Site Overlay

Investigating the Iconic Portraits of a USCT Drummer Boy

By Kurt Luther

The pair of portraits of an African American young man—one version in tattered clothes and another in the uniform of a Union drummer boy—is among the most iconic of the Civil War. First produced in the 1860s, these images recaptured the public’s attention when featured in Ken Burns’ famed 1990 documentary series, The Civil War. Reviewing the series for The Washington Post, columnist George Will wrote:

“Less than one percent of the North’s population was black, but by the end of the war 10 percent of the Union forces were black. One of them was a handsome boy named Jackson, about 12. Burns’s camera pans slowly up an old photograph, up past the bare feet, ragged trousers, shredded shirt of ‘Contraband Jackson.’ (Contrabands were slaves that escaped to Union lines.) Then the camera pans up another photograph, up over boots, fine trousers, past a drum and snappy blouse, to the face of … Drummer Jackson.”

The pair of photos has been published in numerous books and articles in subsequent decades. Natalie Robinson, a University of Georgia student and Civil War Photo Sleuth intern, encountered them several times during her summer project enhancing the website’s collection of United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldier portraits. After some initial research on the photos’ subject, she was surprised to discover he was not definitively identified, and what little information available was contradictory. Natalie and I decided to dig deeper and try to rediscover the young soldier’s name and biography. In this column, I report on our findings to date, including a series of exciting discoveries, and conclude with a request for help.

Press photo for Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
Press photo for Ken Burns’ The Civil War.

The pair of photos shown in The Civil War describe the young man as “Contraband Jackson / Servant in Confederate Army” and, later, “Drummer Jackson / 79th USCT.” Normally, the name, rank and regiment would offer plenty of information to identify the subject. Yet, as we investigated further, this lead began to fray. According to PBS promotional materials, the pair of images shown in the documentary comes from the MOLLUS-Mass Collection at the U.S. Army Military History Institute. Indeed, a digitized version of both photos, which look to be unmounted cartes de visite, is available online. The young man is identified using the pencil inscription common to the majority of MOLLUS-Mass images, but the source of that ID is unclear, and no period inscription is available.

Natalie’s initial research had also uncovered copies of the two cartes in the Library of Congress. These images appear to have no period inscriptions, so the ID source is unclear, but the staff has titled one photo, “Taylor, young drummer boy for 78th Colored Troops Infantry, in rags,” and the other as the same, except “with drum.” Already, between the two professionally managed federal archives, we found contradictions in both key pieces of information: the name (Jackson vs. Taylor) and the regiment (79th vs. 78th USCT).

Library of Congress.

Library of Congress.

National Archives.

National Archives.

Faced with this discrepancy, we sought additional versions of the photos, ideally with some period inscriptions that are often more trustworthy. In the National Archives, we located a copy of the drummer carte with a period inscription on the front: “Taylor—Drummer Boy / 78th Reg’t U.S.C.I.” Now we had two votes for Taylor and 78th USCT, including one period inscription, but we speculated that the Library of Congress identification, lacking any obvious period source, may simply have copied the National Archives.

Exhausting our search of federal archives, we broadened our search to other public and private collections. Google’s Reverse Image Search helped us find similar-looking photos on other websites without using keywords. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University appeared in our search results with a carte of the same “rags” view as in the Library of Congress. Staff had titled the photo, “Full length portrait, young boy standing, barefoot, clothes in tatters,” a rather generic descriptor that may have caused earlier Civil War photo sleuths to overlook it. Unlike the LC version, however, this photo had a period ink inscription with a fascinating lead: “Taylor — Slave of Col. Hamilton as he arrived at the Fort.”

This carte de visite in the Beinecke Library at Yale University includes a unique period ink inscription: “Taylor — Slave of Col. Hamilton as he arrived at the Fort.” 

This carte de visite in the Beinecke Library at Yale University includes a unique period ink inscription: “Taylor — Slave of Col. Hamilton as he arrived at the Fort.” 

The Beinecke Library does not appear to own a copy of the “drummer” photo. Likewise, the National Archives does not have the “rags” view in its collections. Given the similar handwriting and parallel phrasing on these cartes, we theorize that they were a matched pair, inscribed by the same unknown hand, but currently separated across the two institutions.

We found another drummer boy pair in the Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections. LSU preserves a collection of 107 lantern slides “documenting the aftermath of the Siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana from May 23 – July 9, 1863” that may have been created in the 1880s by Maj. John Langdon Ward of the 75th USCT, who served during the siege. One slide shows the young man in rags with the intriguing caption, “600 Miles through swamp and cane brake to fight for freedom.” Another slide shows the transformation to Union drummer with the caption, “Taylor—drummer 78th U.S.C.T.” It was another vote for Taylor of the 78th USCT, attributed to an officer who may have had firsthand experience with the event.

Louisiana State University Special Collections.
Louisiana State University Special Collections.

We located two more examples of the photo pair in private collections. One set of images, which we found via Ross Kelbaugh’s website, was first published in William Gladstone’s United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867. The backs of these photos bear inscriptions that add new details to the mystery. The first inscription reads “Jackson” and “As he appeared when he came into our lines,” while the second reads, “As he appeared two weeks later.” The other pair, from the collection of Terry O’Leary, was published by Don Dillon in the May-June 1981 issue of MI. These cartes bear the period inscriptions, “Before” and “After,” but no other distinctive elements.

None of the drummer boy photos we found had a photographer’s backmark, and we can only speculate about the intentions behind their creation. However, they represent a genre of photography that historian Sara Jones Weicksel calls “visual transformation narratives,” in which photo groupings depict a process of African Americans changing from slaves into men and, ultimately, soldiers. The best-known example of these is Gordon, who, according to a July 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly, escaped a Mississippi plantation to join the Union Army near Baton Rouge. In a triptych of engravings, Gordon is pictured dressed in rags “as he entered our lines,” then revealing horrific whipping scars “under medical inspection,” and finally “in his uniform as a U.S. soldier,” complete with corporal’s chevrons. In another example of the genre, Hubbard Pryor, an escaped slave from Georgia clad in torn clothing, is transformed into a uniformed private soldier of the 44th USCT; his story was visualized as a pair of cartes de visite and 1864 Harper’s Weekly engravings. In her article, “To Look Like Men of War: Visual Transformation Narratives of African American Union Soldiers,” Weicksel writes, “The loose, mismatched clothes hanging from Gordon and Hubbard Pryor’s frames convey not only poverty and weakness, but also unruly, undisciplined bodies… In uniform, these men look less like submissive, defeated slaves, and more like men imbued with a sense of manhood centered on determination, patriotism, and the restrained body.” Her final example is the mystery drummer boy, for whom “the loose rags that barely cling to [his] frame place no restrictions on the body. By comparison, his uniform hugs the body, physically instructing the boy to stand erect.” Differences in clothing material, tailoring and even posture sharpen potency of these images.

In Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America, historian Matthew Fox-Amato writes that by distributing such photographs, abolitionists “transformed the long-standing antislavery practice of oral witnessing into one of visual witnessing” where “…the proof of abolitionist authority, benevolence, and humaneness lay in the display, exchange, and viewing of the images.” Abolitionists could leverage this new “instrument of political mass persuasion” to increase fundraising and political influence. The photos also helped U.S. military leaders recruit more African American soldiers. For example, Pryor’s photo pair, explains art historian Erina Duganne in her article, “Black Civil War Portraiture in Context,” was commissioned by the 44th USCT’s commander, Col. Reuben D. Mussey, for inclusion in a report to the Bureau of USCTs about successful recruitment of black soldiers.

“Our question becomes whether there exists a kernel of truth within that evidence that enables us to rediscover his true identity.”

Against these broad agendas, the details of these transformation narratives were sometimes subordinated to their raw visual power. A copy of the Pryor views sold by Heritage Auctions included period inscriptions on both that misidentified the subject as “Sam’l [Samuel] Pryor.” Fox-Amato notes that another account of Gordon’s life gives the man’s name as Peter, and his origin as Louisiana, rather than Mississippi. Likewise, it makes sense that our mystery drummer boy’s name and regiment is obscured even in contemporary evidence such as period inscriptions. Our question becomes whether there exists a kernel of truth within that evidence that enables us to rediscover his true identity.

Having gathered all available visual evidence for our investigation, we turned to military records to sort out the conflicting information. Our research was greatly facilitated by a partnership between the National Archives and which digitized the compiled military service records (CMSRs) for all USCT soldiers – more than 3.6 million documents available online to subscribers. Complicating our research, we soon discovered there were actually two different 79th USCTs. The first was a regiment of Louisiana Native Guards, renamed the 7th regiment of the Corps d’Afrique and, finally, the 79th USCT. This “old” 79th regiment existed briefly from April to July 1864 and garrisoned at Port Hudson and New Orleans. The second, “new” 79th USCT was previously the 1st Kansas (Colored) Infantry, famously organized without federal authorization in 1862, and the first African American regiment to see combat. The 1st Kansas (Colored) was redesignated the 79th USCT in December 1864, and served primarily in Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. Although the old, Louisiana-based 79th USCT seemed more promising, we included both regiments in our research for the sake of completeness.

Our search of Fold3 for soldiers with the first or last name Taylor or Jackson in the 78th or 79th (old or new) USCT regiments yielded 132 results, including some duplicates. We opened the CMSR for each and inspected the soldier’s muster-in and muster-out ranks, looking for musicians. Among the 132 results, there was just one musician—a drummer. His name was Hamilton Taylor.

According to the company descriptive book, Taylor was a 14-year-old laborer born in Liberty, La. His age, birthplace and occupation suggest he may have been an escaped or liberated slave. He stood 4-foot 10-inches tall, with a black complexion, black eyes and light hair.  Enlistment papers state that he joined the (old) 79th USCT as a drummer at Port Hudson on July 6, 1864. The information is surprising, because the 79th USCT’s regimental history indicates it left Port Hudson in late April 1864 for forts in New Orleans. When the regiment dissolved a few weeks later, Taylor and others in his regiment transferred to the 84th USCT, another former Corps d’Afrique regiment camped at Morganza. Taylor apparently deserted a couple months later on October 15 and disappeared from the historical record.

The evidence for Taylor being the mystery drummer boy, however, is mixed. On the one hand, he is the only drummer named Jackson or Taylor among all soldiers in the 78th or 79th USCTs, and his age and appearance fit the young man pictured in the photos. He also shares the name “Hamilton” with his supposed former master, according to a period inscription. On the other hand, Taylor was a member of the 79th USCT, whereas the Beinecke and LSU inscriptions place Taylor in the 78th. And wouldn’t “Hamilton” make more sense as Taylor’s last name, if he belonged to Col. Hamilton?

Album page from Volume 109 of the MOLLUS-Mass Collection at the U.S. Army Military Heritage and Education Center.
Album page from Volume 109 of the MOLLUS-Mass Collection at the U.S. Army Military Heritage and Education Center.

Here, the investigative trail widens and splits into several paths, and we hope that the diligent efforts of fellow photo sleuths can help us traverse them. One promising path is to try to identify Col. Hamilton. The MOLLUS-Mass inscription “Servant in Confederate Army” points towards Confederate colonels and lieutenant colonels named Hamilton, such as Col. Daniel Heyward Hamilton, Sr., of the 1st South Carolina Infantry, and Lt. Col. Jones S. Hamilton of Power’s Mississippi Cavalry. Alternatively, the drummer boy may have fled a nearby plantation, focusing our attention on planters named Hamilton, such as William Sutherland Hamilton, a politician, slaveholder and former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who ran Holly Grove, a cotton plantation near Port Hudson. The service records of the 78th and 79th USCTs, and especially Hamilton Taylor, direct our attention to the vicinity of Port Hudson, but the LSU inscription “600 miles through swamp and cane break,” if taken seriously, creates a rather large radius around that point.

Another promising path is to scour period publications, such as books and newspapers, for references to the drummer boy’s story. Surprisingly, our searches of Google Books and for mentions of Drummer Taylor, Jackson and Col. Hamilton have so far turned up empty. Given that Gordon’s and Pryor’s visual transformation narratives appeared in Harper’s Weekly, and the inscriptions on the mystery drummer photos suggest a common anecdote, we are optimistic there are relevant period publications waiting to be found.

Finally, we must accept the possibility that there is no one true story to uncover here, and that the details will never fully line up. “Contraband Jackson” and “Drummer Taylor” may be fictionalized composites, created to advance the causes of abolitionism, recruitment and patriotism. Even then, our efforts to identify the mystery drummer boy were not in vain. He represents the very real experiences of thousands of young African American men who fought for their freedom. Our modern photo sleuthing led us to the stories of soldiers like Hamilton Taylor, Hubbard Pryor, and Gordon, proving the enduring power of these images a century and a half later.

Kurt Luther is an associate professor of computer science and, by courtesy, history at Virginia Tech. He is the creator of Civil War Photo Sleuth, a free website that combines face recognition technology and community to identify Civil War portraits. He is an MI Senior Editor.

LEARN MORE about Military Images, America’s only magazine dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and preserving Civil War portrait photography.

VISIT OUR STORE to subscribe, renew a subscription, and more.

Scroll Up