Edwin Forbes, ‘The sanctuary,’ ca. 1876, Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC. https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.20773/
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fled farms and plantations across the South to secure their freedom. Frequently, this flight was towards the camps of soldiers fighting for the US Army, the force who had been rallied to quash the rebellion of the slave south. The relationship between these enslaved refugees and the forces they camped alongside remains shrouded in romance and myth, tied to notions of a ‘liberating’ army and an enslaved population who greeted them with gratitude and joy.
In ‘the sanctuary,’ Edwin Forbes depicted the end of one perilous journey from slavery to freedom. Working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the conflict, Forbes spent the war years travelling around camps and pickets sketching scenes of daily life, skirmishes, and battles. In this illustration, completed in 1876, Forbes reflected on the experiences of the non-combatants who he had been in contact with a decade before.
Unlike many of Forbes’ other illustrations, this scene was clearly imagined. Reflecting back on the war and its outcomes – which included the abolition of slavery – Forbes conjured an idealistic vista of the moment an enslaved family reached Army lines. Centred in Forbes’ image and imagination was the enslaved woman, mother of a young child, whose experience sighting freedom is akin to a religious awakening. Constructions of gender, informed by Forbes’ anti-slavery politics and loyalty to the cause of the Army he followed, were central to his reflections upon emancipation.
In this simple image, emotion is key. The elderly man, coming to the end of a long life characterised by the hardships of enslavement, is not the most overjoyed to see his suffering end. The young child, whose life course has just been radically altered by the actions of his elders, remains fairly unmoved upon his arrival at the gates of freedom. But the enslaved woman in Forbes’ imagination is so overwhelmed by emotion that she has fallen to her knees, raising her hands to God in thanks, in praise, deeply moved by the change in her circumstances that sighting the stars and stripes signifies. Drawing upon abolitionist narratives about the realities of enslavement for women, Forbes invites the viewer to speculate about the life this woman has escaped. Had she witnessed the sale of her children? Faced sexual abuse at the hands of her enslaver? Been coerced into a ‘marriage’ not of her choosing? Of course she would be floored by triumph, relief, and gratitude.
Strikingly absent from this illustration is the figure of a young black man, upright and strong, entering army lines ready to fight for his freedom. While Forbes was generally respectful in his depictions of black people, avoiding the racist stylistic tendencies practised by many of his peers, the limits of his progressive thinking are exposed through his failure to draw black combatants. Either through a racist paternalistic attitude towards black Americans or through a calculated attempt to endear formerly enslaved people to his white audience, Forbes rarely depicted black men in US Army uniform, armed and ready to fight the men who would see him re-enslaved.  Almost 200,000 black men enlisted and fought for the US Army during the Civil War; they were a very present reality of the conflict, not an obscure token force. Forbes’ choice not to depict them was deliberate and played into white anxieties about the race relations after emancipation.
Forbes’ group of imagined African Americans are at their least threatening. They are dependents of the Army, rather than members of it. Dependency is traditionally associated with the feminine, and the group that Forbes depicted here is feminised: poorly provisioned, in need of government aid, absent a male provider and protector. For Forbes, the US Army and nation fills this void, offering shelter, safety, and ‘sanctuary’ to the incomplete family. Even at a distance, the flag seems to fulfil this promise. While war is present in the form of felled trees and scarred earth, it is also strikingly absent: there are no combatants clearly depicted here, no weapons are in sight, and the figures do not seem to be in any immediate danger. The flag points the way to safety, peace, and freedom. While the woman lifts her arms to embrace the flag it flies overhead, welcoming these new citizens into the nation under the umbrella of its protection.
The idea of the war that this image represents is a powerful one, but it is nevertheless a fiction. While their victory secured the end of slavery, the US Army was not a bastion of anti-racist or even anti-slavery thought. Enlisted men and officers both neglected the needs of black refugees and in some cases callously disregarded them. Enslaved people frequently did not find ‘sanctuary’ behind Union lines, but rather squalor, disease, and violence. Some were separated from loved ones. Many were returned to their enslavers. Women faced dire conditions, starving and suffering while also facing that horrors that countless women embroiled in conflicts have faced across history: sexual violence and exploitation. Although at her moment of deliverance she may have been overjoyed, had Forbes’ returned to his imagined woman weeks, or even days, later, he may have envisioned a radically different experience.
 The young black men that Forbes did depict were generally labourers rather than fighters. See, for example, ‘a mule driver’ (1863) https://www.loc.gov/item/2004661540/; ‘Dick, the cook’ (1863) https://www.loc.gov/item/2004661826/
First posted on the Reading Gender History Research Cluster blog here
Liz Barnes recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @E_M_Barnes.