Year In Review 2017: #6

Analysis of Civil War photographs and the era’s changing attitudes toward death are addressed in this informative and reflective blog post. Using some well-known photographs from Gettysburg battlefield, the author discusses the history surrounding the images.

It was the most-read blog post #6 in 2017: Alexander Gardner and the Good Death, by James Broomall, published on May 19, 2017.


Be of Good Cheer!

oops!

I regularly inspect caches of images concerning the Civil War. It is in this way that I have made some amazing finds, most of which are eventually shared here at ECW. In a historic period where it took a few minutes to successfully capture an image, getting one with a natural look was difficult.

Digitalization and coloring have helped make these subjects seem more personable, but rarely is there an image of anyone having a good time. Someone did it, however–perhaps four someones. Every time I look at this assemblage, I smile. I hope you do as well.

Merry Christmas!


Book Review: “Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century”

book-reviews-header

Across the street from Ford’s Theatre and next to the Petersen House in Washington, D.C. there’s a museum dedicated to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. The centerpiece of that museum is a three-and-a-half story tower of books written about the 16th president of the United States. Amongst the already massive historical studies of the American Civil War, Lincoln biographies and monographs stand above all else in number of studies done. Into that field of study comes a new book about the Lincoln Assassination—told not through Lincoln’s final hours, or the killer, or the people in the theatre, but rather, through the lenses of those who sought to show the world how those events unfolded.

Nicholas Pistor’s book Shooting Lincoln is a good book for those new to the study of Civil War photographers, and those who wish to look at the assassination in a way they may not have yet. Pistor’s book zooms in on the two most prominent photographers of the day: the famed Mathew Brady and his protégé turned rival Alexander Gardner.

Shooting Lincoln totals just about 200 pages of narrative, and about half of that covers the careers of Brady and Gardner before April, 1865. Some may think that that is a little too much backstory, but the exposition certainly helps explain how and why Brady and Gardner were so intent on one-upping each other and getting the better photographs. Pistor’s early chapters discuss a great exhibition in London that seriously introduced the new study of photography, as well as the beginning of the war and Gardner’s famous excursions to Antietam and Gettysburg.

Pistor’s work does not break much new ground—his bibliography is full entirely of secondary sources and easily accessible primary sources, with nothing represented from unpublished manuscripts. But the story is still told well, and Pistor brings alive the struggle between Brady and Gardner, plus other associates that have come down through history like Timothy O’Sullivan. The constant narrative thread is how Brady and Gardner consistently found themselves at odds—first, when Gardner worked for Brady yet received little to no credit for his work, and then to when they were rival photographers both looking for the best scoop.

The best part of the book comes from the inclusion of plenty of photographs, which is paired with Pistor’s narrative. In that sense, one reads about the work done by Brady or Gardner to get the photo, and then they see the finished result amongst the page breaks. Through that purview, they become more than just downloaded scans from the Library of Congress, but now have full-fledged back stories to them. Pistor’s narrative goes through the battlefields of the Civil War, to the stage at Ford’s Theatre, the deck of the USS Montauk, and to the gallows at the Washington Arsenal.

Shooting Lincoln is the ideal version of popular history—a story told well that is very accessible to newcomers who may be seeking an introduction to the major players surrounding photography and the Lincoln Assassination. What Pistor makes abundantly clear with his closing pages is that the advances in photography and innovations pushed by people like Brady and Gardner continue to help us today. Even amongst the modern hustle and bustle of constant news, it all comes back to the photographers who lugged their heavy equipment around, carefully treated their wet plates, and waited for the best shot.

Nicholas Pistor, Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century.

Da Capo Press, 2017.

272 Pages, Endnotes, Bibliography, Index.

 

 


Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part II)

This is the second of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle. Part I may be found here.

To appreciate the extent that images such as Adolph Metzner’s Cozy corner defied the conventions of mainstream art, it is beneficial to draw comparisons between his portrayal of the battle and the musician Alfred E. Mathew’s picture, entitled Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M.B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River, which was intended for a public audience. Mathews had been a landscape drawer prior to the conflict, and his skill won the admiration of many. A surgeon in the 16th Ohio Infantry recorded meeting the soldier-artist, writing: “I saw some of his sketches. They are all good. His lithograph view of “Boon’s Knob”… is very beautiful and true.”[i] General Ulysses S. Grant wrote Mathews of his views of the siege of Vicksburg, commending him by writing: “[I] do not hesitate to pronounce them among the most accurate and true to life I have ever seen. They reflect great credit upon you as a delineator of landscape views.”[ii]

Both compliments reveal a problematic issue regarding Mathew’s artistic outlook. Whilst many volunteers understood the Civil War itself as their political and social context for creating images, and that very war as their defining artistic experience, Mathews was a skilled landscape artist in the antebellum era. The war itself discouraged traditional artists’ attempts to “create meaning out of the violence” using narrative strategies designed to celebrate clear-cut heroic action and noble virtue. Landscape painters of the Hudson River School, who had visualised the ideologies of national identity by looking west, found their methods incapable of representing the internal crisis unfolding in the east.[iii] Though his creative prowess was clearly recognised by his contemporaries, his grounding in the conventions of landscape art hindered his ability to produce realistic depictions of the battle experience.

Not only did Mathew’s proficiency in landscape painting encumber his artistic representations, but so too did his desire to circulate such images through commercial organisations. Mathew’s sketches were supplied to Middleton, Strobridge, & Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, a lithographing firm that would convert his images for commercial sale.[iv] These prints were produced in “small folio” sizes to be displayed on walls for “intimate, domestic viewing.”[v] The fidelity with which the printmakers reproduced the original sketches depended entirely on their expertise. Printmakers, with their detachment from the fighting and with a patriotic fervour to instil among the populace, would often censor images to the extent that soldiers barely recognised their depictions.

Several indicators attest to the image’s conventional style. Most notable is the fact that this image presents the spectator with a panoramic battle view that combines the features of both the popularised wilderness aesthetic of American landscape views and those of traditional European history painting.[vi] The perspective taken by Mathews denies the observer the soldier’s view of the fighting, and in doing so reduces these vital participants to miniature figures in a homogenous mass. As the regiments charge, every foot steps forward together and every rifle is levelled in a uniform position. But the Civil War battlefield was, unlike the European landscape where history painting was honed, characteristically rolling and rugged, often denying regiments visibility and cohesion.[vii] Thus, the two artistic styles involved in this image are incompatible. One Pennsylvanian noted that during his entire four year service, he had only witnessed one such assault “that was like the pictures in the newspapers.”[viii]

Additional methods are employed by Mathews and the engravers in order to idealise the actions of the Union soldiers in this image. The officer leading the charge of the supporting regiment, pictured at centre-right with his sword drawn above his head, is almost farcical. Such occurrences were so rare following the early-war period that its inclusion would invite further criticism from experienced soldiers. Though the officer class are also drawn as minute figures, the annotative captions allow spectators to identify officers based on their unit’s position. For example, the first annotation allows one to identify the left-most regiment as the 31st Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, “Lieut. Col. F. W. Lister, Command’g.” The enlisted men are denied recognition, not because of the wounds they have sustained through their participation in the combat, like the victims of Metzner’s Cozy corner, but because their individualisation in the Mathew’s lithograph would detract appreciation from the Union Army as a grand, monolithic fighting machine.

Furthermore, two national flags are placed in an immediately obvious and central position in this picture. The flag borne by the regiment leading the charge rises almost triumphantly from the smoke of battle before the engagement has truly started. Though the national and regimental flags were carried at the centre of regiments, soldiers soon learned that flags did much to draw the enemy’s fire. It was not uncommon for every member of the ten-strong colour guard to be shot dead before a battle was over.[ix] The centrality of the flags and the invincibility of their bearers is more reminiscent of the idealised lithographs of the U.S.-Mexican War.[x] But whilst the vastly distant nature of that earlier conflict invited a more imaginative depiction by artists, the Civil War’s immediacy to a large section of the populace quickly revealed such images as fictitious.

It is important to also note that not a single casualty, killed or wounded, is depicted on the Union side. The soldiers are portrayed as invincible as they march forward. Even on the Confederate line, the only evidence of the casualties are three individuals dramatically falling to the ground. The image depicts none of the carnage that left both belligerents unable to renew any form of offensive against one another for months. Instead, the image provides a level of suspense; illustrating the charge in its initial stages and calling upon the viewer’s imagination to visualise the ensuing combat in their minds, should they wish to.

Consequently, Metzner’s and Mathews’ artwork illustrate how soldiers’ individually perceived their experience of battle as much as any diary entry or letter sent home. Whether choosing to record the plight of their adversaries or the might of the army to which they belonged, the artistic record of the Civil War soldier offers a rich vein of relatively untapped historical source material. Though the illustrations of newspaper sketch-artists, cartoonists, and high-art painters reveal much about perceptions of the Civil War, soldiers’ art allows us to analyse more fully the ways in which those best-poised to visually represent the war experience did so in response to their own lived realities.

[i] B. B. Brashear, ‘letter to the Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper, March 12, 1862,’ in ‘Letter from Dr. Brashear.’, Tuscarawas Advocate Newspaper (Tuscarawas County, Ohio: March 28, 1862)

[ii] Ulysses S. Grant, ‘Unidentified newspaper clipping in the Western History Department, Denver Public Library,’ Daily Miner’s Register (Central City, Colorado: December 1, 1865), p. 3

[iii] David Holloway; John Beck, eds., American Visual Cultures (London: Continuum Publishing, 2005), p. 13

[iv] Jeffrey Weidman, Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000), p. 277

[v] Alfred Edward Mathews; Middleton, Strobridge & Co., lithograph, 1863 ‘Charge of the first brigade, commanded by Col. M. B. Walker, on the Friday evening of the battle of Stone River. January 2nd, 1863; In which the Rebels were repulsed with heavy loss, and driven behind their breastworks. Sketched by A. E. Mathews, 31st Reg., O.V.I.,’ PGA – – Middleton, Strobridge & Co.—Charge of the first brigade… (D size), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Boundaries of American Political Culture in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), p. 13

[vi] Eleanor Harvey defines history painting, in the traditional, academic sense, as the “monumental canvases depicting elaborate battle scenes and heroes” that were prominent in European art. But such imagery had gained, at best, a tenuous foothold in the United States. Even Grand Manner history paintings by artists such as Benjamin West and John Trumbull never garnered the same support as the wilderness aesthetic. Harvey, The Civil War and American Art, p. 5

[vii] Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997), pp. 55-56

[viii] Gilbert Adams Hays, Under the Red Patch; Story of the Sixty Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1864 (Pittsburgh, PA: Sixty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteers Regimental Association, 1908), p. 422

[ix] Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the Civil War (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008), pp. 157-178

[x] See, for example, N. Currier, lithograph, 1846, ‘Battle of Monterey – The Americans forcing their way to the main plaza Sept. 23th 1846,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Monterey (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC, or N. Currier, lithograph, 1847, ‘Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847,’ PGA – Currier & Ives—Battle of Cerro Cordo April 18th 1847 (A size), Prints and Photographs Division, LoC.


Soldier-Artists and the Battle Experience (Part I)

This is the first of two posts regarding soldier-artists and their depictions of the experience of battle.

“Pshaw. It’s no use, they can’t picture a battle,” exclaimed the young son of Reverend A. M. Stewart of the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, a recent observer of the battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks, as he indignantly threw down a copy of Harper’s Weekly with images depicting those engagements. By 1862’s end, Stewart noted that pictures “of officers with drawn swords riding before their men into battle” led the enlisted men to “shout out with mocking irony; all played out.[i] It seemed that war pictures, to those who had seen war, weren’t all that war-like.

But armies are composed of individuals, no matter how uniform military officials might attempt to make them, and so some men disagreed. In June 1864, George Oscar French wrote a letter advising his home-circle “to get Harpers Weekly of the 11th June. All the pictures about the Army of the Potomac are very good.” Two months later, he recommended another image for his father’s observation, noting that it was “perfectly lifelike” and could be studied for “ten minutes to good advantages.”[ii] But whilst most of the rank-and-file gauged the accuracy of conventional war images around campfires and in their correspondence, there were those decided to take up pencils and paintbrushes to make their own.

These soldier-artists are generally rendered peripheral in our comprehension of the conflict, despite the prolific outpouring of scholarship in recent decades on both Civil War artwork and the ordinary soldier. Men such as Alfred Bellard, John J. Omenhausser, Robert Knox Sneden, Charles Wellington Reed, Alfred E. Mathews, and Adolph Metzner, all unknowingly contributed to the creation of a collective visual scrapbook that provides insight into the totality of the soldier’s war experience. Much of the artwork is now published, but it rarely receives the scholarly consideration of historians: high-art painting and prominent photographs enjoy their focus. But the soldier’s artwork, no matter how folkloric or even primitive it may appear, holds much potential for analysis. Soldiers weren’t merely attempting to record the sights they encountered. They were making artistic statements about their war experiences.

By briefly comparing two Union soldier-artist’s depictions of the Battle of Stones River, one can gain an appreciation of the ways soldiers employed artwork to convey differing sentiments about the battle experience. Adolph Metzner, a captain in the 32nd Indiana Infantry, and Alfred E. Mathews, a musician in the 31st Ohio Infantry, both made pictures of Stones River, but their subjects, techniques, and intended audiences result in markedly dissimilar images. Metzner produced his image for himself, or at most a close circle of associates or family members. Conversely, Mathews had his ambition set on commercial success, and so his picture would pass through the censoring gaze of the printmakers to be made digestible for the northern citizenry.

Metzner’s artwork initially exhibited an exaggerated and comical outlook towards the war, but shifted to show the turmoil his regiment experienced following the loss of comrades at Rowlett’s Station in December 1861.[iii] By Shiloh in April 1862, the comedic elements notable in his early works were irretrievable. One of the most graphic of Metzner’s images was The rebel line at Stones River, (Murfreesboro), Jan. 1863. “A cozy corner.” The watercolour depicts a portion of the Confederate line following the battle. Soldiers of all ranks lay pell-mell in heaps. A sword, a symbol of martial authority and of southern honour and chivalry, is notable protruding from the mass of the dead.

There is no formal hierarchy in this death scene. Soldiers are rendered anonymous as they die facedown or are mangled by their wounds from the storm of bullets and shells. The carrion birds gather above the mass as they prepare to feast on the slain, emphasising fears regarding the appropriate treatment of the dead. Civil War soldiers worried greatly about their remains, as one Confederate wrote: “It is dreadful to contemplate being killed on the field without a kind hand to hide one’s remains from… the gnawing of… buzzards.”[iv] Metzner’s scene depicts the soldier’s anxiety over the futility of such improper deaths.

Of particular note in this image is the almost religious and sacrificial symbolism of the figures at centre-left. The pyramidal composition, which is traditionally employed to represent order and stability in conventional artwork, is that which draws the eye to the one soldier’s desperate attempt to grasp at his comrade. It is rendered the most humane act in this depiction of battle. It is no coincidence that the two subjects form a pieta, particularly in view of the similarity in the location of the bullet wound on the officer’s right breast and Christ’s chest wound caused by the Holy Lance. But in this representation, such sacrifice is revealed as useless, for the only reward is to face an impending and unheroic death in Metzner’s paradoxically Cozy corner.

But Metzner’s scene reveals sympathy rather than any hatred for the enemy. This is no exhibition of the triumph of Union military might, but instead a mournful scene illustrating the traumas of modernising warfare. Though new innovations in armament development occurred in the antebellum era, most combat continued to occur at a range of about one hundred yards, meaning that it was impossible to facilitate emotional distance from destructive acts.[v] Metzner’s work reveals the internal struggle that countless soldiers battled with, as the work of killing marked a significant departure from their understandings of themselves as human beings and Christians.[vi] His watercolour is not a visual assault on the Confederate soldier, but a terrifying representation of the fate that frequently befell the victims on both sides of the conflict.

[i] Rev. A. M. Steward, Camp, March and Battle-Field; or, Three Years and a Half with the Army of the Potomac (Philadelphia, PA: Jas. B. Rodgers, Printer, 1865), pp. 280; 188

[ii] George Oscar French, ‘letter, to Dear friends, Camp on the Chickahominy, Near Cold Harbor June 10th;’ ‘letter, to Dear Father, Hospital, Annapolis, Sunday morn. August 28th 1864,’ George Oscar French Letters, Vermont Historical Society, http://vermonthistory.org/research/research-resources-online/civil-war-transcriptions/george-oscar-french-letters

[iii] Michael A. Peake, Blood Shed in this War: Civil War Illustrations by Captain Adolph Metzner, 32nd Indiana (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010), pp. 2

[iv] Wirt Armistead Cate, ed., Two Soldiers: The Campaign Diaries of Thomas J. Key, C.S.A., December 7, 1863 – May 17, 1865 and Robet J. Campbell, U.S.A., January 1, 1864 – July 21, 1864 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 182

[v] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2008). For more on the destructive power of rifled weaponry, which caused 94% of Union casualties in the war, see Hess’ The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008).

[vi] Orestes Brownson; Henry F. Brownson, ed., The Works of Orestes Brownson (Detroit, IL: Thorndike Nourse, Publisher, 1882-87), Vol. 17, p. 214