The Big News of March 1863: African-Americans fight for the Union

Harper’s Weekly was the most widely read magazine of the Civil War. It both shaped and reflected public opinion, as can be seen by the editorial “double-dealing” in the paper's treatment of African-American soldiers. Some entrenched racial stereotypes are indulged, such as the description of blacks as “docile” or their portrayal as animal-like (“Negroes as Soldiers” column), while simultaneously the same stereotypes are exposed as false: such as in the descriptions and illustrations of black soldiers’ conduct in combat (the cover and double-page image, and the “Negroes as Soldiers” column), or when the picture of a neat, dignified-looking African-American soldier (“Union Jim”/”Jim Williams”) is shown on the same page as a scraggly, duty-shirking, con-artist white soldier. (“A Straggler”).

The articles and illustrations shown here all appeared in issues of Harper’s Weekly from March 1863 (held in the Littlejohn Collection), when, after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863, the Union was just beginning to (legally) field and pay African-American combat units — though the American "Colored Troops" were paid three dollars less per month.

The cover of Harper's Weekly, 14 March 1863 

 David Oyelowo portrays a Union corporal in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012)

"Negroes as soldiers," Harper's Weekly, 14 March 1863

Calvin Candie, a plantation owner portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), lectures his guests on phrenology, a pseudoscience disingenuously used by white supremacists of the time to “prove” the inferiority of sundry non-white peoples.

African-American troops depicted in combat, Harper's Weekly, 14 March 1863
Part of a page from Harper's Weekly 28 March 1863 in which "Union Jim" and "A Straggler" are portrayed

(This is a web exhibit reflecting historical materials from the Littlejohn Collection on display in the lobby of the Sandor Teszler Library until 29 March 2013.)