Sunday, February 12, 2017
Volck's "Slaves Concealing their Master" and the Faithful Slave Myth
Adelbert Volck's images continue to intrigue me. His pro-Confederate etchings serve to show us a perspective that was not merely his or Southerners' after thoughts, but one that was wholeheartedly believed by those who held that particular world view. Those who looked to take the slave states out of the Union made no bones about why in their political speeches and writings, and Volck did the same through his drawings.
Volck's image above, "Slaves Concealing their Masters," is a good example of this world view. In it a master hides behind a door to either one of his slaves' dwellings or perhaps more likely the plantation kitchen. The owner holds a pistol, the only portion of him that is visible is the toe of his right shoe under the door. He listens intently standing beside what seems to be a bedstead on the right edge of the image as the Union horsemen outside apparently interrogate a slave woman who points them off. She holds a spoon and wears a head-wrap, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows. The Union cavalrymen outside the building sport long mustaches, which make me think they are to be depicted as foreign, perhaps German immigrant soldiers; another popular and exploited portrayal from Confederate observers.
The dwelling is drawn by Volck as neat and accommodating. It has wood floors, glazed windows (with a roll shade!), a large fireplace with a crane, and simple but ample furniture. A small bag, perhaps for seasoning, hangs by the fireplace and a shelf mantle supports a book of some kind and a candle and candlestick. A picture of a rider on a horse, and perhaps a mirror, adorn the wall by the window. Some type of food, maybe rolls, rest on the table as an enslaved child, who looks unsure of the whole situation pulls close to a male figure cooking at the fireplace. A chair has turned over in the tumult and a dog sniffs at the door. Does the dog belong to the slaves, the owner, or the cavalrymen?
Volck seems to purposely portray the living conditions of the slaves in a positive manner. While it is true that kitchen quarters were normally of better construction and better supplied than field quarters, Volck likely chose that location deliberately. Similarly, by choosing what appears to be domestic slaves, he could accurately depict them well clad. This image of the traditional "faithful" slave served to reinforce the paternalistic image of provider that white slave owners wished to display to both friends and enemies, and it was an image that held on tenaciously in myth long after the Civil War ended.
Volck's image speaks to me. It says that slaves' faithfulness is a reciprocation of the owner's benevolence. In reality, it was often the domestic slaves, who worked long days, with little time off and always under the micromanagement of their owners, who left their situations when the opportunity presented itself. When house slaves fled to Union lines, it surprised owners. Masters and mistresses felt betrayed. They could not understand why slaves who often received better living conditions, clothes, and food, would desert them. Owners did not try to, or could not, see the situation from the slaves' perspective, and thus ended up extremely disappointed.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.