A newly surfaced photograph, published here for the first time, gives a good idea of what he looked like: round of face yet square of chin, with dark, widely spaced eyes that seemed to hold a melancholy gaze. The portrait, which measures just 2 3⁄4 by 3 1⁄4 inches, is what is known as a sixth-plate ambrotype, a positive image on a glass plate reduced to one-sixth its normal size. Most surprising, it shows the slave wearing what appears to be a Confederate Army shell jacket.
Images of African-American men in Confederate uniform are among the greatest rarities of 19th-century photography: Only eight were known to exist, according to Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the 2013 exhibition “Photography and the American Civil War” at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The portrait of Robert Webster adds a ninth to that roster. Such images, says John Coski, vice president and director of historical research at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, are “tantalizing in what they do and do not tell us.” One thing they don’t tell us, he says, is that the men in the photographs fought in the Confederate Army, contrary to the belief of some researchers eager to show that African-Americans did so. Of the slaves photographed in Confederate uniform, the names and fortunes of only four are known. All four went to the front as servants to their owners, who were Confederate officers.
Robert Webster went to the front in Virginia in 1861 with Benjamin Yancey Jr., an enormously wealthy planter, lawyer and sometime politician who owned scores of slaves scattered among several houses and three plantations, including one in Georgia that covered more than 2,000 cultivated acres and another of 1,000 acres in Alabama. Yancey owned Webster for almost 20 years, and valued him highly. “I would have trusted him with anything,” Yancey said in later years. Indeed, after he became alarmed about Federal threats to the lower South, Yancey sent his wife and three children with Webster back to Alabama, where the slave was to “boss the plantation in his absence,” according to Yancey family lore. Yancey didn’t stay long in the fight, though, returning home in the spring of 1862 to oversee his plantations himself. With itinerant photographers often accompanying troops, the Webster portrait was in all likelihood made while the slave was in Virginia.
It has remained with Yancey’s descendants through five generations. Representatives of the family told me about it after I published The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta, my 2009 book, in which Webster played a prominent role. Yancey’s great-great-granddaughter Dorothea Fink says she remembers seeing the portrait on her grandmother’s mantel beside other family photographs and memorabilia. It is the only portrait of a slave the family displayed, she says. “It was kept in an esteemed place,” she says her grandmother told her, “because he became a very important person to the family.”
ShareIn fact, Webster’s importance to the Yanceys extended far beyond his wartime service, even though there is no evidence that he fought for the Confederacy and ample evidence that he risked his life to undermine it. One thing the portrait tells us is that Webster learned to manage conflicting loyalties while helping to liberate himself. From start to finish, his life reflected the complications that accrued from slavery and the precarious, contingent and dangerous position of slaves during the Civil War. (Read more.)