Nat Turner, Elephants, and Some Interesting Cases of Rebranded Civil War Era Imagery

Sometimes historians go down a rabbit hole trying to decipher documents or draw connections. We have all spent hours staring at a pile of documents looking for that one critical piece of paper. Other times we spend hours thinking about a document, trying to remember where we saw something similar before, hoping to make a critical connection. Something like that happened with me recently regarding images. Last November I wrote about the mythology and reality regarding the offer to send Abraham Lincoln war elephants from Siam. The interesting untwisting of that story brought about some surprise connections of the images associated with it and how those images have been either previously used or reused in other lights.

The image that started this dive was the advertisement in the newspaper Father Abraham, from October 18, 1864. The top part of this image shows an elephant celebrating victories in state elections in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, and Ohio for the Republican Party, while the bottom part celebrates how soldiers in the field were both winning battlefield victories (such as at Atlanta) that should help cement Lincoln’s reelection, as well as the fact that soldiers in several states were being allowed to vote absentee in the field. They overwhelmingly chose Lincoln.

This imagery celebrating Republican Party and U.S. military victories started my image investigations (Father Abraham, October 18, 1864)

I knew that the top image of the elephant was later used in 1865 as a poster celebrating the fall of Richmond. Both portray an elephant with the same design and characteristics. Everything from the banner the elephant carries to the dust clouds it kicks up match, meaning that one was most certainly copied from the other.

This was not the original use however and thanks to the researchers at HarpWeek, I learned about an earlier use. An eerily similar image was also printed in the Chicago edition of the in the Abraham Lincoln 1860 campaign paper Rail Splitter. This elephant was not a projection of Lincoln’s power, however. Instead, it was originally used in that newspaper as an advertisement for shoes from Willet & Company’s shoe store on Randolph Street in Chicago.[1] This shoe advertisement ran on the last page in every issue of this Lincoln campaign paper. This 1860 elephant is quite close to the others, though it is reversed to face the opposite direction and has shoes on the animal’s feet.

All three eerily similar elephant depictions. (Rail Splitter, August 25, 1860; Father Abraham, October 18, 1864; Library of Congress)

Thus, this single elephant image was used as a shoe advertisement, then to help push on Lincoln’s victories, one in politics and the other in the war. The bottom image in that issue of Father Abraham, of cavalry and an artillery cannon charging forward, also seemed familiar to me, though I could not quite place it.

It was in class where the epiphany happened. I was teaching a class in my introductory early US history course about the expansion of slavery in the Antebellum United States. The last part of that class is an examination of how the enslaved of the United States attempted to overthrow enslavers. The class looked at several examples including the pre-revolutionary Stono Rebellion in colonial South Carolina, the Haitian Revolution resulting in Haiti’s independence, Deslondes Rebellion in Louisiana in 1811, Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt, and 1839’s Amistad Revolt.

When showing the class images of how these incidents were portrayed at the time, I was struck with déjà vu. It happened when the class examined the famed image of the Nat Turner Revolt printed as the front-piece in the protractedly titled pamphlet Authentic and impartial narrative of the tragical scene which was witnessed in Southampton County (Virginia) on Monday the 22d of August last, when fifty-five of its inhabitants (mostly women and children) were inhumanly massacred by the blacks! Communicated by those who were eye witnesses of the bloody scene, and confirmed by the confessions of several of the blacks while under sentence of death.[2] That front-piece contains two images. The top is enslaved men attacking and slaughtering Anglo families, their enslavers. The second portrays Virginia militia arriving while Nat Turner and his fellow enslaved men rush to the woods to escape. Of course, the images are decidedly pro-slavery, hoping that readers of the pamphlet would quickly condemn Nat Turner for fighting to end his own bondage.

The image most Americans of the time associated with Nat Turner’s failed quest for freedom. (Library of Congress)

It was that second image that struck me as familiar. I had looked at it countless times before when teaching, but this time the familiarity was different. Then it hit me. It was the same image used in the October 1864 issue of Father Abraham! The 1864 version is cropped slightly but shows the same portrayal of cavalry and a cannon, complete with identical hats, whips, and swords. An image used earlier to condemn a revolution by enslaved men was rebranded as one displaying Abraham Lincoln’s soldiers marching to victory in the war that ultimately ended slavery.

The uses of the cavalry image. (Top Father Abraham, Bottom Nat Turner)

While diving into these images, I came across another instance of that Nat Turner front-pierce being rebranded. This was not my epiphany however and came courtesy of the website Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination, a collaboration between the American Antiquarian Society and the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery.[3] This time it involved the top image of the original front-piece. As Revisiting Rebellion aptly pointed out, the part of that top image where an enslaved man is shown about to kill a woman and her children was used in 1836 in another book titled An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War; and the miraculous Escape of Mrs. Mary Godfrey, and her Four Female Children.[4] The cropped element of the Nat Turner front-piece was used on that book’s title page, rebranding pro-slavery imagery from one enslaved rebellion into another.

How the other image associated with Nat Turner was rebranded for another revolt of the enslaved. (An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War, left; Library of Congress, right)

Rebranding of media about Nat Turner’s rebellion did not end in the 19th century. Most recently, the 2016 film The Birth of a Nation did so with its very title. Nate Parker, director and star of the 2016 film, chose the title The Birth of a Nation deliberately to supersede the 1915 film of the same name. The original film famously portrayed the origins of the Ku Klux Klan in a decidedly positive light. “I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America,” Parker explained in an interview, “to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.”[5]

Civil War era imagery was used and repurposed, sometimes in efforts to rebrand the image for a different cause and sometimes to enhance that image as a symbol for the cause it was originally envisioned. Regardless, when looking at the woodcuts and newspaper graphics of that time period, it is worth a pause to think about where that specific image came from and why it was being used.

 

Endnotes

[1] “For Good Boots and Shoes”, The Rail Splitter, Chicago, IL, June 23, 1860; See also “First Use of Republican Elephant”, HarpWeek, https://elections.harpweek.com/1864/cartoon-1864-medium.asp?UniqueID=4&Year=1864, accessed December 10, 2022.

[2] Authentic and impartial narrative of the tragical scene which was witnessed in Southampton County (Virginia) on Monday the 22d of August last, when fifty-five of its inhabitants (mostly women and children) were inhumanly massacred by the blacks! Communicated by those who were eye witnesses of the bloody scene, and confirmed by the confessions of several of the blacks while under sentence of death, (New York: Warner and West, 1831).

[3] “Authentic and Impartial Narrative”, Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination, https://americanantiquarian.org/NatTurner/exhibits/show/1831reports/impartialnarrative, accessed December 20, 2022.

[4] An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War; and the miraculous Escape of Mrs. Mary Godfrey, and her Four Female Children, (New York, D.F. Blanchard, 1836).

[5] Soheil Rezayazdi, “Five Questions with The Birth of a Nation Director Nate Parker”, Filmmaker, January 25, 2016, https://filmmakermagazine.com/97103-five-questions-with-the-birth-of-a-nation-director-nate-parker/#.Y6H_KFHMJPY, accessed December 20, 2022.



3 Responses to Nat Turner, Elephants, and Some Interesting Cases of Rebranded Civil War Era Imagery

  1. Very interesting! You have an outstanding visual memory. I am reminded of the “repurposing” of a recruitment poster for a regiment of Black US soldiers, as evidence for “Native Guards” It was the black confederate myth in a nutshell.

  2. Hmmmm. So perhaps this is why Chris M. doesn’t like it when we collectively pluck images from the Interwebs with gleeful abandon & no references….

  3. Lillian Gish’s name was ripped off of the Gish theater at Bowling Green State University because she acted in the movie Birth of a Nation when she was 22 years old. She lived to 99 and was a pioneer of theater and film.

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