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.
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“).
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.”
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.
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.
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”
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.
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: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/civil-war-photographs/.
I look forward to our conversation this month.