It isn’t possible to tell the story of the Civil War without recourse to the million photographic images that were created, some of the best of which are part of a new museum exhibition.
by Ted Widmer
Article originally appeared on the New York Times opinionator blog on 2 May 2013.
Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University. He edited, with Clay Risen and George Kalogerakis, a forthcoming volume of selections from the Disunion series, to be published.
Roughly 150 years ago, in March or April 1863, a shocking photograph was taken in Louisiana. Unlike most photos, it was given a title, “The Scourged Back,” as if it were a painting hanging in an art museum. Indeed, it fit inside a recognizable painter’s category — the nude — but this was a nude from hell. The sitter, an African-American male named Gordon, had been whipped so many times that a mountainous ridge of scar tissue was climbing out of his back. It was detailed, like a military map, and resulted from so many whippings that the scars had to form on top of one another. Gordon had escaped from a nearby Mississippi plantation to a camp of federal soldiers, supporting the great Vicksburg campaign of the spring. Medical officers examined him, and after seeing his back, asked a local photography firm, McPherson and Oliver, to document the scar tissue.
The image made its way back to New England, where it was converted by an artist into a wood engraving, a backwards technological step that allowed it to be published in the newspapers. On July 4, 1863, the same day that Vicksburg fell, “The Scourged Back” appeared in a special Independence Day issue of Harper’s Weekly. All of America could see those scars, and feel that military and moral progress were one. The Civil War, in no way a war to exterminate slavery in 1861, was increasingly just that in 1863. “The Scourged Back” may have been propaganda, but as a photograph, which drew as much from science as from art, it presented irrefutable evidence of the horror of slavery. Because those scars had been photographed, they were real, in a way that no drawing could be.
The original photograph of “The Scourged Back” is one of hundreds on display in a new exhibit that opened on April 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, entitled “Photography and the American Civil War.” Curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim, the show offers a stunning retrospective, proving how inextricably linked the war and the new medium were.
It was not possible then, nor is it now, to tell the story of the conflict without recourse to the roughly one million images that were created in darkrooms around America. All historians are indebted to the resourceful Americans who left this priceless record to later generations. The war was captured, nearly instantaneously, by photographers as brave as the soldiers going into battle. Indeed, the photographers were going into battle; they pitched their tents alongside those of the armies, they heard the whistle of bullets, and they recorded the battle scenes, including the dead, as soon as the armies left the field.
Soldiers were themselves photographers; and photographs could be found in every place touched by the war; in the pockets of those who fought and fell, and above the hearths of the families that waited desperately for their return. Cameras caught nearly all of it, including the changes wrought on non-combatants — the Americans who seemed to age prematurely during those four years (none more so than the Commander in Chief), the families that survived, despite losing a member; the bodies that survived, despite losing a limb. The very land seemed to age, as armies passed like locusts through Southern valleys, devouring forests and livestock.
The Civil War was not the first war photographed; a tiny number of photographs were taken of the Mexican War, and a larger number of the Crimean War. But the medium had evolved a great deal across the 1850s, and America’s leading photographers sprang into action when the attack on Fort Sumter came in 1861. Many, like Mathew Brady, threw all of their resources at the gigantic task of capturing the war. On Aug. 30, 1862, the Times of London commented, “America swarms with the members of the mighty tribe of cameristas, and the civil war has developed their business in the same way that it has given an impetus to the manufacturers of metallic air-tight coffins and embalmers of the dead.”
There are so many cameristas in the Met’s show. The Southern perspective is well represented, in the faces of young Confederates brandishing knives menacingly, and in numerous landscape photographs that convey a haunting beauty, deepened by our knowledge that horrific violence is about to happen in these Edenic vales. For generations, American intellectuals had lamented that the United States had no picturesque ruins as Europe did; suddenly, there were ruins everywhere one cared to look. Photographs of Richmond and Charleston from the war’s end retain the power to shock. For their utter desolation; this could be Carthage or Tyre, a thousand years after their glory.
But of course, this was still the United States of America, a very busy country to begin with, accelerated by the incessant demands of the war. One gets a sense of that urgency from the show — trains chugging in the background, people moving so quickly that they become blurs, and a huge array of participants crowding into the picture — contraband former slaves who have fled to Northern lines but are not yet free; old men and children trying to get a taste of the action; regiments in training, looking very young in 1861, and spectral four years later. Some turned into seasoned veterans, some became ghastly prisoners of war, barely able to sit for a photograph; and of course many didn’t come back at all. Fortunately, they still existed in these images. To this day, some people feel the old superstition that a photograph robs the soul of its vitality. But during the war, it had an opposite, life-giving effect. With just a few dabs of silver, iodine and albumen (from egg whites), these dabblers in the dark arts could confer a form of immortality.
The camera’s unblinking eye also turns to the medical aspect of the war; the amputations and bullet wounds and gangrenous injuries that overwhelmed the doctors who also followed the battles. An entire room forces the viewer to confront this unavoidable result of the war; it offers a healthy antidote to our tendency to romanticize the conflict. But the show contains beauty and trauma in equal measure. There is considerable artistry in many of the photographs, especially the landscapes, delicate compositions in black and white that reveal that the medium was becoming something more than just a documentary record. Some rooms seem like parlors, Victorian spaces where we behold the elaborate efforts Americans made to turn photographs into something more decorative than they were. They become objects of furniture, and albums, and stylized wall hangings, sometimes with paint added to the photograph — flashes of color enliven a Zouave or two. Many of the photos in the show remain in their original casings, elaborate brass and velvet contraptions designed to protect the photograph, and perhaps the viewer as well, from losing too much innocence.
If photography was essential to recording the war, it was no less essential in remembering it. Generations of historians have depended on the photographers to revivify the conflict, from Brady, who published his photos long after the fact, to Ken Burns, whose nine-part documentary on the Civil War was utterly dependent on the old photographs. The Disunion series has benefited from them as well.
Reflecting on the enormity of the Civil War, and the problem of how to remember it accurately, Walt Whitman thought the photographers came as close as possible. Like him, they had been in the thick of it. In their uncompromising realism, they offered “the best history — history from which there could be no appeal.”
Photographs can still testify, as “The Scourged Back” did in the spring of 1863. A recent New York Times piece described photographs of violence, taken in 1992 in Bosnia, that are still furnishing evidence to the war crimes tribunal of The Hague.
For as long as wars are fought, we will need photographs to understand how and why we are fighting, and to reflect on the meaning of war, long after the fact. These evanescent objects, composed of such delicate chemicals, bear enduring witness.