By Ross J. Kelbaugh
In the pre-internet era, dealers in early photography often sold images through fixed-price print catalogs or by mail, fax or phone auctions. In one such auction that specialized in high quality real photo postcards, a cabinet card grabbed my attention. It was a portrait taken in Clinton, Iowa, of an African-American woman wearing a ribbon for the H.B. Baker Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. Founded in 1866, the G.A.R. was a fraternal organization open to all men who had served in the Union army during the Civil War.
I didn’t expect to see any woman, particularly one who was Black, wearing a G.A.R. badge for a formal studio photograph taken in Iowa or anywhere else. On the back of the card, printed information offered some explanation. The subject was identified as Mrs. Elizabeth Fairfax, “a soldier in the late war for the Union,” and a widowed resident of Clinton, where she worked as a washwoman and struggled to raise her two children. Like Sojourner Truth, Fairfax sold her “shadows to support her substance” for the support of herself and her family.
Spirited bidding for the cabinet card came down to competing phone calls. In the end, I successfully added the image to my collection. This was an untold account from the Civil War that demanded to be remembered.
The Clinton Public Library provided the source for the rest of the story. Fairfax was a runaway enslaved woman who had been a camp servant to the 26th Iowa Infantry during the Civil War, while it was stationed at Vicksburg, Miss. She remained with the 26th until the end of hostilities, and followed the regiment back to their hometown in Iowa. There, she established her home and was embraced by the Clinton community. Though she was never officially employed as an army nurse, the veterans recounted that she probably assisted with the sick and wounded as she worked washing and cooking for the men in the regiment. After the war, she worked as a laundress and rag carpet weaver, and walked the Clinton streets selling matches and chewing gum from a basket as she cheerfully remarked “God bless you honey” to her customers.
On April 22, 1908, the local newspaper reported that the police found “Aunt Lizzie” dead in her small cottage. Her obituary also mentioned that she never missed an opportunity to attend a reunion of veterans or march with them on Memorial Day. The commander of the General H.B. Baker G.A.R. Post ordered all members that could to turn out for her funeral. The A.M.E. Methodist Church filled to capacity the next day to mourn her death. Even the composer of her favorite hymn attended and performed it during the service. Her pallbearers included several veterans as the humble Aunt Lizzie was reverently “buried with her boys” in the section of the graveyard reserved for Civil War soldiers and veterans. A Grand Army of the Republic marker stands at attention today next to her grave. Another forgotten African American story has been added to our national memory.
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