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Images Of Disorder And Early Sorrow

July 2024
6min read

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.”

William C. Davis and his collaborators have brought them out again, and even now the crudest images retain the power to shock. There are pictures here of hundreds of dead men and boys sprawled on half a hundred battlefields. But for me the most horrific photograph was a close-in view of a stack of bare feet, each one surprisingly white and no two precisely alike, hacked off by battlefield surgeons after some forgotten fight. It is probably worth looking at things like that from time to time to remind us of what has already happened here.

Our memories of the Civil War may be stirred by old photographs, but those of more recent trauma are literally composed of television images, at once so powerful and so frequently repeated that they have become a part of our collective remembrance: the Saigon police chief shooting a Vietcong suspect, or the Kennedy limousine endlessly rolling out from behind the highway sign in Dallas. This fact has not been lost on the makers of television mini-series.

The producers of “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” the seven-hour drama that will soon run on CBS over three evenings, seem more interested in impressing us with their ability to match our old television memories than in Robert Kennedy himself. It is as if they were afraid we would not believe in the authenticity of the events they are dramatizing unless we were made to see them from precisely the same vantage point as we did the first time around. Authentic newsreels are interspersed with newly made ones; familiar black-and-white photographs are made slowly to come alive in color; familiar scenes are re-created (I counted six games of touch football); and the best-remembered news footage—such as Kennedy’s final appearance before his delirious California followers on the night of June 4, 1968—is methodically restaged, almost frame by frame. Much of this is ingeniously done, but it is no more revealing of what was really going on than were the evening news programs on which we initially saw these scenes.

I was struck by the relentless grubbiness of much of everyday America in the 1860s: the Civil War was clearly fought with a lot of spit and very little polish.

Then, too, the series tries to cover too much too fast—Robert Kennedy’s whole truncated career, from his tentative entry into politics as a distinctly junior campaign worker in his brother’s first congressional campaign in 1946, through his own frenetic last-minute plunge for the Presidency twenty-two years later. The whole array of men and issues he confronted is hurried past the camera—Joe McCarthy and Jimmy Hoffa and J. Edgar Hoover, civil rights, the Cuban missile crisis, Latin America, Vietnam, city slums and rural poor, his own position in the Kennedy family and in the public mind. Little time is left to explore the development of the complex and passionate human being whom Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., portrayed with such shrewdness and affection in the biography upon which the series is based. Most of Kennedy’s irony and wit has been jettisoned, along with all but a moment or two of the abrupt impatience that won him early the reputation for ruthlessness that he spent the rest of his short life trying to overcome: the TY Bobby Kennedy always has time to stop and remove a thorn from the huge paw of Brumus, the family dog.

The busy performance of Brad Davis in the title role does not help. He is convincing enough in the long shots: he gets Kennedy’s brisk, oddly hunched walk right, and his manner on the podium evokes the real RFK, leaning into the microphone, gripping the lectern with both hands and the crowd with his earnestness. But things go seriously wrong whenever we get closer. The genuine Kennedy grin was memorable, for example, a winning symbol of shyness conquered (at least for an instant), and filled with amusement at the absurdity of fame. Brad Davis’s version of it is an actor’s studied grimace, a coy, crinkly attempt at self-deprecation that made me look away in embarrassment every time the camera moved in to capture it.

There is some very good acting here: Ned Beatty, minus his Southern accent and wearing a suit two sizes too small, makes a fine, twitchy Hoover; J. D. Spradlin manages without caricature to convey the sense that Lyndon Johnson was at once able and disturbed; and Veronica Cartwright manages to inject her Ethel Kennedy with warmth and intelligence, despite the direction that makes her undertake a peppy little leap into the air nearly every time her husband smiles at her.

And after Dallas, as Robert Kennedy emerges from his brother’s shadow and his own grief, the program picks up considerable momentum. I could not help but be moved by its re-creation of the turbulent spring, almost seventeen years ago now, when—for some of us at least —hope itself seemed to have been murdered in that kitchen in Los Angeles.

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