Visual Culture and African Americans in 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 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.

Essential Questions

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


Students will be able to:

  • Understand discuss how views and opinions about African Americans and abolition were more complicated than that Southerners were racist slave owners and Northerners were abolitionists through comparison and analysis of images of African Americans created during the Civil War. 
  • Analyze how time, events, and biases affect the depictions of African Americans by comparing the provided images.

Other Materials

Suggested Instructional Procedures

After reviewing the primary sources and the lives of African Americans around the time of the Civil War, use the provided background information to discuss the changing role of African Americans in the military.

1.  Break students into small groups, each with one image. By answering the questions on the “Looking at Images” worksheet section , students can record their findings.

2. While sitting in their groups, discuss what students recorded. Discussion should be primarily about what the students can actually see, not interpretations.

3. With the background information sheets for each corresponding image, and the “Analyzing Images” questions , students can study their image more closely.

4. As a class, discuss responses to the “Analyzing Images” section and :

  • What do you think is happening in the image?
  • Why do think this?

5. Then, using the “Interpreting Images” section , students will look at the larger meaning of the images.

6. End the lesson with a class discussion about their “Interpreting Images” responses.

  • Could one kind of image be more objective than other? For example, a photograph compared to a print?
  • Does answering these questions and looking at these images reinforce what you already know about the Civil War, slavery, African Americans at that time, the North vs. the South, and racism, or does this complicate what you think? If so, how and why?


  • Print: A copy of an image, often made by applying ink to a design and pressing paper against it.
  • Lithograph: A print made by putting ink on a flat surface with a raised design, to which ink sticks to create a design. Limestone and ink stuck to wax crayon were commonly used to make lithographs during the Civil War.
  • Etching: A picture made by putting ink on an engraved piece of metal and pressing paper against it.
  • Woodcut: A print made using a piece of wood, into which a design is carved. 
  • Photograph: A picture made by light being projected into a lens onto light sensitive material.
  • Tintype: A photograph made on a piece of metal.  
  • Daguerreotype:  A photograph on a piece of silver made by exposing it to mercury vapor. This process took about a minute around the time of the Civil War.
  • Negative: A piece of film or metal that has been developed and shows an image.
  • Garrison troops: Troops assigned to a military location, such as a fort.
  • Columbia: The female personification of the United States.

Related Resources for Students

When fighting began, African American soldiers were amongst the first Americans who created volunteer regiments. Despite their dedication to serving the Union, these regiments were turned away from the army because of the high number of white volunteers and prejudice against African Americans. Before the Civil War, African Americans had never fought in the regular army and had been banned from militias. These policies would change with the Emancipation Proclamation and the dwindling number of white volunteers. Lincoln’s historic speech, announcing the Proclamation in January 1863, paved the way for an expanded role of African Americans in the military by making the war about slavery and therefore justifying the inclusion of African Americans in the military. With the draft beginning in March 1863 and the creation of a Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit African Americans, a previously untapped source of man power became available. Opening enlistment allowed the Union to help African Americans gain respect, rights, and the opportunity to fight for the freedom of enslaved persons.

Though they were allowed to join the Union military, African Americans were still treated as inferior to white men. Regiments were separated by race and black regiments were led by white officers.  African Americans were expected to pay for their uniforms with their ten dollar a month salary, while white soldiers were given a uniform allowance in addition to their thirteen dollars a month pay. Even though they were enlisted, African Americans primarily worked as garrison troops, therefore exposing them to unhygienic working conditions and a higher disease mortality rate. Being delegated to menial work also prevented black men from proving themselves through combat. African American troops were not treated as equal to their white counterparts when captured by the Confederate army. Instead of treating them as prisoners of war, Confederate soldiers sometimes sold African American soldiers into slavery or killed them. 

By the end of the war, 200,000 African Americans served in the military, three-quarters of whom had been previously enslaved. Fewer than one hundred of these men were officers. The sacrifice of Africa American soldiers, such as the valiant fight of the 54th Regiment in 1863 at Fort Wagner, helped the Union win the war and advance the status of African Americans.