Keeping It Honest: Doctoring History

Back in 2007 two researchers came across a photograph often exhibited as proof of African Americans in Confederate service–a image labeled “1st Louisiana Native Guard.”  An examination of the photograph revealed that the image in fact was of African Americans in Union service: one way in which the image was tampered with in order to misrepresent it was by cropping out the Union officer.

News of this find has been around for years.  Blogs pick it up all the time.  Last month Jubilo featured it; that blog’s author had also pointed to it in another blog in 2009 (you might want to read the comments).  It’s been a subject addressed in lectures.

Not all sites where the image appears can be classified as Confederate Romantic/Apologist sites, either.  Even the University of New Orleans bobbled the image.  Or the site’s author seems a bit uncertain about the image.  But then there’s this.

In short, this is no longer a news story, or it should not be.  And yet the image’s mislabeling persists, in large part because of the imprint on the image itself.  One need only look at the 37th Texas Cavalry website to see a defense — yes, a defense! — of the photograph by a group that claims to be committed to historical accuracy (“The 37th serves only the cause of historical truth”).  Then again, this website does not seem to have been updated in years … indeed, it may not have been updated since the discovery of the tampering with the image.

For all the talk about the Lincoln pardon controversy, this story of doctoring a photograph seems a little more serious to me in terms of its overall import, and it suggests what can happen when someone doctors historical sources.  Here we are, years after the image’s misuse has been discredited, and yet the misidentification persists.

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10 thoughts on “Keeping It Honest: Doctoring History

  1. I’d missed that “defense” of the image; it’s a doozy. Talk about “doubling-down”:

    The soldiers in the Union illustration are clearly taken from the soldiers in the picture with certain “editorial license.” Although the artist did not change the gray uniforms to blue, a Federal flag was added to the near-center, a Union officer (looking very artificial) was added to the far left, and a drummer boy was overlaid onto the image of the soldier second from right (see detail) to balance the image. Note also that the features of many of the men of the Guard were altered by the artist to make them have more exaggerated negroid features (check third from left).

    Postitively shameless. You cannot embarrass these people.

  2. Here’s my favorite comment from the blog “All Other Persons”:

    “Isn’t this page actually just as manipulative as the doctored photo? It’s using the photo to claim the ‘free black’ Confederate soldiers was a lie. But only the photo was a lie.”

    In essennce what he is saying is that revealing the doctored historical photograph is manipulative and dishonest.

    http://allotherpersons.wordpress.com/2009/10/19/truth-lies-and-a-black-confederate-soldiers-hoax/#comment-1332

  3. We’ll always have to live with this kind of think in the age of the internet. There are doctored photos that get spread around by mass media as truth quite often, notably photos from the recent Israel/Hezbollah conflict (myriad photos were tampered with that got published by the AP and Reuters) and the Dan Rather G.H.W. Bush documents that were a total fabrication. The Hitler Diaries in West Germany are another good example. At least someone hasn’t gotten hold of the original photo and cut it, because that would be akin to what Mr. Lowry did. People with a social or political agenda, are people with a political or social agenda. To them truth is often the enemy.

    So yes it is bad, but at least it wasn’t physical destruction of a document or artifact, and/or the total fabrication of a document purported to be historical.

    • Yawn. While not all members of the original unit that offered to serve the CSA were part of the unit that served the USA, we know that some did in fact do so. Benjamin F. Butler and others encouraged the notion that the entire regiment, having been rejected for Confederate service, joined the Union army, and of course that could not be true, since the unit was disbanded months before the new unit was formed. That is fact. If you know differently, put it out there.

      But thanks for reading. Now perhaps you can explain why your fellow travelers lie about Bearss and this photograph, and you say nothing to them.

      How’s the weather in Anniston?

  4. I think this topic, essentially, goes back to your “Taking it Personal” entry. The level of interest in the doctored image, and other documents, seems particularly high in regards to the Civil War because we, as Americans (even ones who do not have ancestors in either Army), seem to be emotionally invested in that particular war. We are always looking for the “truth”, convinced that our own version of it is the right one, and that we need to prove it to everyone else in the United States. Therefore, When someone alters a Lincoln letter, he is not only changing historical accuracy, he is somehow attacking me personally.

    The fascination with the altered image, is even more interesting to me. There are a few famous examples of CW photographers altering the composition of their own photos, which although still seem to hold interest, are not nearly as controversial or frustrating to us. Gardner’s “Devil’s Den” series has become part of the war itself, although he certainly doctored history. Similarly, Stalin is given credit for being the first to use airbrushing techniques to “delete” his enemies out of existing photos. People knew the photos were doctored, because Stalin did not hide it very well, if at all, but no one seemed in an uproar. Of course, that could be because people we’re too afraid to care, but that’s a different blog. Nevertheless, we see those images and the alterations a part of history, and not an altered version.
    So my question is this, what is the difference between Gardner or Stalin altering history, and the more recent scandals? Aren’t they all doing the same thing and often with the same intentions? And more importantly, why does it strike such a different emotional chord for those who do it now, than those who did it then?

    • I think the difference is in who did the doctoring and for what purpose. Gardner’s staged photographs romanticized war: otherwise, the political import of the images was not nearly so significant as their commercial value, although the staging does tell us something about making the battlefield more peaceful than it in fact is (and is in that sense political). The doctoring of images (and other items) during Stalin;s regime was taken as typical of that totalitarian regime; the recent discussion of how FDR was photographed reminded us that Americans might not have been willing to vote for a man who was dealing with the physical challenges FDR did.

      In this case, we have people deliberately broadcasting a lie because they would like to divert attention away from certain things. They would like to pretend that black slaves were happy, that many of them supported the Confederacy (and thus their continued enslavement), and so on. When the fraud was exposed, one saw folks like “Border Ruffian” from Alabama ride to the defense of Confederate Romanticism (as you can see here, he frequents blogs he doesn’t like).

      I think one might overestimate the outrage now (because the story of the doctoring of the image is not new news) and underestimate the degree to which revelations of doctoring the record during Stalin’s regime simply confirmed intense negative feelings for it. Gardner’s act was not detected during his lifetime, and Stalin’s tampering is now an accepted part of the story. But, as you can see in some of the discussion surrounding this image, even after it’s been discredited, it has its fans. You might want to speculate as to why that is.

  5. Pingback: “Black” Confederates and other “White” Myths | Ourstorian

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