Analyzing primary sources: A Confederate soldier’s sketchbook

This is one of a series of posts about how to analyze different types of primary sources.

Last week we talked about what primary sources are and how to analyze them. This time around we’re going to talk about how to analyze a rather unusual sketchbook.

Context

At the outbreak of the Civil War, John Jacob Omenhausser was an amateur artist and candy maker living in Richmond, Virginia. He enlisted in the 46th CSA Virginia Infantry in April 1861, and in June 1864 he was captured by Union troops and sent to Point Lookout – a large prisoner-of-war camp in southern Maryland. Once there, Omenhausser encountered the grim reality of prison camp life – limited access to food, medicine, and clothing and poor sanitary conditions. He was lucky enough to have access to stationery, brushes, and inks – perhaps due to the fact that he had relatives in the North. Omenhausser used these supplies to create illustrations of camp life, often accompanied by captions and humorous dialog. His sketches provide us with a unique look at prison life for a Confederate soldier.

Questions

Below are a few images from his sketchbook (you can find the entire sketchbook digitized here). Think about some of these questions as you look at each page:

  • What do these images tell us about living conditions in a prison camp? What kind of clothing, shelter, and supplies do the prisoners have?
  • Omenhausser often inserted humor into his sketches – is that the case with these images?
  • How do the conditions at Point Lookout compare to other Union and Confederate prison camps?
  • What do these illustration reveal about Omenhausser’s opinion of other prisoners and camp visitors?
  • How do these illustrations contrast with each other and Omenhausser’s other sketches?
  • What do these sketches tell us about the morale in prison camps?
  • How do Omenhausser’s sketches match up with other accounts of life at Point Lookout and other Civil War prison camps?

[click for larger images]

Further Research

These illustrations are part of a larger collection – over 60 images – at Special Collections. You can view the entire sketchbook online in our Digital Collections. Few of Omenhausser’s sketchbooks survive, but there are several collections of his illustrations available online. These include:

Learn more about Omenhausser and Point Lookout in the digital exhibit “Women on the Border: Maryland Perspectives of the Civil War” (also a great source of information and primary sources about women in the Civil War).

Learn more about Point Lookout on the National Parks Service website. There are also a number of secondary sources and printed primary sources about the prison camp available at the UMD Libraries – this catalog search might be a good place to start.

Want more help analyzing and understanding primary sources? You can download our Primary Source Analysis handout or take at look at our “Research Using Primary Sources” tutorial. Need help finding primary and secondary sources to analyze? We’re always happy to help – just ask us! You can also check out our website (we recommend starting your research here).

Sources

Omenhausser, John Jacob. Sketchbook. Maryland Manuscripts collection. Item #5213. 1864-1865. Special Collections, University of Maryland.

Novara, Elizabeth. “‘The Rebels Dream in Prison’: Sketches of Women at Point Lookout” Digital exhibit. Women on the Border: Maryland Perspectives of the Civil War. Special Collections, University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

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