- Historic Sites
Images Of Disorder And Early Sorrow
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
Not long after the turn of this century, an enterprising man named Bender bought at auction some one hundred thousand glass negatives of Civil War scenes. He took them home, busily scrubbed off the fragile images for their silver, then peddled the clear plates to makers of gauges and meters—one of whom is reputed to have later cut up his share into eyepieces for the gas masks through which a new generation of American boys saw the fighting in France in 1918.
That story comes from the introduction to the first volume of The Image of War: 1861–1865 , a recently completed six-volume compendium of almost four thousand Civil War photographs, edited by William C. Davis of the National Historical Society. It is a fine survey, culled over a ten-year period from more than one hundred thousand surviving pictures scattered among three hundred collections, supplemented by solid articles on campaigns and battles and individual cameramen, and marred only by some disappointing printing.
The editor does not claim to have compiled a pictorial history of the war, because, as he sensibly explains, no such book is possible. Although there were perhaps three thousand professional photographers at work in America in 1861, and an astonishing percentage of them recorded portraits or scenes having to do in some way with the war that moved over so much of the American landscape, a lot of the fighting took place in areas where no cameraman thought to go. And most of the photographers who did haul their heavy equipment into the field were interested less in history than in commerce: the idea was to make the pictures the boys in camp and their families back home would most like to see. There is still no known photograph of men in combat, though two pale, shaky views made during the siege of Charleston in the summer of 1863 by the fearless Southern photographer G. S. Cook come very close. Both are reproduced in volume four: one, taken from the parapet of Fort Moultrie, caught three distant Federal ironclads at the instant they began arcing their shells over the photographer’s head into the fort; the other, much retouched, includes a Federal shell-burst inside the pocked walls of Fort Sumter itself.
Leafing through the nearly three thousand pages of The Image of War , even someone who has seen a lot of Civil War pictures comes away with fresh impressions. I was struck first by the relentless grubbiness of much of everyday America in the 186Os. Through the unblinking lens, the biggest cities and most prosperous small towns look oddly seedy, their main streets scored with wagon ruts even when momentarily dry, the buildings that line them already stained and battered and often without shade, as if trees were embarrassing reminders of the wilderness our ancestors had labored to obliterate. And the men themselves, even the most important men—politicians, admirals, generals, photographed far behind the lines in the studios of the most prestigious photographers—are universally rumpled and unkempt. As the father of a friend of mine once remarked, “Two worse-dressed groups of men never fought each other.” Nothing seems to have fit: the Civil War was clearly fought with a lot of spit and very little polish.
I was most impressed, however, by how close to home the great war came. A few weeks back, a New York television station ran a series of candid interviews with Soviet citizens, taped in the streets of several Russian cities. Most of the men and women interviewed said they were worried about the possibility of another war, and several went on to express their fear that, because we had not experienced war on our own soil as they had on theirs, our leaders might underestimate its cost. One old woman began to speak of the death of her sister during the German siege of Stalingrad, stopped, tried to blink back her tears, and finally fled from the camera. She, too, was frightened that American civilians did not know war firsthand.
But as these photographs attest, we once knew it unmistakably. The Civil War happened right here . Americans killed one another in their own cornfields and peach orchards, along our roads and across our bridges. Our homes became headquarters. Our churches sheltered the dying. Huge foraging armies swept across American farms and marched through American towns, and tattered convoys of fearful civilians hurried ahead of them. In one memorable picture a Southern farm family prepares for flight: two small boys sit in the back of a wagon, surrounded by a thicket of upended chairs; a woman in a bonnet holds the reins; a second woman, smoking a pipe and gazing wearily into the camera, is about to climb aboard.
At places like Petersburg, the American earth itself seemed to become a combatant, pummeled and torn and blasted open, and Alexander Gardner’s eerie views of the burnt ruins of Richmond—black, broken walls and empty window frames silhouetted against a milky sky—remain among the most vivid records ever made of war’s toll. Little wonder, then, that as soon as the fighting ended, we did our best to forget everything about it but the pageantry, to blur our memory of exactly what we did to one another in our own country. “It is so nearly like visiting the battlefields to look over these views,” wrote Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, “that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and sordid scene, strewn with rags and wrecks, came back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented.”