Plate 27. What Do I Want, John Henry? - scene near Washington

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Text and photograph from Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, Vol. II. Negative by Alexander Gardner, text and positive by Alexander Gardner.
When fatigued by long exercise in the saddle, over bottomless roads, or under the glowing Southern sun, John's master would propound the query, "What do I want, John Henry?" that affectionate creature would at once produce the demijohn of "Commissary," as the only appropriate prescription for the occasion that his untutored nature could suggest.
A legend was current at headquarters that J. H. had been discovered hanging by his heels to a persimmon tree. It is needless to state that this was a libel, originating in a scurrilous picture of that African, drawn by a special artist. In point of fact, he came into notice at Harrison's Landing, in the summer of 1862. An officer's hat blew off; John raised it, and with a grin (which alarmed the Captain, lest he should be held responsible if the head should fall off), politely handed it up. The rare intelligence exhibited in this act naturally made a deep impression, and suggested an unusual capacity for the care of boots and other attentions, seldom rendered, although occasionally expected of camp servants. "Would you like to take service with me?" said the Captain. "Yees, sir," answered John. "Then follow me to camp." "I can't keep up, sir." "Catch hold of the horse's tail, then." In short, John Henry was installed body servant to Captain H, quartermaster of headquarters, and took his position as an unmistakable character.
Although his head resembled an egg, set up at an angle of forty-five degrees, small end on top, yet his moral and intellectual acquirements were by no means common. His appreciation of Bible history was shown on many occasions. For instance, he always considered Moses the most remarkable of quartermasters, in that he crossed the Red Sea without pontoons, and conducted the children of Israel forty years through the desert without a wagon train.
With wisdom such as this he would enlighten his sable compeers. Meanwhile, the Captain became a Colonel. Richmond was evacuated, and John Henry became a resident of the rebel capital. Here freedom burst upon him in a new light; he formed new associations – principally with the other sex – to raise whose spirits he would appropriate his employer's. As his mind expanded, boots became monotonous, manual labor distasteful, and a dissolution of partnership inevitable. The Colonel went to another scene of duty. John Henry remained, whether owing to inducements offered by the Provisional Government is not yet definitely known.
Currently not on view
date made
Gardner, Alexander
place made
United States: Virginia, Warrenton
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
overall: 7 in x 9 in; 17.78 cm x 22.86 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
related event
Civil War
See more items in
Culture and the Arts: Photographic History
Gardner's Sketchbook
Family & Social Life
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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