Lens of War; Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War

Lens of War; Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War by J. Matthew Gallman & Gary Gallagher, editors. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

The Civil War was well documented by commercial photographers. They invited the leadership of the War into their studios to have portraits made. They also carried their photographic equipment to the fields of battle and into military camps. Several dozen historians of the Civil War were asked by the editors to pick their favorite photograph and write an essay on what the picture tells us about that deadly conflict.

Much has been said about Abraham Lincoln’s visits to Mathew Brady’s and Alexander Gardner’s studios in Washington to have his picture taken. Appropriately Lens of War begins with a portrait taken by Gardner the day before Lincoln was to make a “short contribution” to the dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery. There is some speculation by the essayist that Lincoln may have been thinking about a portrait to illustrate his few, but well-chosen words.

Lincoln may also have had in mind the Gardner portrait being used for a carte de visite. These were popular photographic reproductions mounted on a cardboard measuring 4 x 2½ inches. They were traded amongst friends and left as calling cards. Celebrity photographs, including President Lincoln’s, were much valued. But ordinary soldiers of the Civil War era also stood in lines to obtain a carte de visite of themselves in uniform to mail home.

This was before the age of the photographic smile. Back in the 1860s, you were supposed to look yourself. You were allowed to frown, even scowl, as appropriate to the situation. And there would be few occasions for a smile amongst these often grim circumstances.

One of the photographic portraits is of William Tecumseh Sherman. His “march to the sea” is often compared to what in the twentieth-century is called ‘total war.’ He looks a bit crazed in this photograph. The accompanying essay reveals that Sherman suffered a mental breakdown in the winter of 1861.

Photographers documented the totality of warfare. The most common subject was death, often dead bodies in various stages of decomposition.

One of the photographs is of a dying horse, and we are reminded that armies moved by animal power, mule and horse-drawn wagons. There was an enormous amount of matériel to be transported; warfare in the 1860s involved a vast supply structure. Horses were overworked, badly tended, and not given enough forage or water. The Union armies needed 2.3 million new horses each year of the war.

Several portraits of generals have them dressed in uniforms of cavalry officers. The famous picture of Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveler, is included in this volume. But unlike draft animals, cavalry mounts played a small role in the major battles of the War.

A photo of three prisoners of war captured by Union forces at the Gettysburg battle suggests that they were not Lee’s finest. The essayist calls attention to their shoes which looked to be in good shape, not having been subject to several years of marching. They may have been stragglers or deserters. They would soon be put in jeopardy of their lives. By 1863 the prisoner exchange was breaking down. The results were over-crowded, prisoner-of-war camps and death from neglect and disease. The tragedy is well-documented at the Andersonville prison site in Georgia.

Most of the photographs are ‘staged’ in one way or another. Photographers looking for a compelling image, moved rifles around, even repositioned bodies. With no Photoshop, details had to be considered before the photograph was taken. In some cases there are included a sequence of images that attest to this moving around of the “décor” of the battlefield.

Several photographs document the large numbers of black refugees flooding into Union lines. Many were leaving plantation homes threatened by invading armies. But many were opting to “liberate” themselves and their families. By 1864 perhaps 400,000 slaves had walked away from the cotton fields where they had labored for a life-time. The essayist argues that this flood of refugees, having made their own personal decisions, forced the Union to grapple with the issue of slavery; hence the Emancipation Proclamation.

The last photo in Lens of War was of the Grand Review, victorious Union troops marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in May of 1865. It was a momentous occasion; at that point the Union army was the world’s greatest. Most of the marchers were from the Midwest and having won the war, were anxious to get home. The guns were silent but their futures uncertain.

It would be illuminating to have had photographs that documented Confederate soldiers returning to their often devastated homes. But the Confederacy was not nearly as well documented visually. Later, and often much later, statues were the common means of envisioning “the lost cause” and commemorating its Civil War. We are presently tucking away these statues.

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