The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph

Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr., Retouching History, March 2007

Introduction

“In the past decade,” the Yale historian David Blight has recently written, “the neo-Confederate fringe of Civil War enthusiasm .&nsbp;. . has contended that thousands of African Americans, slave and free, willingly joined the Confederate war effort as soldiers and fought for their ‘homeland’. . . . Slaves’ fidelity to their masters’ cause—a falsehood constructed to support claims that the war was not about slavery—has long formed one of the staple arguments in Lost Cause ideology.” [2]

In this paper we discuss a graphic example of Blight’s contention by examining a Civil War-era posed studio photograph of black Union soldiers with a white officer. We maintain that this photograph has been deliberately falsified in recent years by an unknown person/s sympathetic to the Confederacy. This falsified or fabricated photo, purporting to be of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards (Confederate), has been taken to promote Neo-Confederate views, to accuse Union propagandists of duplicity, and to show that black soldiers were involved in the armed defense of the Confederacy. As of the date of this website this photograph is being sold on the web by an on-line retailer, www.rebelstore.com, which promotes itself as “The Internet’s Original Rebel Store,” and advertises this photograph as a legitimate photo of “Members of the first all Black Confederate Unit organized in New Orleans in 1861.” [3]

The Photograph

In a photographic studio somewhere in Philadelphia, probably in early 1864, a group of black Union soldiers posed for a rather somber photograph with a white officer. We know nothing of this group, but it may have formed part of a unit that had been recently formed in the union army [4]. In his preliminary emancipation proclamation of September 1862, President Lincoln announced that the federal government would enroll African-American soldiers as of New Year’s Day 1863. By June of that year, a committee of prominent Philadelphians had been appointed to raise black regiments. By the war’s end the federal government had raised 166 black units of infantry, cavalry and artillery totaling 185,000 combatants. Eleven of these units had been formed at Camp William Penn, “the largest camp existing for the organization and disciplining of Colored Troops,” located in Chelten Hills (now Cheltenham Township, just outside the northern city limit of Philadelphia). The white officers commanding the troops were trained under the auspices of the Free Military School for the Command of Colored Troops established in Philadelphia in 1863. [5]

The black and white studio photograph (Figure 1) was greatly embellished and used to create a colored lithograph that served as a recruitment poster to entice black men to join the Federal army. On the poster (Figure 2), the union officer’s uniform is dark blue, that of the soldiers is very light blue (bordering on grey), but their caps/kepis are dark blue and the bugles on the caps are clearly visible. Other embellishments and additions by the engraver to the original black and white photograph include the tent on the left, the federal flag, the mountainous background, the tree on the right, and the drummer boy. Published by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments and engraved by P.S. Duval & Son in Philadelphia, no publication date is given on the poster, but it was probably done in early 1864 (see note 4). The poster caption reads “United States Soldiers at Camp ‘William Penn” Philadelphia” with a sub-caption reading, “Rally Round the Flag, boys! Rally once again, Shouting the battle cry of FREEDOM” (Figure 2). [6]

Although the recruitment poster seems to have been relatively well-known to bibliographers of Americana as well as Civil War historians and others interested in the Civil War, the original photo from which the poster was derived was apparently fairly obscure. However, in its July 1973 issue, the widely read Civil War Times Illustrated published a copy of the original photograph which had been submitted to the magazine by James Spina, an antiques dealer who had purchased it years before. [7] The photo published in Civil War Times Illustrated was a slightly cropped version of the original (for example, absent are the handwritten numbers of “1895 x 1895” which were scratched into the photographer’s original negative and appear in reverse in the upper right hand corner; also deleted is a small portion on the right wall, as well as part of the ceiling shown in the original photograph), but was substantially the same photo as the original (compare Figure 1 and Figure 3). The photograph published in the Civil War Times Illustrated was re-published in 1982 in the well-respected and accessible The Embattled Confederacy, the third volume in a monumental photographic history of the Civil War. [8]

Retouching History

Sometime after its publication in either the Civil War Times Illustrated or The Embattled Confederacy, the photograph was scanned and digitally manipulated (we have not been able to establish which of the two publications was the source for this manipulation), to produce the photograph shown in Figure 4 with the caption “1st Louisiana Native Guard, 1861” that is being sold by www.rebelstore.com.

The actual 1st Louisiana Native Guards, [9] consisting of Afro-Creoles, was formed of about 1,500 men in April 1861 and was formally accepted as part of the Louisiana militia in May 1862. The Native Guards unit (one of three all-black companies) never saw combat while in Confederate service, and was largely kept at arm’s length by city and state officials; in fact, it often lacked proper uniforms and equipment. “The Confederate authorities,” James Hollandsworth has written, “never intended to use black troops for any mission of real importance. If the Native Guards were good for anything, it was for public display; free blacks fighting for Southern rights made good copy for the newspapers.” The unit apparently was never committed to the Confederate cause, and appears to have disobeyed orders to evacuate New Orleans with other Confederate forces; instead it surrendered to Union troops in April 1862. [10]

Circumstantial evidence alone raises the suspicion that the Louisiana Native Guards photo purchased from www.rebelstore.com (Figure 4) is a fabrication. Given the enormous number of publications and known photographs of Civil War soldiers, it is more than slightly curious that a photograph as striking as one showing armed black soldiers in the Confederate Army has apparently not surfaced in these publications, in the many books and websites devoted to Civil War imagery, or even in the enormous Civil War collections of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. [11] Moreover, several historians and specialists on the Civil War we consulted could not recall having seen this specific photograph of “1st Louisiana Native Guard 1861” in any publication while, at the same time, it is known that photographs such as the one shown in Figure 1 were used to make recruitment posters for the Union army. [12] Finally, even though we recognize that forgotten documents and photographs may yet await discovery and be brought to light, as far as we are aware every identified published photograph of the Louisiana Native Guards, its officers or enlisted men, depicts them in Union uniforms. It is also noteworthy that the four major published studies of the Louisiana Native Guards during the last forty years do not include a “1st Louisiana Native Guard 1861” photograph nor is there any mention of any members of the regiment as ever having posed for a group studio photograph while in Confederate service. [13] Nor are there any Confederate broadsides, songs, poetry, recruitment posters or similar material indicative of Afro-Confederate troop recruitment during 1861-64 similar to the Union’s well-publicized, documented efforts during the same period.

Image Analysis

Although we believe the circumstantial evidence is very strong, the case for falsification rests most solidly on a detailed comparison of photographs shown in Figures 3 and 4. A careful examination of these two photographs reveals that the alleged Louisiana Native Guards photo (Figure 4) is a rather amateurish digital manipulation, most probably, as discussed above, of the photo published in either the Civil War Times Illustrated or The Embattled Confederacy volume (Figure 3). In either case, using Adobe Photoshop or a similar application, the image in Figure 3 was cropped (the most obvious deletions, clearly visible to the naked eye, are the white officer and his sword along with the soldier standing immediately adjacent to him; and the door frame and part of the soldier on the right). An examination of the foreground and background in Figure 4 reveals that the patterned floor and wall coverings visible in Figure 1 have been digitally erased or painted over. A Union belt buckle (with the block letters “US”), is faintly visible on the sixth black soldier from the left in Figure 1; however, because Figure 4 is a lower resolution derivative, the belt buckle on the same soldier (now the fifth from the left) is obscured. (It stretches credulity to suppose that Confederate soldiers would be photographed wearing belt buckles of the Federal Army!)

By itself, the text superimposed on the “1st Louisiana Native Guard” image (Figure 4) offers clear evidence of falsification. A sampling of a wide range of Civil War photographs has yielded none that contain superimposed text. On close examination, the text (letters) in Figure 4 is much sharper and clearer than the underlying image and does not exhibit the same quality loss as the photograph itself because it has not undergone successive analog and digital reproduction. What is most telling, however, is that the text, which gives the impression of being a nineteenth-century style font, is, in fact, a modern font face named “Algerian”. The Algerian font, which has no lower case letters, has come bundled with multiple versions of Microsoft Word, including Word 95, Word 6.0, and Word 7.0. The font vendor Elsner+Flake sells a version of the font, EF Algerian, available for online purchase. [14] It should be stressed that once a font is installed, it is accessible by every application on the computer, including image manipulation software. Perhaps the most damning evidence with respect to the text is shown in the “1st Louisiana Native Guard” thumbnail on the www.rebelstore.com website (Figure 5). Although the low-resolution text is not quite legible, the font face clearly contains both uppercase and lowercase letters. The Algerian font used in the photo purchased from rebelstore.com (Figure 4) is composed solely of uppercase letters. The lettering in the thumbnail image is another font style. This inconsistency suggests that the image has been manipulated at least twice, at least once while in the possession of www.rebelstore.com.

Interestingly, the handwritten numbers of “1895 x 1895” which, as noted earlier, appear in reverse in the upper right-hand corner of Figure 1 had been cropped from each of the subsequent generation images published in Civil War Times Illustrated and The Embattled Confederacy. The absence of these numbers in the image sold by www.rebelstore.com also suggests that its image was derived from either The Embattled Confederacy or from Civil War Times Illustrated. These numbers, which may have been some kind of catalog reference by the photographer, were hand-scratched on the emulsion side of the original glass plate negative; considerable search has failed to locate this original plate.

Conclusion

In sum, the evidence available to us makes it abundantly clear that the Union recruitment poster shown in Figure 2 was in fact based on a legitimate photograph, and that the photo labeled “1st Louisiana Native Guard 1861” that is being sold by www.rebelstore.com as a 19th century photograph is, in fact, a falsification. We cannot determine when this falsification occurred, but it was done within the last decade or so—judging from the presence of artifacts yielded by digital manipulation and the superimposition of a modern font face.

The specific motives of the fabricator/s of the Louisiana Native Guard photo can only be conjectured, but the manipulation of photographic imagery for ideological/political purposes is a well-established practice. As the editors of Civil War Times Illustrated wrote in their August 2004 issue (p. 80): “It is tempting to think of photographs as evidence, documents of what reality was like in some specific time and place. But from the earliest days of camera craft, photographers have been much more than mere recorders. At times, they can be outright masters of illusion.” The editors are discussing a more innocent Civil War photograph of a junior Union officer in field dress. He is posing in a studio in front of a false backdrop to create the impression that the photograph was taken outdoors against a rustic wooden fence. It is commonplace to observe that pictures “do not speak for themselves.” [15] The photographs of the Louisiana Native Guards offer an interesting illustration of that adage and show how a legitimate photograph can be altered and used to advance and support a particular contemporary political or ideological perspective in the present-day United States.

Notes

[Editor’s Note: Readers are encouraged to visit the original article to examine the various stages the photograph went through and to read the Notes. Click the “Read more” link.]

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