- Emancipation’s EncountersThe Meaning of Freedom from the Pages of Civil War Sketchbooks
As surgeon’s steward Harry Simmons sailed aboard the USS Sophronia from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to Vicksburg, Mississippi, he recorded his impressions for his wife, Elizabeth, who awaited news back home in New York City. His diary entries chronicled “life on the sea, his duties on the ship, various locales in Florida and Mississippi, and several naval engagements.”1 Simmons was a faithful diarist. But even more so, he was a dedicated sketch artist. Over the course of his six-month tour of duty, Simmons created 117 pencil and watercolor sketches that elaborated on his written observations and then went further. A participant in the fall of New Orleans and the assault on Vicksburg in 1862, Simmons predictably gives us images of ships and battlements, soldiers and sailors. His interest went beyond the drama of being at sea and at war, however; his sketchbook includes portraits of African American slaves and former slaves whom he encountered on his way up and down the Mississippi River.2
Simmons’s two accounts—that in his diary and that in his sketches—are not identical. While his prose focused on the novelty and challenge of work aboard a Union naval vessel, his images demonstrate how he was also a witness to the early months of slavery’s demise. African American characters appear, indeed they come to life, on the pages of Simmons’s sketchbook. At work and at leisure, in formal roles and as what many termed “contraband of war,” the black figures in Simmons’s scenes reflect the dynamics and dilemmas the war introduced, both for former slaves and Union military men. One part observation, another part imagination, and always laced with interpretation, Simmons’s sketches contemplate aloud that about which his diary remained silent: As the war facilitated slavery’s undoing, who were African Americans, and who might they be in a post-slavery society?
Simmons’s watercolor Sunday Afternoon reflects the complex juxtaposition of ideas that characterized soldiers’ sketches. Simmons depicts two African American figures in a moment of leisure. They make their way [End Page 533] along the Mississippi, engaged in courtship (figure 1). The gentleman is respectably attired, with a brimmed hat and collared shirt, as is the woman, with a print dress and parasol. The scene comports with middle-class gender norms—she sits passively, shading herself from the sun, while he is in motion, mid-stroke, propelling the two through an afternoon’s pleasure. Sketched somewhere between New Orleans and Vicksburg as the Sophronia travelled upriver, the scene is somewhat curious for its rendering of a bucolic moment amid the upheavals of war, indeed in the very shadow of the Sophronia. But perhaps that is Simmons’s insight for us. For African Americans, life along the Mississippi had not been so wrenched that an afternoon of polite courtship was impossible. A closer look at the image leads us to wonder if Simmons also was not having a bit of fun at the expense of the lovers. Had the surgeon’s steward drawn the oarsman’s smile a little too broad, especially as he confronted evidence of the war in the passing USS Sophronia? Wasn’t his companion a bit too elaborately attired, given the modest character of the bare wood rowboat in which she rides? Perhaps Simmons was telling a story about the resilience and respectability of former slaves, a view sympathetic to the possibilities of emancipation. Or perhaps he was drawing into question the prospect of freedom. Were black southerners too naïve to appreciate the gravity of wartime and the burdens that citizenship would impose? It is Simmons’s questions about slavery and emancipation more than his answers that come through images such as Sunday Afternoon.
Unexpected and engaging scenes like Sunday Afternoon are to be found in Civil War–era soldiers’ and sailors’ sketchbooks. These were not artifacts produced by men who went on to be notables in the art world, nor by men who sketched with an eye toward publishing in the era’s illustrated newspapers.3 Instead, these were modest sets of...