How 1st Lieutenant James Larkin Saw Slaves with His Camera

It’s always a good time to talk about race, but the present is an especially apposite moment. Today, I’d like to examine a photo that shows how one member of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry saw African American slaves when most of his comrades did not. And in so doing, he started trying to understand a people who would change the course of the war. This examination might give us something important to think about in our own time; it’s not always easy to see others, let alone understand them, unless you make the effort. Unfortunately, people are not inclined to do so unless they feel a compelling reason.

The image above was taken during the Civil War at Volusia, a plantation near Alexandria, VA. Volusia was next to Camp California which is where the 5th New Hampshire was quartered between December 1861 and March 1862. It appears that James E. Larkin, then a 1st Lieutenant in Company A of the 5th New Hampshire, took this picture. A house, sign, and carriage painter from Concord, NH, who dabbled in photography as a hobby, Larkin somehow managed to lug his camera and photographic equipment with him to Virginia for the first winter of the war. In a diary that he kept briefly in January 1862 (he was a much more prolific correspondent, writing dozens and dozens of letters to his wife throughout the conflict), Larkin referred repeatedly to having made a fair bit of money by taking photos. I assume these images were mainly portraits since he charged for them. As evidenced by the pictures on Mike Pride’s Our War blog, however, Larkin was also interested in capturing interesting scenes. The photo above was one of these scenes.[i]

The subjects of this image were enslaved members of the Hughes family. The National Museum of African American History and Culture identifies them, from left to right, as William (b. 1856), Lucinda (b. ca. 1824), Fannie (b. 1860), Mary (b. 1860), Frances (b. 1834), Martha (b. 1857), Julia (b. 1859), Harriet (b. 1852), and Charles or Marshall (the former born in 1853, the latter, in 1854). The two adults in this image were sisters-in-law; Frances was married to Lucinda’s brother, David Hughes. Frances and her children belonged to Felix Richards, who owned Volusia at the time, while Lucinda and her children were the property of Richards’s wife, Amelia Macrae Richards.[ii]

Photographs of people still living in a state of slavery during the Civil War are apparently fairly rare. So why did Larkin take this image? This question is impossible to answer because he doesn’t mention it in his correspondence. But there is evidence that Volusia, whose owner was a Unionist, had extensive dealings with Colonel Edward E. Cross, the 5th New Hampshire’s commander. At one point in early 1862, Cross ordered 300 cords of wood from Felix Richards for use by the regiment. Perhaps most intriguingly, Cross also asked Amelia Richards if her “servant” would wash his clothes. Is this how Larkin came to know these slaves? Is it a coincidence that the women in this image appear to have been doing laundry? (In the photo, Frances seems to be ironing a blanket, and an image taken at the same time—but from a slightly different angle—shows laundry baskets and tubs nearby.)[iii]

This photo is not just interesting because it is one of few that show slaves at work during the Civil War. It is also interesting because Larkin obviously took some care in composing the image and instructing his subjects how to pose. I don’t want to get all Errol Morris on you (or at least the Errol Morris one reads in Believing is Seeing), but it is instructive to compare the two photographs that Larkin took of this group.

In the image above, Larkin was much closer and to the group’s right. Both Lucinda and Frances look straight at the camera, their heads slightly bowed. While the subjects are obviously posing, the result seems more naturalistic and candid than the image below. The photo has the character of an anthropological study in its attempt to capture the nature of slaves. Is there perhaps a whiff of the imperial gaze here? Maybe that’s reading too deeply into poor Larkin’s intentions.

There is more artistry involved in the image above. Larkin’s camera now met the family head-on. The composition presents a more balanced and symmetrical pyramid which was the standard of classical art. This arrangement unifies the group and draws attention to Frances, particularly her white kerchief. Also, the two women look in each other’s direction: Frances at Luncinda, and Lucinda at the blanket that Frances is ironing. It is difficult to understand the significance of this pose and one can produce several related interpretations. Did their averted eyes suggest that they were a mystery that could not be understood? Or did they gaze at one another to share a confidence or a knowledge—perhaps the experience of slavery—that excluded the viewer? Whatever the case, Frances emerges in both images as a woman of strength and dignity mainly because of her posture and her position in the pyramidal composition. It was a staple of the free labor ideology that prevailed in the North during the late antebellum period and the Civil War that slavery degraded labor. But in Larkin’s portrayal of Frances, do we see a statement that all labor is dignified, that the grandeur of work transcends the status of the person who does it? That slavery, then, was riven by contradictions impossible to reconcile? Maybe Larkin did not seek to convey this message—but we ourselves can see it.  From the foregoing, it appears as if Larkin was struggling—but attempting—to understand the people in these images.

The careful attention that Larkin devoted to this group contrasts with the regiment’s general lack of interest in slaves during this period. This lack of interest is surprising. According to the Census of 1860, just under 500 African Americans lived in New Hampshire (out of a population of 326,000) so they were something of a rarity.[iv] And since the vast majority of soldiers in the 5th New Hampshire were born and raised in the state, practically none of them had any direct experience with slavery. You would think that their letters and their correspondence with newspapers would be full of observations about African American slaves whom they had never seen before or the “peculiar institution” that they had never witnessed in practice. But even more important, Northerners were convinced that this institution was the root of secession. Why did they not show more interest in the institution and its victims?[v]

There are, no doubt, several reasons. The regiment was young. If my calculations are correct, about 45% of the 5th New Hampshire were too young to have voted in the presidential election of 1860 (the voting age was 21). It is always hazardous to make generalizations of the following sort, but it is possible that these teenagers and twenty-somethings were less articulate and politically aware than their elders. At the same time, the members of the regiment were still making the difficult psychological transition from civilian to soldier.[vi] In early December 1861, when the 5th New Hampshire arrived at Camp California, the soldiers had officially been in the army for only a month and a half, most of them having been mustered in around mid-October.[vii] There was plenty of hardship and danger. Some men were killed in accidents and others died of illness. But there was adventure, too, as the regiment sent patrols into close proximity to the enemy. Many letters during this period refer to the peculiarities of army life, the monotony of drill, incidents in the course of their small incursions, encounters with Southern civilians, and the welfare of various acquaintances in the regiment. It was the novelty of this life that soldiers often attempted to convey to readers back home. Under these new circumstances, it was easy to overlook slaves and slavery.

But there is another reason, perhaps, why soldiers generally neglected to mention slaves and slavery in their letters. In later 1861 and early 1862, they would still have seen the conflict as a white man’s war. At this point, although there may have been a few abolitionists among them, the soldiers of the 5th New Hampshire mainly fought for the preservation of the Union. That Union was dear to them because it guaranteed liberties that they as white men could fully enjoy. They may have found slavery distasteful, but their main complaint with the “slave power” was that it infringed on their liberties. In other words, they believed that white men—southerners and northerners—were the main players in this drama. Indeed, the men of the regiment understood themselves to have assumed a leading role by taking up arms for their cause. From this perspective, the interests of the slaves themselves were purely incidental to what was a white story.

By the fall of 1862, this attitude had changed dramatically. In December 1861, Colonel Cross had declared that the “attempt to make an abolition war is going to make trouble if not stopped. A little more attention to soldiers and less to Negroes is what is wanted.”[viii] But even as Cross wrote, slaves had just begun to free themselves and play such an important part in the American war that they could no longer be ignored. When matched with the Northern desire to preserve the Union and the course of events, the emergence of slaves as a significant force in the war inexorably drew the North (and the 5th New Hampshire along with it) toward the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. Overlooking slaves and pretending that they were not an integral part of the national story was no longer possible. At some point, the people in the photograph—Frances, Lucinda, and their children—were swept up in this drama; Union soldiers came to Volusia and took them away.[ix]

James E. Larkin (ca. 1861-1862): The shoulder straps on his uniform indicate that Larkin was still a 1st Lieutenant when this image was taken. I’d like to think this photo was captured with Larkin’s own camera during the 5th New Hampshire’s first winter in Virginia. Throughout the war, Larkin was repeatedly promoted, becoming the regiment’s third commander after Charles Hapgood was wounded in June 1864. In September 1864, shortly before mustering out, Larkin was made a Lieutenant-Colonel  (Image courtesy of David Morin.)

During the winter of 1861-1862, these later events and the important role that slaves would play in them were difficult to foretell. It was not clear that slaves would have an interest in the war’s outcome, and many white Americans thought that the South’s human property would watch the war inertly from the margins. Yet James Larkin took the time and trouble to photograph a group of these people. The images he took may have been influenced by the privileged position from which he surveyed America. But the varied compositions and angles that he experimented with suggest that he was trying to “see” and understand his subjects in a way that his comrades did not. And, overall, his engagement with his subjects was sympathetic.

There might be a lesson in this story for all of us here and now. Regardless of where we stand in the world, we should make the effort to see others with both curiosity and empathy as a first step toward understanding them. That way, when the storm breaks, we might not be so surprised by the course of events and utterly unprepared to meet it.


[i] https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/oha/info/VolusiaFelix RichardsSlaves.pdf. See also James E. Larkin Papers, Diary, entries for January 21 and January 23, 1862, New Hampshire Historical Society, 1997.005. For Larkin’s occupation, see Merrill & Son’s Concord City Directory 1860-1861 (https://archive.org/details/merrillsonsconco1860merr/page/n157/mode/2up?q=Larkin).

[ii]  https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2014.174.8

[iii] https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/oha/info/VolusiaFelix RichardsSlaves.pdf

[iv] See this pdf pulled from the Census of 1860.

[v] It is true that we have a couple of letters that engage with slavery during this period. After the regiment marched to Upper and Lower Marlborough in early November 1861 to ensure that elections proceeded smoothly in the eastern Maryland, Private Miles Peabody of Company K wrote to his parents about his encounter with black slaves (“they are a good eal more intelegent than I had suposed”) and observed that they all wanted their freedom. As the regiment returned to camp, a young slave (a “very intelegent little fellow”) sought to join the regiment, and he was invited by Captain Richard Welch (Peabody’s company commander) to come along. When the slave’s owner came looking for the boy, the soldiers concealed him and brought him back to Bladensburg. The only other letter that dates from this period was written by “W.S.D.” (possibly Corporal Walter S. Drew of Company A) that appeared in a January 1862 issue of the Concord Independent Democrat. In this missive, he recorded a conversation with a Virginian slaveowner who related a story about his neighbor who had lost his wife and whose children had been brought up by female slave. The slaveowner stated: “Her master thought as much of her as he did of his own children and indulged her the same but,’ he added, bitterly, ‘no sooner did this war break out and the Union troops took possession of Alexandria than she deserted her master and went to washing to support herself.” Having related this tale, W.S.D. stated: “Here is a nut for our Northern Pro-Slavery men to crack who say the slaves are better off and better contented in bondage than when free. Here we see an old negro woman, who had been in bondage for sixty-three years, and according to Southern doctrine, kindly treated; yet the first opportunity that presented itself for escape she took advantage of. And where is the bondman that would not?” These are the only two letters that touch upon slavery or slaves, and when set against the volume of extant correspondence generated by the regiment during this period, it is not much. See Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001), 48 and the Concord Independent Democrat, January 9, 1862, 1.

[vi] Reid Mitchell, Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences (New York: Viking Press, 1988), pp. 56-58.

[vii] The first companies showed up at Camp Jackson outside of Concord, NH, in late September 1861.

[viii] Cross to Henry Kent, December 17, 1861 in Stand Firm and Fire Low: The Civil War Writings of Colonel Edward E. Cross, eds. Walter Holden, William E. Ross, and Elizabeth Slomba (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003),  97.

[ix] https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/oha/info/VolusiaFelix RichardsSlaves.pdf

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