The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 2: Sketches from Prison (“De’ Bottom Rails on Top Now”)



Drawing of a US Colored Troop prison guard and a Confederate prisoner at Point Lookout, Maryland. The guard tells the prisoner: “Git away from dat dar fence white man or I’ll make Old Abe’s Gun smoke at you I can hardly hold de ball back now. De bottom rails on top now.”
Source: “Guard challenging Prisoner,” from Point Lookout Sketches

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In antebellum America, and in the American South in particular, the black male slave had no honor or manhood. He was considered “degraded,” lacking any rights that a white man was bound to respect, and lacking any dignity that a white man was bound to recognize.

And then the Union decided to arm the slaves in its war against the Confederacy. And everything changed.

What a sight it must have been for Confederate soldiers to see: former slaves on the battlefield, armed, dangerous, and fighting for a different vision of the South. It was one of the Confederate soldier’s worst fears, come to life.

Imagine how much worse it must have been for a Confederate soldier to be taken prisoner, and having those former slaves as his prison guards. Now, it was the black man who was keeping the white man from freedom. Just imagine…


A USCT guard warns a Confederate prisoner, “You little Reb wid de red shirt double quick into line or I’ll pop a cap at you.” First prisoner: “Oh I’m nearly broke down.” Second prisoner (with red shirt): “Oh me! I’m nearly froze.”
Source: “On a cold night in January,” from Point Lookout Sketches

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That is one of the themes of the drawings in the booklet Point Lookout Sketches. The color ink drawings were made in 1864 by John Omenhausser, an Austrian born Virginia soldier who was held prisoner at Point Lookout, Maryland. Point Lookout was the Union’s largest Civil War prison camp, and had horrid living conditions (although not as bad as the Confederacy’s more infamous Andersonville prison). As described here, Omenhausser’s drawings

…highlight the concerns and experiences of prisoners of war; most scenes show prisoners playing cards, buying food, or engaging in barter with food vendors… All of the prison guards depicted are African American, and encounters are recorded between these guards and the Confederate prisoners… The album into which these sketches were pasted also includes photographs of commanding officers at Point Lookout, printed orders to prison guards about the treatment of prisoners, and letters from prisoners to President Lincoln asking to be released.

In the pictures, the colored guards are caricatured with big red lips. Notably, the guards are always shown with their guns prominent (perhaps the artist believed that the black guard’s authority came solely from the barrel of a gun?). The text on the pictures suggests that the guards constantly expressed their power over, and disdain for their Confederate prisoners. Hence we see language such as “You little Reb wid de red shirt double quick into line or I’ll pop a cap at you” in the picture above – the colored guard is clearly asserting his authority, and as far as the artist is concerned, showing very little sympathy for the plight of the prisoners, if not being outright abusive. (A number of Confederate prisoners did complain about abusive black prison guards.)

One Omenhausser drawing, which was not available on line, shows a Confederate prisoner who is identified as saying a prayer for President Lincoln, the Union, and the “Colored People.” The “inspiration” for the prayer is a black guard holding a pistol in his hand. (I believe that picture is in the set of drawings held by the Maryland Historical Society – refer to the last paragraph of this post.)

Another picture of a praying Confederate, shown below, depicts a guard interrupting a prisoner in his moment of intimate communication with his god. In the background, another prisoner thumbs his nose – a gesture of contempt, usually of authority, that is a less offensive version of today’s middle-finger salute.


An African American guard looks into a tent in which a prisoner is kneeling on the ground. Another prisoner peeks out from behind the tent, thumbing his nose at the guard. The dialogue is transcribed in the upper left corner.
Sentinel: “What you make dat noise in dar for?” Rebel “I’m not making any noise, I’m only praying.” Sentinel: “Well dat will do for dis time and if I catch you at it agin, I’ll make you double quick, dems my orders.”
Source: “Praying,” from Point Lookout Sketches.

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The picture below is of particular interest to me. It recalls a common character type in African American literature, the “trickster,” who succeeds among bigger and stronger characters with his wits and slyness. In this picture, the white soldier is the trickster, and has “gotten over” on a hapless black prison guard by stealing the guard’s knapsack and canteen.


Two African American guards stand in front of a tent, holding rifles. A prisoner holding a knapsack and a canteen walks away from the back of the tent.
First guard: “Well nigger whats de matter now.” Second guard: “You see copral, dis is de first time, I’se been on dis post, and I laid my knappsack and canteen down dar, and for I could wink my eye some damn Rebel stole dem both.” Prisoner: “This will do me more good than that darkie.”
Source: “Knapsack theft,” from Point Lookout Sketches

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More of these drawings can be seen online. As mentioned earlier, the drawings address other subjects beside guard-prisoner relations. They are from the archive of Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society. A list of the art that is available for browsing online is here.

I first saw these pictures in the book Maryland Voices of the Civil War, by Charles W. Mitchell. Another set of drawings by Omenhausser is being held by the Maryland Historical Society, in the booklet Sketches from Prison: A Confederate Artist’s Record of Life at Point Lookout.

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5 thoughts on “The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 2: Sketches from Prison (“De’ Bottom Rails on Top Now”)

  1. “. . . or I’ll pop a cap at you.”

    Reference to percussion caps, of course, which were used to ignite the main charge in both rifles and pistols of that period. But funny how the usage comes right down to the present day, from cap gun toys to street slang.

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