Visual Culture and African Americans in the Civil War

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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.

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