Norton Digital History Analysis Worksheet - Photographs

Sample Media Worksheet. Contraband Crossing

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1. Observation

Which individual items within the picture are drawn to your attention?

In this image the viewer's focus goes directly to the central image of the cart that is carrying the women and belongings of these fugitive slaves. One is struck by how precarious the situation is for these former slaves, surrounded by white soldiers. Note what appears to be a Union soldier standing watch, or looking on as the slaves are attempting to get across the river.

Impressively, this group was able to collect horses and cattle the slaves to bring with them. The cart is loaded so high as to suggest it carries all the belongings that these men and women were able to bring on their journey. Considering the number of people, the cart seems small for so many individuals and their clothes, beds, and cookware.

The presence of the soldiers implies that the Union army is controlling the movement of people in this area. That means the standard law enforcement authorities of the area are probably disorganized by the war, and the daily routine of protecting people from robbery and abuse had to be shouldered by the soldiers. They were, in effect, the law and their attitudes toward these African Americans fleeing for freedom could mean the difference between life and death.

List the characters, objects, and / or action in the photograph.


Male fugitive slaves
Female fugitive slaves
Union soldiers (possibly)


Cart of belongings


The fugitive slaves are trying to get across a river
Union soldier looking on

2. Expression

What is your overall impression of this photograph?

There are definitely two impressions that this photo imparts to the viewer. The first makes one aware of the precariousness of the former slaves' positions. The flight to freedom was not an easy one, especially when traveling as a group. Instead of a person only being responsible for his or her own freedom, here there is a sense of group responsibility. It would be considerably harder to get this entire caravan of people to freedom, even when escorted by a Union soldier than it would one or two individuals.

However on the opposite side of that observation it should be noted that this photo also imparts a feeling of community because so many people are able to travel together. Also, while the Union may have ambiguous feelings regarding this mass migration of former slaves, the fact that soldiers are there in the photo lends a degree of authority to these proceedings. There is a sense that these men and women have governmental support and legitimacy in their endeavor to find freedom.

What is this photograph attempting to convey to the viewer?

Because the photographer has chosen to feature not just the fugitive slaves but the Union soldiers as well, there is obviously a sense that this is a joint effort. The Union may not be overjoyed about the influx of slaves who they are now taking responsibility for, but in this image it is implied that the flight of these slaves is supported by the Union government. It also connects the plight of the slaves to the Union government. Though many supporters of the Union were not necessarily abolitionists, this image does an effective job of showing that with the arrival of each contraband slave across Union lines, their cause was becoming ever more wrapped up with the freedom of African American slaves.

This image also effectively shows how dangerous and courageous this migration was for the slaves. All of the belongings are crowded into one cart, along with the women. If something happened to the cart, all of their belongings would be lost. While these men and women would be happy just to gain their freedom, they still need some sort of goods to be able to start their lives anew. Also, while the river crossing shown here looks relatively non-threatening, there were probably many areas where rough terrain would make travel increasingly harder. The presence of the Union soldiers, while adding a sense of security to the image, also implies that they are there for protection, that there is a need for these fugitive slaves to have an armed escort.

3. Connection

What does this photograph tell you about this period in America History?

This image is successful in revealing several different things about this period in history. First and foremost it effectively portrays the mass migration of fugitive slaves into areas where they could rebuild their lives as free men and women. No longer is escape from a slave holding state something that happens individually and at night. These migrations are composed of many people together, traveling at day, with an escort from the Union government. Therefore it reveals that no matter how problematic these migrations might have been for the Union, the fact that there are soldiers in this picture legitimize this operation. Another aspect of this image that shows how much more organized these flights were is the presence of the slaves' belongings. These men and women were able to take the time to gather some of their belongings and pack them into a cart. Also they were able to get horses and cattle to transport them. Both of these things add a sense of stability to the process. Although the danger of being caught was still a concern, the fact that these people were able to bring something with them to start their new lives is important.

The fact that this crossing is photographed at all is very significant, and it also lends an air of legitimacy to the proceedings. Photography at this time was still a relatively new invention, and for something to be photographed at this time meant that the subject in question was socially or politically important. This image tells us that people were aware of these migrations, that there were concerns about this issue.

Lastly, the pairing of the slaves and the Union soldiers helps link the cause of freedom to the Union government. We know that everyone in the Union was not an abolitionist, and in reality the populations of the northern states were just as racist as that in the southern. However, by placing these soldiers as guards or escorts to this group of fugitive slaves, the photographer is showing that the Union is opposed to the system of slavery. Thus this image would have been very effective as a piece of propaganda to show that the Union was committed to enabling the former slaves' journey to freedom.

One last thing to consider about this photo and the term assigned for these fugitive slaves: while this image is one of hope and freedom, and attempts to show the Union in the best possible light, the fact that these slaves were referred to as "contraband" by the Union also denies them their basic humanity. The term contraband historically refers to goods, usually outlawed or stolen. Thus, although in this image we see an effort of cooperation between the Union soldiers and the slaves, these people have been labeled with a name that upholds their status as property, not as human beings.