What Do I Want, John Henry?

Click image to enlarge

What Do I Want, John Henry?
1862 (November)
Alexander Gardner
Albumen silver print
6 13/16 x 8 13/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Mrs. Everett Kovler

How does the African American man in this photograph—John Henry—respond to the seated officer facing him? What Do I Want, John Henry? is an image of Union officers with their contraband servant, John Henry. “Contraband” was a term used to describe slaves who escaped their Southern plantations and offered their services to the Northern army. They were often put to work as cooks, guides, and laborers. According to the photographer’s own caption for the image, the title comes from a question the captain would occasionally ask John Henry. The photograph is a joke at the servant's expense, since he is offering a jug of liquor to the captain "as the only appropriate prescription for the occasion that his untutored nature could suggest."

Albumen prints like this provide a great deal of detail to everything in the scene. Can you see the sword on the ground near the officer on the left? Can you see his shiny boots and the pipe he holds in his hand? But there is another aspect to this photograph. Doesn’t John Henry himself look nervous and uncomfortable? Even though John Henry has freed himself, he is being treated not as a free man but as a slave, teased by his new “master” and by the photographer, too. Abolitionists protested how some Northern soldiers treated blacks, but many white Northerners saw nothing to object to, and would have found this photo very funny. African Americans may have been better off in a Union camp, but they still had to endure insults and bad treatment from soldiers in the Northern states.

1. Officers had more supplies and were treated better in the field than ordinary infantrymen (including having personal servants). If we could go into their tents, what kinds of things do you think we’d find there?

2. This photograph is not a candid shot; it is carefully posed. The photographer and the officers have very specific ideas about how they want to be shown. What do the poses of all the men—including John Henry—suggest about their importance and role as soldiers?

3. Examine how African American men in other artworks on this website are portrayed. Can you compare them with the portrayal here? How does John Henry’s picture look next to an image of a slave, or to an image of a black soldier?

Further reading:

Foner, Eric. "The Civil War and the Story of American Freedom." Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 8-25 (plate 2, p. 14).

Gardner, Alexander. Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the American Civil War 1861-1865. New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002.

Lee, Anthony W. On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

© Art Institute of Chicago
For information about reproducing collection images, please contact Image Licensing at the Art Institute of Chicago.