|Albums of War
[from: Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, (New York: Hill and Wang,1989)]
on august 17, 1861, not quite a month after the battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, The New York Times reported that "Mr. Brady, the Photographer, has just returned from Washington with the magnificent series of views of scenes, groups, and incidents of the war which he has been making for the last two months." The first real bloodletting of the war, Bull Run had been a disaster for the Union Army. "Caught in the whirl and panic of the retreat of our Army," as the Times put it, Brady lost his way in the woods and was rescued by a group of tough New York Zouaves, who gave him a sword he buckled under the linen duster memorialized three days later in a self-portrait he made as soon as he returned to Washington. Brady had photographed encampments and troops on his way to Manassas, though whether he made any battlefield pictures at Bull Run, or whether any negatives survived the rout, remains unclear. The pictures referred to by the Times were most likely made elsewhere, and even though Humphrey's Journal noted that "his are the only reliable records at Bull's Run," no specific battlefield image is mentioned. Still, the language is significant: "The public is indebted to Brady of Broadway for numerous excellent views of 'grim-visaged war,' " noted Humphrey's, for "Brady never misrepresents." "He is to the campaigns of the republic what Vandermeulen was to the wars of Louis XIV."1 The Times agreed: Earned with "arduous and perilous toil," Brady's pictures "will do more than the most elaborate descriptions to perpetuate the scenes of that brief campaign."2
("Brady's pictures" did not mean pictures made by Brady himself but those he displayed or published, for the most part with E. and H. T. Anthony of New York, though he also issued war images under his own imprint. Organizer of one of several corps of private photographers, collector of images made by others, a kind of archivist or curator of the entire photographic campaign of the war, Brady played many roles, swarmed with ambiguities, in the war. For the sake of simplicity, I use "Brady's pictures" to refer to images with his name on them—not as a term of credit or attribution.)
The disaster of the North's initial campaign—the Union generals had expected to reach Richmond and bring a quick end to the war—taught Lincoln the first of many tragic lessons in the imponderables of warfare. Brady's precarious escape also brought home to photographers the dangers of covering the battlefield, especially with the clumsy array of equipment required by the wet-plate process. Brady had outfitted himself with two wagons of cameras and chemicals—the process 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. Not surprisingly, few signs of actual battle appear in any Civil War pictures. They show preparations and aftermaths, the scene but not the event. Nevertheless, the ravage and destruction they depict are eloquent testimony of the violence which preceded the picture. As the Times noted, they "perpetuate" a physical sense of war, what it must have been like had we been there—tokens of spent violence.
But they are not just windows to the past. Made under trying conditions with slow, cumbersome equipment, they reveal the limits and conventions of the medium as much as the look of the war. They demand critical attention to a context, which includes not only the state of photography but the character of the war and the efforts of Americans to see and comprehend it. Precisely because their meaning has seemed so direct and self-evident, the photographs pose the double question of comprehension: How were they understood at the time, and how should they be understood today?
We have a clue to contemporary responses in the language employed by the Times and Humphrey's Journal. While the word "perpetuate" recalls the memorializing function of daguerreotypes, "views" alluded to another kind of picture. Humphrey's compares Brady to a painter of historical battle scenes, and the Times refers to scenes, groups, incidents: each a term for a picture made by pen or brush out-of-doors. A striking number of the war photographs call up associations with genre paintings or drawings: staged scenes showing an artillery battery at work, or soldiers relax in camp. Of course, a close look will turn up a blurred hand, a slouching figure, a pair of eyes staring blankly at the lens— signs of the camera no amount of composition can hide. But it is noteworthy that Civil War photographers frequently resorted to stagecraft, arranging scenes of daily life in camp to convey a look of informality, posing groups of soldiers on picket duty—perhaps moving corpses into more advantageous positions for dramatic close-ups of littered battlefields. This is hardly surprising, considering the unprecedented assignment—as new to photography as the military actions employing new long-range weapons were new to warfare. The first modern war in its scale of destruction—close to half a million casualties— and in the use of mechanized weaponry, including steel-plated naval vessels, trenches, and, in Sherman's march through Georgia in 1864, a scorched-earth policy, the Civil War presented challenges to comprehension in all manner of word and picture. For photographers the problem of making sense of battles raging in woods and fields was compounded by problems of equipment as well as access to battlefields, which required permission, usually withheld until fighting ceased. Large cameras on tripods, lenses designed for landscape views, the necessity of preparing the glass plate in a portable darkroom, then rushing with it to the camera—all these physical barriers to spontaneous pictures of action encouraged a resort to easily applied conventions of historical painting, casual sketches, and even studio portraits. "The photographer who follows in the wake of modern armies," noted the London Times in December 1862, "must be content with conditions of repose, and with the still life which remains when the fighting is over . . . When the artist essays to represent motion, he bewilders the plate and makes chaos."3
This is not to say that the photographs are stilted or unconvincing. However composed and staged, they bear witness to real events. To hold before one's eyes a vintage albumen print made at Gettysburg or Antietam or Charleston is to realize the truth of Paul Valery's observation that, once the camera appeared, our sense of what suffices as a historical account was altered forever.4 The photograph takes us back to the original moment when light fell upon these surfaces, these bodies and guns and fields; we all but feel the same rays of light in our own eyes— an experience lost through the halftone screens of reproduced images. We see the war not as heroic action in a grand style but as rotting corpses, shattered trees and rocks, weary soldiers in mud-covered uniforms or lying wounded in field hospitals—as boredom and pain.
The presence of artifice derives in part from the subject itself. War creates a special burden for the representational arts. For example, Brady's display in August 1862 of "The Dead of Antietam" (he hung a placard with these words at the door of his gallery on Broadway) inspired the Times to say that he had brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war." These pictures, issued by Brady without credit to the actual photographer, Alexander Gardner, were the most vivid and gruesome images of dead combatants (they were Confederate soldiers) yet shown to the public.0 The reality they depict is the reality of violence, the effects of shells and bullets on human flesh and bone. There is a shocking ultimacy about such pictures. But do they show "war"? Did they help their viewers comprehend the full story of Antietam, including the role of the battle in the political conflict between the Union and the Confederacy? Is it possible for pictures to do both, to convey the "earnestness of war" and its form! Can any single photographic image bring home the reality of the whole event? The same question can be asked of photographs of any event, it might be said. Yes, but in the case of war the normal gap between sense experience and mental comprehension is stretched to an extreme.
Photography gave a new twist to the problem. Grand-style history painters such as Benjamin West had solved the problem by depicting the death of generals as the summary event of a war, or, as in Emmanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), giving prominence to a symbolic hero. Operating on the scene, without opportunity for advance planning or for retrospective decisions about pictures already taken, and without the means to idealize persons and actions, photographers in the Civil War focused on the mundane, on camp life, on drills and picket lines and artillery batteries. They saw the war essentially in its quotidian aspects, as a unique form of everyday life. Traditional forms of heroic representation were not available, and inappropriate in any case. The strength of the pictures lies in their mundane aspect— their portrayal of war as an event in real space and time—a different conception of the very medium within which war takes place: not the mythic or fictional time of a theater, as in Benjamin West's famous Death of General Wolfe, but the real time of an actual camp or battlefield.
This singular achievement of the photographs was accompanied, however, by a loss of clarity about both the overall form of battles and the unfolding war as such and the political meaning of events like the corpse-littered field of Antietam. In this the photographs help us see a more general problem posed by wars waged by nation-states in the nineteenth century. Employing mass conscript armies drawn from the population at large, wars became, during the Napoleonic campaigns, a new kind of political event, requiring a supportive populace. The Prussian officer and theorist Karl von Clausewitz states in his classic On War (1832) that Napoleon had brought warfare close to its absolute state as organized violence aimed at the total destruction of the enemy forces. Thus, the battles raging in Europe after the French Revolution, to 1815, made it possible to see more clearly the nature of war, its resemblance to commerce, for example, in the calculation of probabilities it required, and to politics in the balance of forces it entailed.6 Most of all, Clausewitz stressed the difficulties of comprehending the course of events in the dead of battle, the demands placed upon the eyesight on the part of commanders, and the near-impossibility of seeing and knowing simultaneously.7 Clausewitz had in mind the effect of the havoc of battle on body and mind at once. How can one experience the chaos of war and describe it rationally at the same time? How was it possible to see photographically, in single, segmented images, and to see politically or historically, as it were, with an eye to the meaning of the transcribed scenes, their meaning within a war itself so difficult to see intelligibly? The inevitable fragmentation of the photographic report coincided with the fragmented information by which political leaders, generals, soldiers, and public alike confronted a new form of history represented by the Civil War—history as events ruled more by chance than design, and occurring within battlefields thick with smoke.8 random thoughts which "chanced" into mind that he is after. The poems are named chiefly after battles and places, but attempt to convey an aspect of the inner life of the event. In "The March into Virginia," his poem on Bull Run (or "the First Manassas," as the Confederates named it), Melville describes the young soldiers as "they gayly go to fight," some of whom "Shall die experienced ere three days are spent— Perish, enlightened by the vollied glare." Enlightened by fiery death: a \ bitter irony lost on those, Melville implies, who still see in war "a belaureled story." "What like a bullet can undeceive," he says in "Shiloh." This war put an end to pageantry and glory; its mechanization has converted warriors, as Melville put it in another poem, "A Utilitarian View of the Monitor's Fight," into "operatives"—another word for mechanics or workers: "No passion; all went on by crank, / Pivot, and screw." But would the event "undeceive" the nation about war?
Compare Hawthorne on the "metal-clads": "All the pomp and splendor of naval warfare are gone by. Henceforth there must come up a race of enginemen and smoke-blackened cannoneers, who will hammer away at their enemies under the direction of a single pair of eyes." Both / Melville and Hawthorne give expression to feelings and perceptions about factory labor in general, and link the war to the industrial system, to its heartless, mechanizing, and, in the case of Hawthorne's "single pair of eyes," tyrannical effects. Both writers portray soldier-operatives as submissive, machine-like creatures under a dictatorial eye.10
While Melville followed the war at home, Walt Whitman rushed to the front in search of a wounded brother, witnessed the ravage, and stayed to nurse the wounded. From his firsthand perspective he concluded, in Specimen Days (1882), that "the real war will never get in the books." "Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not." Something inexpressible lies buried in the war's "lurid interiors."11
Melville's book offended reviewers with its apparent coldness and detachment. Charles Eliot Norton in The Nation, hailing James Russell Lowell's patriotic "Commemoration Ode" as the "finest work of our generation," found Melville's book too "involved and obscure," "weakened by incongruous imagery." "It is only the highest art that can illustrate the highest deeds," Norton stated. "Is it possible," wrote William Dean Howells in the Atlantic Monthly, "—ask yourself, after running over all these celebrative, inscriptive, and memorial verses— that there has really been a great war, with battles fought by men and bewailed by women?" The trouble is that Melville "has not often felt the things of which he writes."12 He does not express, that is, the familiar elevated sentiments proper to the occasion.
An idea common in the North even during hostilities was that the war would be a "sacred" memory. With his gift for the eloquent cliché, C. Edwards Lester voiced this in his 1863 Light and Dark of the Rebellion:
Let every scene worth remembering be recorded by each looker-on. Let every man tell how the battle which he saw raged . . . Let no well-authenticated fact be lost. For we must not forget . . . that, while we are straining our vision with these strange sights, we become the sacred depositories of materials from which the artists of a later age will mature their sublime and finished pictures.
Lester settles for one half of Clausewitz's paradox: the war can only be represented. But if his prose betrays no sign of shudder, his remark about "strange sights" may be taken as a euphemism at least. He goes on to suggest a certain enormity of facts, of speed of event: "We have been making history faster than all the pens could write it." Or all the lenses could see it: having to "pass in review before the honest face of the Daguerrean lens" [a factual error; Lester uses the term as a figure of speech], this war has in a sense "been compelled to write its own annals." But "without the "magic touch of the pen" to render it "instinct with life and radiant with significance," what the lens records can only be "a lifeless and meaningless mass of material." "The empire of the pen can never be broken."13
In their fragmentary presentation of the war, their individual vividness at the expense of a blurred vision of the whole, the photographs may have conveyed a subliminal message of inexpressible interiors—not the stuff of romantic myth or heroic legend. Muffled by the blanket of patriotic gush, that message may have gotten through in any case, for after the war the public quickly lost its eagerness to see the pictures. It took Mathew Brady a decade to persuade Congress they were important enough to purchase, and for almost a generation they passed from public view. In the i88os, however, at a time when many rued the absence of male heroism in an age of business and materialism, a torrent of reproductions flooded the illustrated press as popular interest in the war revived. In 1882 one of the most prolific of the Civil War photographers, Captain A. J. Russell, wrote that camera images "will in truth teach coming generations that war is a terrible reality."14 Judging from the revival of such images starting in the i88os, the public relished the terror—or found ways to deny it. A Hartford firm, Taylor and Huntington, sold sets of stereopticon slides made from Brady's war views. Such slides could be projected at home or on large screens in theaters. A brochure for sales agents makes the pitch: "From college president to boot-black,—none are too high or too lowly to be interested in the scenes revealed by these lenses. It is thrilling history of our great war brought right before them; it is no guess-work, it is the real thing just as the camera of the government photographer caught it; as exact as a reflection in a mirror."10
Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) rode the crest of this revived interest, and also made use of the reproduced photographs. He credited the four volumes of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War for help in his descriptions of combat and of soldiers.16 But his conception of "the real thing" could not have differed more from the popular revived version of the war. Crane's novel shares the irony of Melville's "The March into Virginia," and takes a view of "real war" close to Whitman's. And a paradox like Clausewitz's governs the book: the body's pain in battle undercutting the mind's incessant effort to comprehend, to "tell" the pain in a meaningful way. Henry Fleming marches off to war with dreams of glamorous heroism, and returns enlightened by the bloodied wound which reminds him of his fear and cowardice, his "red i badge." Stephen Crane portrayed battle as an initiation into the ironic knowledge that courage is not "heroic" but animalistic, a reflex of self-| defense and aggression.17
The American novelist Harold Frederic said of Crane's novel that, in depicting a war, better for the artist to rely on imagined rather than "real" experience; to be there is so overwhelmingly confusing that the attempt to say "what he really saw," rather than "what all his reading has taught him that he must have seen," proves the undoing of a writer. The problem of representation expressed by Frederic parallels Fleming's more general moral predicament: to connect his body's experience with the dreams of martial glory with which he sped to battle. Frederic drives home his point with an analogy to photography:
In the same way battle painters depict horses in motion, not as they
actually move, but as it has been agreed by numberless generations of
draughtsmen to say that they move. At last, along comes a Muybridge,
with his instantaneous camera, and shows that the real motion is entirely
By making sequential pictures, the English-born photographer Eadweard Muybridge proved in the 1870s that a horse's legs leave the ground all at once, and an ancient convention was undone—as were the conventions of battlefield prose after Crane, who studied photographs as the equivalent of firsthand accounts.
Interest in the war and its images culminated in 1911 in a ten-volume Photographic History of the Civil War, assembled by Francis Trevelyn Miller, editor of the Journal of American History, on the fiftieth anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter. By now Lester's "sacred" memory had become habitual rhetoric. About the ritualized memories of the war which entered popular culture in the twentieth century, historian Oscar Handlin notes: "The war was transmuted from the bitter conflict it had been into an episode of high adventure." "Every base element vanished; only nobility remained, as if those who survived could thus banish the guilt of having failed those who died. Above all, if the war were to bind Americans in national unity, both sides had to seem right." The war came to seem "an experience Americans shared rather than one that had divided them."19
Editor-in-chief Miller's introduction in 1911 to the ten volumes reassures us that the empire of the pen remained quite intact. Arguing that "these time-stained photographs" are the only unarguable facts to survive the war, he proceeds to smother them in literary imagery:
This [the Civil War] is the American epic that is told in these time-stained photographs—an epic which in romance and chivalry is more inspiring than that of the olden knighthood; brother against brother, father against son, men speaking the same language, living under the same flag, offering their lives for that which they believe to be right. No Grecian phalanx or Roman legion ever knew truer manhood than in those days on the American continent when Anglo-Saxon met Anglo-Saxon in the decision of a constitutional principle that beset their beloved nation. It was more than Napoleonic, for its warriors battled for principle rather than conquest, for right rather than power.20
Miller overlooks the fact of secession, dispels the notion that it was a "War of the Rebellion," and passes over the destruction of half a million combatants. Social upheaval and the overthrow of slavery emerge as events shaped by literary convention—a romantic, chivalric epic. The Photographic History pays "tribute" to that "American character" which proved itself by surviving fratricidal battles and reestablishing national unity. Former foes now gather "about these pages in peace and brotherhood, without malice and without dissension." Handlin contradicts this reading. "It is a misreading of their experience," he states, "not to recognize that in the four years of war millions of Americans really hated one another and really wanted to kill one another and that the drama they acted out on the battlefields was less one of gallantry and courage than of hatred."21 Paradoxically, Miller is blind to any but a romantic interpretation: "The vision is no longer blinded, but as Americans we can see only the heroic self-sacrifice."
The Photographic History confirmed the popular belief that pictures defined the war, made it real, a collective memory of incontrovertible meaning. "The only war of which we have an adequate history in photographs," the Civil War is, to another of the book's editors, "practically an open book."22 A book, moreover, as "lifelike" as a "vitascope" (cinema) and as untaxing to read: "These vivid pictures bring past history into the present tense."23 But pictures demand captions, and the ten volumes supply them in abundance, often based on memories fifty years old, along with essays on various battles, armies, leaders, and sundry other aspects of the war, including the photographic corps. The texts, Miller informs us, provide the necessary "mental pictures" to assure the proper interpretation of the photographs.24
In that phrase, "mental pictures," lies the crux of the problem of picturing war: how to correlate the physical with the mental, an unspeakable experience with the need to comprehend, to explain, to justify. The inherent problem of representing battle was exacerbated by controversy and confusion about the meaning of the war as a political and moral event. Four years of brutal fighting, half a million casualties, devastation of land and cities: was it "fratricidal conflict," rebellion spawned in conspiracy, holy crusade, struggle between two nations? Except for a minority of abolitionists, Northern leaders deferred as long as possible facing or even naming slavery, let alone race hatred and doctrines of inferiority. The paucity of blacks in the Photographic History, or elsewhere in the photographic record, their appearance on the margin of scenes, parallels their status within the mental pictures that screened the mind from the full social and political facts of the war. Somewhere between what the lens depicts and what the caption interprets, a mental picture intervenes, a cultural ideology defining what and how to see, what to recognize as significant. To recover the Civil War photographs as history requires, then, that we first bring unacknowledged mental pictures into focus.
The largest mental picture concerned history itself, what it consisted of, where it could be found, how we can know and represent it. "Among the sun-compellers," remarked The New York Times in November 1862 on the appearance of Brady's Photographic Views of the War, "Mr. Brady deserves honorable recognition as having been the first to make Photography the Clio of the war." Clio, goddess of story and retrospection; photography, rendering a frozen present out of each passing moment: what can it mean to hail the camera in the name of the Muse? One meaning seemed self-evident. As early as June 1861, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly announced that "long before the commencement of hostilities we made extensive arrangements for thoroughly illustrating every event that might arise out of the national difficulties," alerted "artists and photographers in all the cities and towns within the probable circle of hostilities," and by the following year had already issued Frank Leslie's Pictorial History of the American Civil War with the opening statement: "We conceive that the country advances to the enactment of a page of History."25 The difference between a page of history and a page of newsprint notably diminished as mass-produced woodcuts (of sketches and photographs) conjoined happily with "national difficulties" to produce the first mass-circulation market for history in the guise of "news." Especially in the North, the media encouraged a sense of "history" happening here and now, of its consisting of the events themselves. In 1850 Lester's text for Brady's Gallery implied a moment of stasis between past glories and a dim, mysterious future. Now the glare of battle dispelled the shadows of the past, and Lester was not alone in anticipating a new crop of heroes to confirm the country as a single nation. War provides the occasion for historical action: "Our nation must be consolidated; and nothing can do it but to create a common interest, whether for attack or defense, the heroism of every nation has been the only sentiment out of which nationality has been created."26 The early months witnessed an exhilarating sense of opportunity for new moral leadership shared alike by New England patricians like Oliver Wendell Holmes and New York Free-Soilers like Lester.27 In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln put the issue with eloquent simplicity:
The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.
The history we cannot escape includes, Lincoln reminded his audience, the common inheritance of past heroism: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union."
By the same contradictory reasoning—disenthralling ourselves, yet responding to the mystic chords of the memory—photography became Clio. And Mathew Brady the Muse's most devoted servant. The first to organize a corps of field photographers—it included the makers of some of the most memorable Civil War pictures, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, and George Barnard—Brady was also the first, as early as 1862, to publish war images in numbered series of album cards, mounted prints, and stereographs: Brady's Photographic Views of the War, Brady's Album Catalogue, and Incidents of the War.28 So unshakably identified with the Civil War photographs, his name has come to stand for all the war photographers; his actual role was obscured by his fame. He was, in fact, only one of several photographer-entrepreneurs who put a crew into the field—there were thirty-five bases of operation by August 1862, according to one historian29—and published the results. Recent research has raised questions about how much credit Brady actually deserves for the pictures published under his imprint—not unimportant questions, but the issue tends to skew his role as Clio's most prominent representative. Brady's name defined the entire project, part symbol, part trademark. As trademark the name possessed legal weight—his album cards, like those of others, carried both a copyright line (often bearing another name, such as "Barnard & [James F.] Gibson," the registered makers of the image) and a clear warning: "The Photographs of this series were taken directly from nature, at considerable cost. Warning is therefore given that legal proceedings will be at once instituted against any party infringing the copyright."30 Brady's own habit of not always revealing who took the image directly from nature came into question in a falling-out with Alexander Gardner, the manager of his Washington gallery, who left Brady in 1863, and after a stint as official photographer of the Army Secret Service opened his own gallery and formed his own corps of photographers.31
Brady's role as Civil War historian evolved in circumstances that were rapidly altering the social and economic forms of photographic practices. The quarrel between Brady and Gardner suggests that the war years witnessed a critical transition in the business of photography. With a growing mass-communication system and the expanded use of photographs by the press, ownership of images became a more pressing matter than in the informal days of the daguerrean studios. The war inaugurated an age of large-scale business enterprises organized on a more rationalized, systematic, and corporate basis than in the earlier days of family businesses or partnerships. With his antebellum point of view, Brady failed to adjust, thinking perhaps that the charm of his name, "Brady of Broadway," would carry him through. But his casual method of giving credit to the maker of the negative, and his even more casual appropriation of any and all pictures he could lay hands on, got him into difficulty. Never a man for strict accounting, he fell into financial straits, overextended himself to finance his war project, and, after the war, could not weather the 1867 depression and went into bankruptcy.
As a medium of communication, photography itself contributed to the modernizing process reflected in its own practices. The photographs offered a new public experience: eyewitness pictures almost immediately after the events. The New York World noted in November 1862 that" 'Brady's Photographic Corps' . . . has been a feature as distinct and
omnipresent as the corps of balloon, telegraph, and signal operators"— part of a vast, intricate network of military communication which laid the basis for the postwar burgeoning of telegraphic lines and print media.
Views of encampments, harbors, railroads, wrecked cities, battlefields strewn with corpses, enlarged expectations about the medium in a public which had been accustomed to photographs mainly as portraits—though by the late 18505 instantaneous stereographs had begun to introduce novel imagery of everyday life; for example, people in moving crowds on city streets. The public took the photograph at its word, so to speak, and the war pictures as the "real war"—Clio's work. Recently, efforts have been made to identify the site of particular images—"transporting the reader back to the moment of exposure," as William Frassanito puts it, on the assumption that "somewhere on the twenty-five square miles of battlefield at Gettysburg lies the precise location of each and every view."32 Frassanito's meticulous research uncovered evidence that corpses may have been moved from place to place, that soldiers played dead for the camera.
But does the whole truth represented in the pictures lie in their literal content? They were received as "true" because people believed in photographic "truth." What properly concerns us is that belief, and the more particular beliefs about the Civil War which governed the responses to the photographs. As Frassanito's research reveals, Clio often found herself at odds with the indiscriminateness of the camera—what it would show about a corpse in one position or another. In earlier times the Muse told stories of heroes in hand-to-hand combat, duels fought on fields of honor. While the Muse evoked by Lincoln told of mystic chords sounding the idea of a unified nation, the actual war was less soothing. The Civil War camera disclosed debris strewn about, weary men, slovenly uniforms—soldiers not as heroes but as soldiers. The very advantage of the camera suggested a liability. What the photograph depicted originated, as everyone understood, in the world itself, not in the imagination—even if objects must be moved to realize the photographer's intention. This becomes a liability when the staging of scenes, even scenes of death, suggests the photographer's desire to satisfy a need (his own and his audience's) for order, even that of theatricality.
Making a virtue of stillness, their camera's inability to stop action, photographers adopted the most obviously appropriate conventions. In the hierarchy of genres in the field of painting, "history" ranked highest and was understood to mean scenes of high drama enacted by symbolic figures. To stage scenes like that of Washington crossing the Delaware would be palpably ludicrous. The minor modes of drawing and sketching, casual and anti-heroic, offered more likely solutions. The sketch conveys life in motion: spontaneous, fluid, quotidian. The artist in his sketchbook does not portray grandeur but gesture, the flair of motion, the changing patterns of subjects unaware of performing a role before an audience. The staged informality often adopted by Civil War photographers thus counted on association with handmade sketches by artists in the field like Alfred Waud and Winslow Homer which were made into woodcuts and popularized in the periodical press.33
We "can look," writes Robert Taft, "upon 'Yank' or 'Reb' in the routine of his daily life during his non-sanguinary moments."34 Not in all the images by any means, but in a significant number, these routines appear to be self-conscious performances, the soldiers acting out the
appearance of spontaneity. In the London Times review of Brady's 1862 publication—it appeared in two volumes, one of "war-scenes," the other of "portraits," opening with Lincoln "sitting in company with an ink-bottle"—we read of "easy groups . . . creditable to the skill of the artist."
The critical British eye notes how "slovenly" the Federal soldiers look, "men with unbuttoned coats, and open collars, and all sorts of head gear . . . their overalls gathered halfway up the leg." In an extended account of "the most agreeable subject in the volume" of war scenes,
the reviewer describes a captured Confederate officer sitting with a Union officer—it is the then Captain George Armstrong Custer—who was a college friend and cousin,
while a negro boy, barefooted, with hands clasped, is at the feet and between the knees of his master, with an expression of profound grief on his shining face. The Confederate, in his coarse grey uniform, sits up erect, with a fighting, bulldog face and head; the Federal, a fair-haired, thoughtful-looking man, looks much more like a prisoner; the teterrima causa belli, who appears to think only of his master, is suggestive enough.35
Suggestive, we should add, of a rehearsed pose obedient to an image of servility cherished by soldiers in blue and gray alike.
Not only do staged compositions enact unstated ideologies and betray unconscious wishes; their motifs often clash with countervailing details. The photographs often transmit contradictory messages, the idea of history as heroic action at odds with sheer mundane event. The camera reveals war as earnest indeed—so much so that the pictures Brady displayed on Broadway in August 1862 had the effect of "a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement." "But there is a poetry in the scene," the Times continued consolingly,
that no green fields or smiling landscapes can possess. Here lie men who have not hesitated to seal and stamp their convictions with their blood— men who have flung themselves into the great gulf of the unknown to teach the world that there are truths dearer than life, wrongs and shames more to be dreaded than death . . . 'Have heart, poor mother; grieve not without hope, mourn not without consolation. This is not the last of your boy . . . [there] is reserved for him a crown which only heroes and martyrs are permitted to wear.36
The swift dissolve from corpse to martyr displays the same compensatory logic by which photographers projected a desired motif upon an intractable scene.
The war pictures challenged mental pictures long in place, and photographers strove to keep order and impose coherence. In his memorandum to Congress in 1869 describing his wartime collection, Brady fell naturally into a language of epic recitation: "The pictures show the Battle-fields of the Rebellion, and its memorable localities and incidents: such as Military Camps, Fortifications, Bridges, Processions, Reviews, Siege Trains, Valleys, Rivers, Villages, Farm Houses, Plantations, and Famous Buildings of the South: together with Groups and Likenesses of the prominent actors, in the performance of duty; before and after the smoke of battle; around bivouac fires; in the trenches, and on the decks of iron-clads—the whole forming a complete Pictorial History of our great National Struggle."37 Another method of keeping details within the bounds of an orderly system of knowledge is evident in the catalogues in which publishers listed their pictures. An 1862 catalogue of "Brady's Photographic Views of the War" opens with "the celebrated collection of portraits, well known in Europe and America, as 'Brady's National Photographic Gallery,' " a listing whose archival form—its classification by vocation and social type such as "Statesmen, Lawyers, Physicians, & Others," "The Clergy," "The Stage," "Prominent Women"—provides a pattern for the war views that follow. The numbered images are organized chiefly by place—"Views at and near Bull Run," "Views and Camp Scenes near Yorktown" (and sub-classes such as "Views of Groups" and "Views of Batteries"). While the entries for portraits give names and vocations, the war views make do with spare details: "363. Northeast view of Battery No. 1, at Farahold's House, York River, Mounting 5 loo-pounds and i 2oo-pound Rifled Guns"; "559. Killed at the battle of Antietam."38
Publishers like Brady and Gardner understood that, without an encompassing structure, individual images remained dangerously isolated and misleading. The structure endows each image with what Foucault calls "enunciability," the power to make a meaningful statement. Viewed at random, images lose their power to speak, except inchoately, like the sense-defying experience of battle itself. Organized into a catalogue or sequence, single images can be viewed as part of a presumed pattern, an order, a historical totality. Moreover, in its own prosaic way, by delineating an emergent whole and projecting a totality, the archival catalogue reveals a literary motive: to comprehend this unfolding event as epic in scale and meaning. Brady's 1862 album appeared in just this light. The corps of photographers, wrote the New York World, "have threaded the weary stadia of every march; have hung on the skirts of every battle-scene; have caught the compassion of the hospital, the romance of the bivouac, the pomp and panoply of the field-review—aye, even the cloud of conflict, the flash of the battery, the after-wreck and anguish of the hard-won field."39
Photographers and publishers understood that their images mediated the daily experience of the war for the populace at home. Whether translated into wood engravings and lithographs in the daily press and in periodicals or offered for sale as freshly made prints, mainly in stereo-card or carte-de-visite format, the photographs were destined for home consumption. Photographers composed their views, edited and arranged their catalogues and sequences, with domestic audiences in mind. If a single term can explain the encompassing form or mode of photographic reporting, it appears in the following account of Brady's 1862 pictures: "They present a panorama of the war," stated The New York Times, "faithful as is everything that comes from the studio of the Sun." Panorama implies more than the scale of the event. The term refers explicitly to the tangible panoramas which provided popular entertainment before the war, larger-than-life scrolls of historic battles and famous landscapes unfolded on a stage before a live audience. Staged panoramas gave the illusion of immediacy, the viewer being there— what Dolph Sternberger has called "this mirage of the moment," an illusion, different from narrative continuity, of separate events joined together by their sensuous vividness alone.40 The panorama provided a conceptual vehicle for the mass of photographs, an implied form into which they fit, or which they were assumed to fill out image by image, in lieu of an integrating story.
The panoramic mirage was most potent in the stereoscope, in its "appearance of reality," as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, "which cheats the senses with its seeming truth."41 The stereoscope transformed the bourgeois drawing room into a theater for private panoramic viewing, spectacles for the pleasure of the hungry eye and the sedentary body. Stereographic views offered spatial illusions analogous to actual panoramas. "I pass, in a moment, from the banks of the Charles to the ford of the Jordan," Holmes wrote, "and leave my outward frame in the arm-chair at my table, while in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives." He anticipated that "the next European war will send us stereographs of battle."
The time is perhaps at hand when a flash of light, as sudden and brief as that of the lightning which shows a whirling wheel stand stock still, shall preserve the very instant of the shock of contact of the mighty armies that are even now gathering.
It is with a certain gleeful expectation of another stereoscopic spectacle that Holmes looks forward to these pictures: "The lightning of clashing sabres and bayonets may be forced to stereotype itself in a stillness as complete as that of the tumbling tide of Niagara as we see it self-pictured."42 Holmes foresaw that the panorama offered just what was needed for domestic viewing of images of war. Issued in series with accompanying text or caption, stereographs brought the war home to Americans more effectively than other photographic modes, precisely because their illusion of closeness held the war at bay, at the distance of a spectacle performed as if for parlor viewing.
Like the stereograph, the album (from a word meaning "blank") had emerged only recently, an adaptation of the genteel visiting book as a popular form for storing and displaying cartes de visite.43 The earliest albums offered slotted pages for the insertion of cards within proscenium-like openings, a theatrical frame for portraits which show a greater use of props—drapes, columns, ornamented chairs, and desks and podiums;—than was common in the daguerrean studio. Issued in carte-de-visite format as well as larger prints, Brady's Album Gallery allowed purchasers to arrange the war views as they wished, or simply to follow the numbers printed on each of the cards. In his catalogue, Brady used topical categories, not temporal sequences, not narratives. Though it is difficult to know how widely the practice was followed, personal albums permitted their owners to assemble sequences on their own, to recompose the order as desired. Like stereographs, album cards allowed the construction of private panoramas. In images captured by the camera and delivered to the public, the war created for the first time a mass audience bent to simulacra of the same illusory scenes. (…)
1 Humphrey's Journal 12 (1861-62), 133. Quoted in Horan, Brady, 39.
2 Horan, 39. See William A. Frassanito, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day (New York, 1978), 29-32.
3 Reprinted in The Photographic Journal, Dec. 15, 1862, 184. See The Documentary Photograph as a Work of Art (Chicago, 1976), especially Doug Munson, "The Practise of Wet-Plate Photography," 33 — 38, and Joel Snyder, "Photographers and Photographs of the Civil War," 17—22. On earlier war photography, see Gernsheim, History, 266—74.
4 Paul Valery, "The Centenary of Photography," in Trachtenberg, ed., Classic Essays, 191-98.
5 Frassanito, 14—18, attributes these images to Alexander Gardner.
6 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and tr. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, 1976), especially Books One and Two, "On the Nature of War" and "On the Theory of War."
7 See Randolph Starn and Loren Partridge, "Representing War in the Renaissance: The Shield of Paolo Uccello," Representations 5 (Winter 1984), 33-65.
8 James M. McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, 1988), 332 — 33, writes vividly about the "amateurism and confusion" of the early phases of the war, the "romantic, glamorous idea of war" which many Americans held, North and South, and the failure of leaders on both sides to "foresee the kind of conflict this war would become—a total war, requiring total mobilization of men and resources, destroying these men and resources on a massive scale, and ending only with unconditional surrender." As if with a momentum of its own, the war would expand toward the "absolute" dimension described by Clausewitz.
9 Sidney Kaplan, ed., Battle-Pieces (Amherst, Mass., 1972).
10 Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Chiefly about War Matters" [signed "By a Peacable Man"], in Tales, Sketches, and Other Papers (Boston, Mass., 1892), 336.
11 Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, in Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose, John Kouwenhoven, ed. (Modern Library, New York, 1950), 635.
12 Quoted in Kaplan, ed.; Norton, xxxvi—xxxix; Howells, xli—xliv.
13 C. Edwards Lester, Light and Dark of the Rebellion (Philadelphia, Pa., 1863), 14.
14 A. J. Russell, Anthony's Photographic Bulletin 13 (July 1882), 213.
15 War Memories (Hartford, Conn., 1890), 19.
16 Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York, 1888). The illustrations for these volumes were wood engravings made from negatives in what was known as the Rand-Ordway collection. They had once belonged to Brady, then to the suppliers and publishers E. and H. T. Anthony, who had attached them in a judgment suit against Brady. For a lucid account of the tangled pathways by which collections of Civil War photographs came into private and government hands, and the distinctions among the collections, see Paul Vanderbilt, compiler, Guide to the Special Collections of Prints ctf Photographs in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C., 1955), 19-24.
17 For an excellent discussion of Crane's "revision" of the popular view of the war, see Amy Kaplan, "The Spectacle of War in Crane's Revision of History," in Lee Clark Mitchell, ed., New Essays on "The Red Badge of Courage" (New York, 1986), 77—108.
18 Harold Frederic, New York Times Supplement, 16 Jan. 1896, 22. On Muybridge's experiments tracking the motion of horses, people, and other creatures, see Gernsheim, History, 435-37.
19 Oscar Handlin, "The Civil War as Symbol and as Actuality," Massachusetts Review 3 (Autumn 1961), 135.
20 Francis Trevelyn Miller, ed., The Photographic History of the Civil War, 10 vols. (New-York, 1912), 1:16. For interesting details, including reminiscences, of Civil War photographers, see Henry Wysham Lanier, "Photographing the Civil War," 1:30-54. Compare the 1912 collection with William C. Davis, ed., The Image of War 1861-1865, 6 vols. (Garden City, N.Y., 1981—84). See Jan Zita Grover, "Philosophical Maneuvers in a Photogenic War," Afterimage 10 (April 1983), 4-6.
21 Handlin, 143.
22 Miller, ed., 1:30. •. - ; . •
23 Ibid., 1:60.
24 Ibid., 1:15.
25 Frank Leslie's Pictorial History of the Civil War i (New York, 1862). See Jan Zita Grover, "The First Living-Room War: The Civil War in the Illustrated Press," Afterimage 11 (Feb. 1844), 8-11.
26 Lester, 271. - • -- .
27 See George M. Frederickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (New York, 1965).
28 The most meticulous research yet done on who took what photograph where is by Frassanito. In addition to Antietam, see his Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (New York, 1975), and Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865 (New York, 1983).
29 Meredith, Brady, 117.
30 In May 1865, Brady filed for an injunction in a Washington, D.C., court, claiming that a P. J. Bellow "has published, sold, exposed for sale and otherwise disposed" of copies of a photograph made by Brady and protected by copyright. In June the court ruled for Brady. This is one of the earliest, perhaps the first, recorded litigations in America regarding the copyright of photographs. William Gladstone generously called this to my attention. Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, June 7, 1865, No. 444, Equity Document 7.
31 Josephine Cobb, "Alexander Gardner," Image 7 (1958), 130. The copyright of photographs during the Civil War years was not a clear-cut matter. In 1867 Gardner admitted in a legal deposition that "Photograph by A. Gardner" may mean no more than that the image in question was copied in his studio, perhaps by an assistant. Cobb concludes (136) that "photographers in the 18605 did not consider the making of the negative in the same sense of authorship in which we hold it today."
32 Frassanito, Gettysburg, 15, 59.
33 A good survey of Civil War drawings can be found in William P. Campbell, The Civil War: A Centennial Exhibition of Eyewitness Drawings (Washington, D.C., 1961). Also, Herman Warner Williams, Jr., The Civil War: The Artists' Record (Boston, Mass., 1961).
34 Taft, Photography, 223.
35 The Photographic Journal, 15 Dec. 1864, 185. ....-.'
36 The New York Times, Oct. 20, 1862.
37 Brady's National Historical Collection (New York, 1869), 4. This document contains Brady's petition to Congress for sale of his collection. Gardner submitted a similar petition the same year. See Cobb, "Gardner," 127. He stated that "during that period he photographed all the important scenes and incidents which in the aggregate compose the only history of the Rebellion in that form and are known as Gardner's Photographic Incidents and Memories of the War for the Union." See Catalogue of Photographic Incidents of the War, from the Gallery of Alexander Gardner (Washington, D.C., 1863).
38 Catalogue of Card Photographs Published and Sold by E. &f H. T. Anthony (New York, 1862) lists 554 of "Brady's Photographic Views of the War," 13-16.
39 Quoted in Ibid.
40 Dolph Sternberger, Panorama of the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1977), 13.
41 Holmes, "Stereoscope," 742.