Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)

Yuhe Chen



Made by Kara Walker, the Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil war (Annotated) is a set of 15 prints based on the illustrations from the Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil war, a collection of Articles, engravings, and maps from Harper’s Magazine issued during the civil war. Before the Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil war (Annotated) was created, Kara Walker was already widely known for her large black silhouettes. Kara Walker’s debut work and the work that made her famous, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), is a large silhouette referring to the novel, Gone With the Wind. In Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), Kara Walker overlaid enlarged historical illustrations with black silhouettes, which is the first time for her to unite her trademark silhouettes with a historical document. The reason for this addition of a historical document background was because these backgrounds “are the landscapes” as Kara Walker said, “that I imagine exist in the back of my somewhat more austere wall pieces.” (MoMA)  

Kara Walker is one of the most prominent and talented black female artists and praised for making work about her race and gender (New York Times). Walker is best known for creating black-and-white silhouette works that invoke themes of African American racial identity including slavery, racial conflict, and violence. Through these works, she hopes to remind people of the continuity of the racial conflict that has yet to be completely resolved today (Raymond).


Historical and Cultural Context

Each of the fifteen pieces of the artwork represents a specific event during the civil war, including Scene of McPherson’s Death, Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta, Occupation of Alexandria, Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough to Atlanta, Crest of Pine Mountain where General Polk Fell, Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats, Pack-Mules in the Mountains, Deadbrook after the Battle of Ezra’s Church, Foote’s Gun-Boats Ascending to Attack Fort Henry, Lost Mountain at Sunrise. These are all very specific events chosen from the book, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, a collection illustrations of records of the war from the Harper’s Magazine issued in the 1860s.  

Fig.2. Kara Walker, Scene of McPherson’s Death from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005, LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University, New York.

For example, the Scene of McPherson’s Death is built upon the background of an attack that ended the battle of Atlanta led by General James B. McPherson in July 1864. The union army is going to have a flank attack, but because of exhaustion of men and horses, hot weather, and dusty roads, the other troops weren’t able to make it to the Confederate party on time. In the meantime, McPherson and his staff unexpectedly ran into the troop of Capt. Richard Beard of the 5th Confederate and General McPherson was shot dead at the heart (Stephen). Battle of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) is also a very important battle that was depicted in one of the illustrations Walker used. In this battle, the Union troops led by Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote won the battle and opened the Tennessee River to Union traffic south of the Alabama border (Wikipedia). The occupation of Alexandria is the first fatalities of the North and South in the American Civil War within a month of the Battle of Fort Sumter. In the process of occupation, Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth was killed by Captain James W. Jackson of the Confederate. However, after this success of the union, “The city quickly lost its placid colonial character and became an active federal supply depot, convalescent center, and campground,” wrote George Kundahl in his book Alexandria Goes to War, “Native citizens fled the city before more conflict arose.” (Brady)

What’s missing in the original magazine illustrations is emotion. As the editors of the original Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry Mills, wrote in the preface, “to narrate events just as they occurred; to speak of living men as impartially as though they were dead; to praise no man unduly because he strove for the right, to malign no man because he strove for the wrong;” (Harper’s Magazine) the Harper’s Weekly shows only specific events without opinion. Kara Walker adds a personal feeling to the illustrations through the black silhouette figures, parts of body and objects so to communicate the struggle blacks are going through during each event background. Although she has not experienced the Civil War herself, as an African American herself, she transform  today’s struggles black people are facing to black silhouettes in the Civil War setting.


Themes and Style

In the Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Kara Walker uses many symbols that she has used in earlier silhouettes to express the visual representation of slavery, and through these symbols she focuses on the people Harper’s ignores, as well as the destruction, fear, and tragedy that accompanied these events (Shannon). In Scene of McPherson’s Death, the dark silhouette shows the image of a barefooted tiny figure holding a boot and leg of a large man. According to Yasmil Raymond, curator of MoMA, “shoes appear selectively on the feet of Walker’s characters, primarily to differentiate non-slaves from slaves.” she wrote in her journal Maladies of Power: A Kara Walker Lexicon. The boot that represents freedom has fallen off due to the loss of a great Union general James B. McPherson, but the slave upholds the boot, supporting it to rise.

Fig. 3. Kara Walker, Foote’s Gun-Boats Ascending to Attack Fort Henry from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005, LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University, New York.

In Foote’s Gun-Boats Ascending to Attack Fort Henry, a black male crawls through a pile of feces. The presence of feces degrades and dehumanizes the black figure (Raymond). Unlike feces in Walker’s other works that seems almost unable to be escaped of by the black figure, in this one, the black man crawls through the feces intending to get out of it, as in to seek a better future for himself. At the time of the civil war, the blacks have been trying to reach out for an unforeseeable but apparently better future by supporting the Union and struggling themselves. According to Kara Walker, it was common to ignore the racial difference in California where she grew up, but when Kara Walker moved to Atlanta, she realized that “even though the era of Jim Crow was officially over, you felt the oppression everywhere (Hughs).In today’s society, people like Kara Walker are still trying to reach out to the mass public through their own means, in Walker’s case, art, to inform and warn people to the racism that happened in the past and today, and the continuous struggle that we are going through to make the world a place of equality.

Fig.4. Kara Walker, Foote’s Gun-Boats Ascending to Attack Fort Henry from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) 2005, LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, Columbia University, New York.

In the piece Occupation of Alexandria, the illustrations only show the victory of the Union, while it fails to tell what happened to the once prosperous city after it was occupied and the Union abandonment of the city in 1864. When it was occupied, “Alexandria is filled with ruined people; they walk as strangers through their ancient streets, and their property is no longer theirs to possess,” George Alfred Townsend, a correspondent for the New York Herald, wrote in 1863, adding that it “has become essentially a military city. Its streets, its docks, its warehouses, its dwellings, and its suburbs have been absorbed to the thousand uses of war.” (Brady) It was not a place for citizens to live, it was the Civil war’s restless backyard. If the white men are suffering, what about the blacks? In Walker’s silhouette for this piece, a woman kneeled down with her fists up cheering for the victory of the Union, while another black child figure penetrates her body as if he’s trying to find a hiding place. Kara Walker reveals both the excitement and hardships of the common people during the war through this piece. Yet, there is also another interpretation of this piece. “Walker’s positioning of figures into the scene completes the story by suggesting the devastation that came as a result of the rampant flames”(Shannon) that was set by the Union after they abandoned the city. Kara Walker adds future events to the illustrations to suggest the disastrous outcomes despite the successful occupation. Elders, children, and women had to flee with few or no belongings, yet the African Americans were ignored in the original story that was published in the weekly magazine. No matter which the interpretation is her true purpose, Kara Walker emphasizes that we tend to ignore the minorities when it comes to big issues, and through this work, she tries to make us aware of how ignorant we have been and are now to those minority groups.


Critical Conversation

Most critiques are in favor of the Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), saying that “Mangled and grotesque figures escape the boundaries of the anthology’s pictures, expanding into the margins and the space of real life.”(Smithonian) However, there are few critics that say Kara Walker has “portrayed [her figures] generically with vacuous stares as barefoot slaves and in obedient servitude … Walker’s silhouettes flatten and stereotype these figures further.”(Egan) Yet, in fact, Walker’s figures are too ambiguous and complicated to say that they are stereotyped. Among these appreciations for Kara Walker’s works, there are also criticisms of her work. In Harper’s Magazine, the article criticized Walker’s artwork by stating that the original intent of publishing the Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War was to depict only facts without bias and opinion. The Article also mocked Kara Walker’s personal statement that the purpose of this work is to depict what was left out while “her shadows seem to reflect upon, react to, even alter the events Harper’s was attempting to depict ‘just as they occurred’ a half-century ago.” The Harper’s magazine attempted to prove that what she was making is out of imaginary instead of facts which conflicts with the collection’s original intent.

Not only on this set of work, Kara Walker herself also raises many controversies. Kara Walker was chosen as one of the 2007 TIME 100, “Kara Walker’s vigilance has produced a compelling reckoning with the twisted trajectories of race in America” the article stated, “She plays with stereotypes, turning them upside down, spread-eagle and inside out. She revels in cruelty and laughter. Platitudes sicken her. She is brave.”  (Kruger)But because of these stereotypes and cruelty in her works, some audiences felt uncomfortable and has “‘a sense of betrayal at the hands of a black artist who obviously hated being black,’ and was, therefore, by extension, willing to also betray her womanhood.” (Prince) The mass exposure of nudity, violence, sexuality, and race could mean very different to different people. To some, they mean art; to some, they represent guilt; to others, they are unbearable past…. This is the essence of Walker’s art.


Works Cited

Davis, Stephen, “Battle Of Atlanta – July 22, 1864,” Civil War Trust, https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/death-mcpherson

Dennis, Brady, “The federal occupation of Alexandria in the Civil War changed and spared city,” Washington Post, 7 Apr.2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/the-federal-occupation-of-alexandria-in-the-civil-war-changed-and-spared-city/2011/04/01/AFaqCAwC_story.html

Gopnik, Blake, “Kara Walker, ‘Tired of Standing Up,’ Promises Art, Not Answers,” New York Times, 16 Aug. 2017,  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/16/arts/design/kara-walker-race-art-charlottesville.html

Hughes, Kathryn, “Southern discomfort: artist Kara Walker continues to shock and awe,” Telegraph, 9 Oct. 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10314794/Southern-discomfort-artist-Kara-Walker-continues-to-shock-and-awe.html

Kruger, Barbara, “The 2007 TIME 100,” TIME, 3 May 2007, http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/time100/article/0,28804,1595326_1595332_1616818,00.htm

Kara Walker, LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/arts/neiman/Walker

Kara Walker at the Met, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 6 Aug. 2006, https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2006/kara-walker

Mohamed, Yumna, “Kara Walker’s Works from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War,” Harper’s magazine, 6 Jul. 2012, https://harpers.org/blog/2012/07/kara-walkers-works-from-harpers-pictorial-history-of-the-civil-war/

Prince, Lyric, “Dear Kara Walker: If You’re Tired of Standing Up, Please Sit Down,” Hyperallergic, 29 Aug. 2017, https://hyperallergic.com/398123/dear-kara-walker-statement-response/

Raymond, Yasmil, “Maladies of Power: A Kara Walker Lexicon,” http://media.walkerart.org/pdf/KWlexicon.pdf

Shannon, Egan. “Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (2013),” The Cupola: Scholarship at Gettysburg College http://cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=artcatalogs

Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated),” Smithsonian American Art Museum, 13 Oct. 2017, https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/walker

Battle of Fort Henry, Wikipedia, 6 Feb.1862, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fort_Henry


Further Reading

Als, Hilton, “Kara Walker’s Shadow Act,” New Yorker, 8 Oct. 2007, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/10/08/the-shadow-act

“Kara Walker Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works,” Art Story, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-walker-kara.htm

Sheets, Hilarie M. “Cut It Out!,” ARTnews, 1 Apr. 2002, http://www.artnews.com/2002/04/01/cut-it-out/

Rosenberg, Alyssa, “Kara Walker’s Work Is Meant To Drive You Crazy. That’s What Makes It Great,” Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2017/10/02/kara-walkers-work-is-meant-to-drive-you-crazy-thats-what-makes-it-great/?utm_term=.71bf6cc5e640


Key Words

African American Art, Kara Walker, Civil War, Art, Silhouette, Harper’s Pictorial History.