Picturing the Civil War 1

The Civil War was the first war in American history to be illustrated as it occurred- not just through the extraordinary engraved images in the immensely popular Harper’s Weekly, but through widely-distributed Currier & Ives prints; illustrated envelopes (a fad early in the war); illustrated sheet music; pamphlets; cheap yellow-backed iterature; novels; children’s books; souvenir cards; magazines; broadsheets; and even games. When we approach the Civil War, in fact, we are suddenly in a world of startling visual abundance– as anyone can attest who types the phrase “Civil War images” into a Google search and then tries to make sense of the plethora of images available on a multitude of websites.

Of course in the list above I have left out one central source of Civil War imagery: photographs. But certainly it is Civil War photographs that are at the center of our imaginative encounters with the war. Who has not been haunted by a Mathew Brady photograph of bodies on the battlefield? Who has not peered closely at a daguerreotype of a soldier, searching for meaning in the oddly intimate contact with a young man long since dead? Who has not explored the extraordinary careworn face of President Lincoln as he visibly aged in photographs taken during the war?

In this first post of our November forum on the Civil War, I would like to consider the use of photographs during the war- and then explore our own uses of such photographs in the classroom, inviting you to share your own experiences and ideas. In subsequent posts I will explore not only photographs but a variety of other types of Civil War images produced during and immediately after the war- and along the way will pay attention to both white women and African American men and women, along with soldiers. Finally, in a post late in the month (Happy Thanksgiving!), we will also think about the use of film to teach about the Civil War from D. W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation (1915) to Gone with the Wind (1939) to Glory (1989).

Before we discuss photographs themselves, let us start with the expectations- both North and South- that people living at the time of the war had concerning how war would look when it began in 1861. Both Northerners and Southerners inherited a set of visual beliefs about war derived from a long tradition of battle paintings and prints: they believed that it would be heroic, involving gallant charges by sword-waving officers; that it would be orderly; that it would be both stirring and even beautiful (!) in ways that could easily be represented in images. We get some sense of these early, naive expectations of war (many people later could not believe how little they had anticipated the brutal nature of modern warfare) when we look at the ways in which the war was represented in 1862- before the fiercest fighting of the war had taken place and shaken Americans- comfortable assumptions. Take a look, for instance, at the Currier & Ives print “The Battle of Williamsburg, Va., May 5th 1862” (Figure 1)- not one of the major battles of the war, although the print does its best to convince you otherwise. This print is available at the Civil War images webpage, part of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division’s “Pictorial Americana” website. It is a site well worth exploring on your own.

“The Battle of Williamsburg, Va., May 5th, 1862,” Currier & Ives, New York, 1862. Library of Congress.

Figure 1. “The Battle of Williamsburg, Va., May 5th, 1862″ Currier & Ives, New York, 1862. Library of Congress.

As we can see in this print, the battle dead have artistically managed to arrange themselves in sinuous lines at the bottom right and left of the print, allowing a rounded “frame” to form that highlights the stern general on horseback motioning his men forward. Swords are raised; flags are flying artistically; the general himself is in a completely stiff and unnatural pose, apparently with little interest in (or worry about) the Confederate Army directly in front of him. There is none of the confusion, the smoke, the lack of visibility that Stephen Crane would later render in fiction and which many veterans felt was the first “real” rendering of the war. This stirring “and completely unrealistic” scene was replicated in dozens of battle lithographs and prints, including numerous such scenes by Winslow Homer for Harper’s Weekly (see, for example, the July 5, 1862 engraving based on a Homer drawing, “The War for the Union, 1862-A Cavalry Charge“).

Figure 2. “General N. B. McLaughlin and Staff, near Washington, D.C., July, 1865." Library of Congress.

Figure 2. ” General N. B. McLaughlin and Staff, near Washington, D.C., July, 1865.” Library of Congress.

Photographs, by contrast, introduced a war that could not be contained by artistic convention- though many photographers certainly tried. As Alan Trachtenberg reminds us in his wonderful essay “Albums of War” (a chapter in his 1989 Reading American Photographs), Civil War photographers were themselves influenced by conventions of genre painting and drawing: their tendency, for instance, was to arrange generals and officers in stiff groups in front of tents for photographs-€careful groupings that remind one of numerous traditional engravings and paintings. In Figure 2, for instance, “General N. B. McLaughlin and Staff, near Washington, D.C., July, 1865″ (taken a few months after the war ended but before the army had been disbanded), we see a highly conventional arrangement of officers sitting in front of a tent for a group photograph.

There were dozens- hundreds- of such conventional groupings photographed during the war, such as Figure 3, “General George Stoneman and staff, near Richmond, Va., June 1862.”

Figure 3. “General George Stoneman and staff, near Richmond, Va., June 1862." Library of Congress.

Figure 3. “General George Stoneman and staff, near Richmond, Va., June 1862.” Library of Congress.

Yet even when we look at these stiff, arranged, non-battlefield photographs, we tend to feel that something has slipped beyond the photographer’s attempt to control the image of the war0 something has spilled over that is mysterious to us and catches us up as viewers. We note, of course, that in both photographs African American men (no doubt servants to these officers) are seated on the ground- in both cases, surprisingly, with a dog. Who are these men? Are they “contrabands” (the word used during the war to signify slaves who achieved freedom by entering Union lines)? If so, they certainly did not find equality when they entered Union lines: these photographs give us a vivid sense of visually-enforced racial hierarchy within the Union army.

Figure 4. “Tent Life of the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment.” Library of Congress.

Figure 4. “Tent Life of the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment.” Library of Congress.

Other photographs of camp scenes are equally evocative. Take, for instance, Figure 4, “Tent Life of the 31st Pennsylvania Regiment.” Here we seem to be face to face with the messy “reality” of camp life, with a soldier’s entire family (at least we assume it is his family) with him in camp. We seem to have caught something spontaneous- which we moderns tend to privilege as more ideal than conventionally-arranged photographs. But on closer inspection we can see that this photograph, too, includes artificial arrangements. Take a look, for instance, at the lower left of the photograph, where a spoon and a plate are carefully propped against a cooking pot on the ground. There is no reason for this arrangement except to display the items that a soldier has with him in camp- perhaps this is the hidden subtext of the photograph? Yet if the photographer;s intention is to show what belongings one soldier has with him in camp, the photograph also has a great deal of extra information to convey. Once again we wonder about the lives of the woman, the children, and the African American man we glimpse just at the back of the tent on the right. It is not a glorious scene; it is not a heroic scene; we sense that we have come close to the ordinary soldier’s experience of the Civil War. But as viewers we have as many questions as answers here.

Figure 5. "Group of contraband at Follers House, Cumberland Landing, Va., May, 1862." Library of Congress.

Figure 5. “Group of contraband at Follers House, Cumberland Landing, Va., May, 1862.” Library of Congress.

Finally, let us look at one last carefully-arranged group photograph before turning to the battlefield. Figure 5, “Group of Contraband at Follers House, Cumberland Landing, Va., May, 1862,” is notable for its arrangement as well; note, for instance, the two men lying down in front, probably under instructions from the photographer, as their pose imitates the physical arrangement of conventional collegiate photographs of the day. But what is most striking here are the expressions of the African American “contrabands” the uncompromising stares they give to the camera, but whose meanings we cannot possibly fully know.

Even the most artificially-arranged Civil War photographs, in other words, offer us the pedagogic gift of curiosity. We can explain to our students that we cannot possibly know everything we would like to about the people in these photographs- and we can sharpen their historical awareness by asking them to consider what they would like to know, what particular questions they have about these obscure lives, relationships, and wartime experiences. Such questions not only fire imaginations but can lead to useful research tasks. Civil war photographs, in short- and not just the most famous, but photographs such as these I have been discussing0 can allow students to engage deeply with the social history of the war. I have found in the past that a successful assignment can involve class presentation by students of Civil War photographs they have unearthed on the Web- with research attached to make as much sense of the photograph as possible. I would be curious to hear about your own experiences teaching the visual Civil War.

When we turn to photographs of battles, we of course find nothing at all like the Currier & Ives print with which I began this post. Indeed, as Alan Trachtenberg points out in “Albums of War,”  we do not really find battles at all in photographs- we instead find “preparations and aftermaths, the scene but not the event.” This has to do in part with the nature of warfare- after all, battles were not necessarily predictable events at which a photographer could set up a tripod (although photographers approached the first battle of the war, Bull Run, in exactly that spirit). But the dearth of battle photographs also has to do with the state of photography itself at the time of the Civil War: it entailed cumbersome equipment and involved a wet-plate process that “required that the camera be planted, the lens focused, the plate coated, exposed, and developed while still wet, all within precious moments at the scene of the “view to be made”(Trachtenberg, 72). Thus when we explore the battlefield we see many views- but not the battle itself.

But we do see the aftermath of battle. Among the most famous “views” of the battlefield war, of course, were those of the bodies left on the field. Here, for instance, is a representation of the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam titled “Bodies of Confederate Dead Gathered for Burial”

Figure 6. “Bodies of Confederate Dead Gathered for Burial” (Antietam). Library of Congress.

Figure 6. “Bodies of Confederate Dead Gathered for Burial”:(Antietam). Library of Congress.

Antietam, of course, was the bloody victory that Abraham Lincoln felt he needed in order to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a major turning point in the politics of the war-and also in how Americans saw war. In the fall of 1862, in the month after Antietam, Mathew Brady mounted an exhibition at his gallery in New York titled “The Dead of Antietam.” A Northern world used to the propaganda offered by such images as Currier & Ives prints, used to thinking of the war as remote, as far away, suddenly took note. The New York Times review of these photographs on October 20, 1862 captured some of the shock felt by viewers- it is worth quoting in some detail:

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard, “The Dead of Antietam.” Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action. Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loath to leave them. You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes. It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas and given them perpetuity forever. But so it is.

Figure 7. "Collecting Remains of the Dead at Cold Harbor, Va., for interment after war." Library of Congress.

Figure 7. “Collecting Remains of the Dead at Cold Harbor, Va., for interment after war.” Library of Congress.

It was the photographic image that changed visual representations of war during the Civil War- that brought into focus the “real” war of death and carnage, in which some 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. But these images brought in their wake significant challenges for the American people, as Drew Gilpin Faust has written in her This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. How to make sense of the war;  how to give such terrible loss meaning, became one of the great cultural tasks of the war. We will be discussing some of those attempts to give visual meaning to the war over the course of this month.

In this post I have been dependent throughout on the extraordinary visual resources offered by the Library of Congress. I will be curious to hear how you have used images in your courses; what suggestions you have for teaching the Civil War as a visual event; and finally, would urge you to take a look as well at the rich resources available at the following Library of Congress website:

I look forward to our conversation this month.


  1. Josh Brown
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Alice’s first post raises a number of critical issues about the visual record of the Civil War as historical evidence and as a means for teaching this pivotal subject in U.S. history. One question, to use historian Marni Sandweiss’s useful phrase (in her 2002 book Print the Legend: Photography and the American West), is how we get students to evaluate the use of photographs “in history and through history”–as primary documents linked to and eliciting insights into a specific historical moment, and as documents no longer linked to that moment requiring us to examine how and why their meanings changed over time. How can we help students understand that seeing is not necessarily believing, the limitations of the photographic record, and how over time these materials capture and cloak the history of the war? And can we cite specific examples where this evidence illuminates and confuses understanding?

  2. Shirley Wajda
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I’m a bit confused by the assertion that the Civil War was “first war in American history to be illustrated as it occurred.” Political and battle engravings of the American Revolution were created and published at the time (though our modern visual history of the Revolution is based in later imagery).

    Granted, the numbers of Revolutionary Era images pale in comparison to the numbers (and types) of images created during the Civil War. Nevertheless, colonial and art historians argue for a widespread print culture in the late eighteenth century; if one could not purchase prints, one certainly could see them in taverns and clubs and at the print shop. How then do we reckon the impact of different print technologies on the public at different times–especially in relation to larger political events such as war?

    I was reminded of all this in re-reading the Times’s review of Brady’s 1862 exhibition of the Antietam dead. The reviewer seems interested more in the viewers’ responses to the images, not necessarily with the images themselves. The reviewer mimics the poetry and prose of witnessing/suffering/mourning death found in sentimental literature at the time. The longer review compares the exhibition to the list of battle dead and to the “funeral next door.” One paragraph is dedicated to the description of the images, framing the subjects of those images in the moment of dying (verbs such as “grasping,” “clutching,” reaching” describing “spasms of pain”). And, we are told, “the terrible distinctiveness” of these images can be beheld by the use of a magnifying glass.

    The images Brady exhibited as “The Dead of Antietam” are reframed as ARRESTING the ravages of death, which, in turn, was a “natural” outcome of war which, in turn, was, in some philosophies, “natural” to the human condition. How did photographs make what was once considered natural unnatural?

  3. Alice Fahs
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Shirley Wajda’s fascinating comments on the longer Times review of Brady’s photographs remind us that Civil War viewers could only frame their own responses to war within the “languages” available to them-including the language of sentimentalism (both literary and visual). To read the longer review is indeed to be struck by the strenuous effort the reviewer makes to couch the sight of dead bodies within a sentimental framework–to provide, with the evocation of the “funeral next door,” some sort of semblance of a Victorian “good death” for the soldiers lying on the field. That “good death”–both a hope and an expectation in mid-nineteenth-century America-included dying at home, surrounded by loved ones; having a chance to communicate one’s final thoughts; and making one’s peace with God. Within sentimental literature, the “good death” was deemed “natural”-which made the brutal anonymity of death on the battlefield seem all the more shocking and “unnatural” to those at home. A vast “sentimental soldier” literature during the war, including prints, sought to provide that “good death” for soldiers in poems, prose, and images.

    Wajda is right, of course, about Revolutionary Era images and the rich visual culture of the late eighteenth century. But it is interesting to think about the expectations of viewers/readers by the time of the Civil War, when such illustrated weeklies as Harper’s Weekly reached hundreds of thousands of readers. Civil War readers/viewers expected to be able to see the war in ways that previous viewers simply could not have demanded. They were surrounded by a vast consumer culture of war, as well. Indeed, though some historians talk about a major shift to visual culture as a mode of approaching and understanding American life at the end of the nineteenth century (with the advent of film, for instance), it is worth questioning this periodization. How did earlier Americans visually connect to their world-especially, for the sake of this forum, at the time of the Civil War? Wajda’s comments allow us to think about how exactly we periodize Americans’ changing relationships to visual culture-how we construct a narrative involving the differences in visual cultures and their audiences from, say, the late eighteenth century to the time of the Civil War to the late nineteenth century. How did people interact differently with their visual worlds during that time? Is it merely sheer volume of visual material that distinguishes these time periods, or did new visual materials in fact create new modes of interacting with the world?

    Josh Brown’s interesting comments remind me of the multiple controversies over the “authenticity” of Civil War photographs of battlefield dead in which bodies had been re-positioned on the battlefield. (Elsewhere on this website, take a look at Elizabeth Young’s fascinating Review titled “Retouching History.) The fact that Alexander Gardner “re-staged” bodies for artistic effect has troubled readers and viewers who instead want to see the “real” war, the “authentic” war. I find that re-staging troubling, too. But nevertheless it raises some interesting questions to discuss with students about representations of the war–especially as a way of getting them to see that they have their own preconceptions concerning what is “authentic.” What counts as “authentic” when we talk of Civil War dead? As moderns, do we believe that only photographs of bodies where they fell on the battlefield count? How do we expect the war to look? Why?

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite Civil War poems, Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” which focuses on three bodies outside a hospital tent. I’ll close with this not only because it relates to the crisis of meaning caused by Civil War death, but also because it is so intimately focused on the visual-a reminder that Civil War images occur in poems as well as prints and photographs. I have often used the poem in teaching the Civil War.

    A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
    As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
    As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
    Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
    Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
    Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

    Curious I halt and silent stand,
    Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
    Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
    Who are you my dear comrade?

    Then to the second I step-and who are you my child and darling?
    Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

    Then to the third-a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white
    Young man I think I know you-I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
    Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

  4. Posted November 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    “first war in American history to be illustrated as it occurred.”

    This is for the most part, accurate. The Civil War’s most lasting images were the most immediate to date. Furthermore, most of what we know of Revolutionary War battles comes from depictions created an ocean away, from the painters of the Benjamin West school (Copley and Trumbull, etc.)

    When I use the Civil War in my class, I like starting from the end. Shock value goes a long way in my students, so I start with visual slides showing Mathew Brady photographs of the dead. As they get more and more disgusted, I give them the question that would frame our whole discussion of the war, “What could possibly cause this to happen?”

    By seeing the effects, per se, my students can better grasp the gravity of the arguments in the heated times before the war. These were life-and-death issues: it’s rare that people today devote so much to political and social argument. So to really introduce the Civil War is to get into the emotion of the war, which 21st century students do not necessarily grasp right away.

  5. Alice Fahs
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more that the Matthew Brady photographs are a powerful way of presenting the Civil War.

    Do others of you on the forum have favorite Civil War images that you use in the classroom?

  6. Posted November 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Multiple perspectives is an important aspect of this war. I feel that with the constant barrage of images of death, camp life, and life on the home front, my students forget about the other view: the view from the headquarters. Although almost all of them had some first-hand combat experience, the generals of these massive armies saw this war from a very different, wider angle.

    To that end, I found a website called Civil War Animated, which uses maps and tactics drawn from the battlefield into animations of each campaign. It also includes information on troop movements, organization of units, and info on the people involved. It gives a perspective of battle that you can’t get from a painting or a photo. The link is below: