.  In cases when slavery was drawn, magazines would receive angry letters in response and sometimes their employees were harassed. For example, after printing an image of an auction of enslaved persons in April 1861, a Harper’s Weekly artist was attacked in Memphis for his work.

When Northern and Southern magazine did create images of African Americans, they usually reinforced stereotypes of the times. African Americans were depicted as gorillas and buffoons to underline the popular sentiment that enslaved persons were incapable and therefore needed paternalistic slavery. African American slaves and soldiers were shown as lazy and passive, leaving the fighting and dying to white soldiers.

As Northern sentiments hardened against the South, the images of African Americans also changed. Following Bull Run and the Emancipation Proclamation, magazines printed more images that highlighted the cruelty of slaveholders and white southerners now fleeing freed African Americans in fear. While these images placed African Americans in a sympathetic light, the images were primarily anti-slaveholder rather than pro-African American. The depiction of African Americans improved with support and introduction of African Americans in the military. Weeklies started drawing the black troops winning or in sympathetic situations. However, these images were still grounded in stereotypes created by white artists and magazine editors, which were chosen to promote an agenda.

End of Unit Assessment

Have students choose two of the images that they did not analyze during class to compare and contrast in an essay about the depiction of African Americans. Students should:

  • Cite specific evidence to support their analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

  • Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.

  • Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

  • Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

  • Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.


Plans in this Unit

Visual Culture and African Americans in the Civil War

Grade Level

Middle School

Standards/Eligible Content



PA Core Standards:

CC.8.5.6-8.A. CC.8.5.6-8.B  CC.8.5.6-8.C.  CC.8.5.6-8.F   CC.8.5.6-8.G.  CC.8.5.6-8.H.  CC.8.6.6-8.A

About the Author

This lesson was created by Hilary Naiberk, Education Intern, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Unit Plan

Civil Liberties and the Civil War in Pennsylvania

Unit Plan

The Immediate Effects of the Emancipation Proclamation

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