Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Waud Sketches Contraband Women

When Civil War photographs are difficult to find on certain subjects, I often turn to sketches. Artists such as Edwin Forbes and Alfred Waud were on the scene at many of the conflict's most important events, and luckily, they captured many scenes of everyday life, too.

In this sketch by Waud, titled "Skedaddlers Hall, Harrisons Landing," a sutler's store of New York's Excelsior Brigade on July 3, 1862, is depicted. This was two days after the Battle of Malvern Hill. Lee's bloody Confederate assaults against Union artillery helped encourage McClellan to retreat to his base of operations on the James River near the boyhood home of former U.S. president William Henry Harrison.

Among all the many individuals in the sketch are three African American women. It is unclear what their role is with this group of soldiers, but perhaps some clues are provided in the image. One of the women sits on a large wooden tub. There appears to be clothing in the tub. Were these women possibly laundresses? It was a common enough occupation for runaway slave women who came into Union lines, and seems the most likely explanation.

A close-up gives us a better view, but little better idea of what is truly in the tub or what the women are indeed doing here. All three wear head wraps. Two wear short sleeve dresses, which of course, would meet the demands of weather on a July 3rd day as well as the job of washer women.

Only one of the womens' faces is clearly visible. She provides a left profile and shows her hair tucked under her head wrap and an earring dangling from her left ear. Her face provides little idea as to her mood or what she thinks of the situation she found herself in.

One has to wonder what her life was like in slavery? What did she do to make her way to the Union army? What was her primary job as a slave? What did she get paid while working for the Yankees? Did she live through the war? If so, what did she do when the war war over? Was she married? Did she have children at this point? Who are her descendants? If so, would she be proud of what they have accomplished?

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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