Winter Blog 2: The Civil War and Torture


Weekly Contribution Box. 1840.

This image could work for the Essay Three prompt because it depicts the slaves as they were stereotyped by northerners, helpless, begging for assistance. However, it places the slave above his shackles, suggesting that the slave is better than his chains, despite them weighing him down.


Sergeant Henry F. Steward. 1863. Hand-colored ambrotype.

This image could be used for the image analysis in Essay Three because it depicts the African American in a much different position from many other images. This man is well dressed, and distinguished, as he stands up tall. It also implies that he is in a position that allows for his picture to be taken. However, his hat is tilted and there is a wheel under the column that is visible, perhaps telling that this photograph was not planned out as well as another might have been.


A Man Knows A Man. 1865. Wood engraving.

This image could be useful for Essay Three because on the surface it suggests that the two men can relate to each other because they both know the hardship of war, and even that they may even equal on some sort of level. However, their uniforms show their great difference in rank; the white man is a captain, while the black man is most likely a private.


Dark Artillery, or How to Make the Contrabands Useful. 1861. Wood Engraving.

This could be a useful image for the essay because it blatantly shows the degrading view of African Americans, that were only useful as “resources” and weapons for war in the opinion of this picture. The strange, almost scary facial expressions of the African Americans, as well as the exaggeration of other physical characteristics such as their feet and legs suggests their inhuman, animalistic qualities. This idea is also exaggerated by the posture and stance of the middle African American who seems to be jumping up like a child rather than standing tall like the soldiers.


The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment: On the Rebel Works at Fort Wagner, Morris Island near Charleston, July 18th 1863, and death of Colonel Robt. G Shaw. 1863.

This image is a possibility for the essay because the black soldiers in this image almost look animalistic and crazed, suggesting that they are inhuman or uncivilized, one soldier in the middle of the image even seems to be jumping into the crowd of enemies in the background. However, their faces may also be explained by the fact that the black men were very new to fighting, and may not have known how to react to this new situation.

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Untitled Watercolor painted by Henry Louis Stephens. 1863.

This image is another possibility for the essay because a black man is reading a newspaper called Presidential Proclamation, suggesting he is reading about the Emancipation Proclamation based on the year it was made. The background looks as though a fire is overtaking the room, suggesting the proclamation will cause great chaos and destruction of former institutions. This image implies the emancipation of slaves was a horrible decision, suggesting they should continue to be oppressed.

For my essay, I will be comparing the first and second images.

Torture and what defines torture has been a long disputed concept, not only for the United States, but for the entire world. In many cases, it refers to severe pain or suffering imposed upon someone as a means toward some end. However, this definition is very vague. Where do we draw the line between great discomfort, and pure agony in a person? Does torture only refer to physical pain, or can it refer to the mental degradation and scarring that may result from the imposed treatment?


Dark Artillery, or How to Make the Contrabands Useful. 1861. Wood Engraving.


Untitled Photograph of Nazi War Prisoner subjected to Altitude Experimentation. 1942.

The two images above represent disquieting periods of history when great prejudice and discrimination occurred. The image from Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper is a sketch, probably turned into a wood engraving for circulation, of contrabands being used along the front line of battle as cannons. The racist image not only subjects the African Americans to menial labor, but also turns them into things, a cannon to aid battle, rather than soldiers or even humans for that matter. The physical features of the contrabands are more similar to those of apes than those of human being. Their face is distorted with crazed eyes, a large mouth and protruding lips, making their profile look similar to a monkey’s. The length of their feet is exaggerated, along with the size of their butt and their protruding stomach. The image turns African Americans into animals that can be used as instruments of war. This image is obviously not a literal representation of African Americans, but it does suggest their low status in society, and the demeaning forms of work they were subjected to.

The second image represents a different medium, a photograph of a prisoner being used for high altitude experimentation during the Holocaust of World War II. Unlike the satirical image of contrabands, this photographs is a literal representation of the forms of inhumane activity occurring during the war. The man pictured lost consciousness and later died during a Nazi experiment to determine the effects of high altitude on humans similar to the conditions of pilot may experience. His body subjected extreme condition hangs from a pipe over him. His face relaxed in death contrasts his body position, which is stiff and unnatural. His arms are held at his side almost as if he had been attempting to escape his harness. The event depicted is torture by the UN definition of torture because a Nazi, a public official, inflicted severe physical pain that led to death as a result of discrimination (UN Convention Against Torture).

While both images represent forms of racial prejudice, their similarities do not seem to connect them on the topic of torture. However, the comparison of the Holocaust test subject and the African Americans allows for an association between the discrimination of African Americans and torture. Both images turn their subjects into “things.” The contrabands are turned into weapons and the dead man is turned into a test subject, like a lab rat. For the Holocaust victim, this transformation from a human being to a thing led him to be inflicted with severe physical pain, resulting in his treatment being defined as torture. For the African American victims, the jump to torturous treatment is less obvious. In the years before the Civil War, African Americans had been subjected to slavery, and treated as animals or lower beings. This treatment resulted extreme mental suffering especially for educated slaves such as Frederick Douglass. Douglass understood the wrongs of slavery and his natural rights at a young age. For him, this knowledge caused great suffering because he understood that he did not deserve to be a slave but could do nothing about it. His treatment would be defined as torture because he was inflicted severe mental suffering as a result of discrimination. While it may seem the suffering of African Americans was not severe, or at least not severe enough to be considered torture, one must consider the implications of slavery and discrimination. Slavery and discrimination conditioned African Americans to believe in the implications of slavery. In his narrative, Douglass refers to a good overseer as one who only punishes the slaves when they deserve it, implying that there are moments when slaves deserved punishment, when in reality, the entire institution is wrong (Douglass 56). This sort of conditioning numbed their suffering because they believed they deserved the treatment they received.

The definition of torture is vague, but for good reason. While it makes it hard to distinguish between torture and valid forms of punishment or interrogation, it also accounts for the wide range of activities that result in unwarranted pain and suffering in their victims.

Works Cited

A Man Knows a Man. 1865. Wood engraving. HarpWeek. Web. 18 January 2016.

Dark Artillery, or How to Make the Contrabands Useful. 1861. Wood engraving. Library of Congress, Washington D.C. The Library of Congress. Web. 18 January 2016.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: Penguin, 1982. Print.

The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment: On the Rebel Works at Fort Wagner, Morris Island near Charleston, July 18th 1863, and death of Colonel Robt. G. Shaw. 1863. Hand-colored lithograph. The John A. McAllister Collection.Web. 18 January 2016.

Nazi Medical Experiment. 1942. Photograph. National Archives and Records Administration, Maryland. Holocaust Encyclopedia. Web. 30 January 2016.

Sergeant Henry F. Steward. 1863. Hand-colored ambrotype. Massachusetts Historical Society. Web. 16 January 2016.

Stephens, Henry Louis. 1863. Watercolor. National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 18 January 2016.

Weekly Contribution Box. 1840. Boston Public Library. Web. 16 January 2016.


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