The Library of Congress hosts through mid-August a modest but moving exhibit of photographic portraits of Civil War soldiers, images collected by the Liljenquist family and donated to the Library. Titled The Last Full Measure, the exhibit quietly and somberly marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, but it speaks not only of death and suffering long past, but of the anguish of today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The six display cases of photographs bear a deliberate and striking resemblance to the full-page spreads that periodically appear in the Washington Post (and perhaps other newspapers) showing photographs of U.S. soldiers recently killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Each of the 360 images of Union soldiers represents 1,000 Union dead; each of the 52 Confederate portraits stands for 5,000 dead. Unlike the newspaper pictures of contemporary U.S. war dead, the faces that stare with remarkable clarity from these 19th century ambrotypes and tintypes include those of soldiers’ wives and families, of women alone, and, most painfully, one or two of solitary children. Though the soldiers portrayed in this exhibit represent the staggering number of Civil War dead (over 620,000 soldiers died), we don’t know the fate of nearly any of these men and boys (many are hardly out of their teens) because the vast majority remain unidentified.
When the Civil War broke out, the technology of photography, though still in its infancy, was in a state of very creative flux. New technologies for capturing and fixing images supplanted old technology, only in turn to be elbowed aside by quicker and easier processes. The daguerreotype had been replaced by the ambrotype and after it the tintype. Each of these processes produced a unique remarkably clear and detailed image. The ambrotype bound its image to a piece of glass backed by a dark material and protected in a case, the tintype fixed the image on a piece of lacquered iron, frequently encased as well. For each of these technologies, the resulting image was a mirror image. (Though the exhibit contains none of them, a technology and style of photograph emerging in the 1860s produced the carte-de-visite which offered the cheapest and quickest way for a soldier to have his picture taken – positive images on specially treated paper were produced from a glass negative.)
Photographs played a key role in the lives of soldiers. They often noted in their diaries and letters the trips made to photographers or receipt of photographs from loved ones. Chandler B. Gillam, a farmer who had joined a unit of New York volunteers, was no exception. In a letter dated August 28, 1861, to his wife Sarah, he wrote, “. . . I have had my likeness taken and you will find it in this letter. I gave 2 liveys [sic] [what are these?] for it; you will see that I am not quite as fat as I was when at home.” (Letters of a Civil War Soldier: Chandler B. Gillam, 28th New York Volunteers, edited by Ellen C. Collier (2005)) Union artilleryman Robert T. McMahan noted in his diary on December 16, 1861, “Afternoon went out on pass to Union gallery, likeness taken – 50 cents, shall send it to Thad.” (Reluctant Cannoneer: The Diary of Robert McMahan of the Twenty-fifth Independent Ohio Light Artillery, edited by Michael E. Banasik, (2000)) Infantryman Alexander G. Downing, serving in the Vicksburg Campaign, far from his Iowa home, recorded in his diary for February 7, 1863, “While waiting for orders, I went down to a daguerreotype gallery and had my likeness taken.” A scant 12 days later, on February 19th, he wrote, “I was off duty today and went to town to have my likeness taken.” More than a year later, on April 24th, 1864, he “had a couple likenesses taken yesterday and today I am sending them away.” A month later on May 23rd, he exulted, “I received a letter and likeness from Miss G.” (Downing’s Civil War Diary, by Sergeant Alexander G. Downing (Company E, Eleventh Iowa Infantry, Third Brigade, “Crocker’s Brigade,” Sixth Division of the Seventeenth Corps, Army of the Tennessee, August 15, 1861 – July 31, 1865), edited by Olynthus B. Clark (1916))
When I see photographs from even as recently as the mid-20th century, I am used to feeling that there is something about the faces that marks them as distinctly from their particular period and not from mine. Poses, dress, and hair styles aside, their faces so often just look different. But very surprisingly, that was not so with many of the 150 year old images on display in this exhibit. Perhaps the ability of those early photographic technologies to render their images in such rich, precise detail makes so many of the faces in these portraits seem so contemporary. Many are faces that I see everyday.
The following two photographs of Confederate soldiers are among those that look back at me seemingly from today. The tinting added to these images does not detract from that feeling. (These and all other images in this post are from the Library of Congress which has made them available without restriction. In all instances save one, I have been able to display the clearer digital images of the photographs without their cases.) The first image below is titled Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform and forage cap. The second is titled Unidentified young soldier in Confederate shell jacket, Hardee hat with Mounted Rifles insignia and plume with canteen and cup.
The youth of those fighting this war takes my breath away. Not surprisingly, drummer boys (the concept repels me) were young as was Samuel W. Doble of Company D, 12th Maine Infantry Regiment.
Unidentified young soldier in Union uniform and Hardee hat sitting with musket, cartridge box, and cap box; the second is Unidentified young soldier in Union uniform and forage cap.
Some of the photographs of soldiers with their wives, or perhaps sisters, and their children, were likely carried by the soldiers into battle. Nineteenth century Protestant Americans held strongly to the concept of the “good death,” in which the dying person should be surrounded by kin who heard his or her last words of faith and repentance. To die alone on the field of battle savaged this concept. Drew Gilpin Faust, in her magnificent book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), writes,
Soldiers endeavored to provide themselves with surrogates: proxies for those who might have surrounded their deathbeds at home. Descriptions of battle’s aftermath often remark on the photographs found alongside soldiers’ corpses. Just as this new technology was capable of bringing scenes from battlefield to home front, as in Brady’s exhibition of Antietam dead in New York, more often the reverse occurred. . . . Denied the presence of actual kin, many dying men removed pictures from pockets or knapsacks and spent their last moments communicating with these representations of absent loved ones. (p. 11)
The following image is titled Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with unidentified woman. A case protects this tintype.
As with any modern photograph, those that have come down to us from the Civil War may not be faithful records of what they appear or purport to be. Some of these Civil War portraits may have been taken after the hostilities ceased. Which of the props in their hands were really theirs? The books on which they might be resting their hands would seem most likely to have been provided by the photographer. What of the weapons? What about the uniforms? Consider what Sergeant Alexander Downing (excerpts from his diary were provided above) responded when asked by the editor of his diary why he’d had his photograph taken on two occasions in February, 1863. Downing reportedly replied that he’d destroyed the first one, not because of some fault with the process but because of what it showed. The sergeant admitted, “To tell the truth, I had it taken dressed in a major’s uniform, and it wouldn’t have been safe to let it be seen.” (p. 101)
But these are trivial concerns, the tragedies behind these portraits are all too real. I was struck by the following photograph of Freeman Mason of Company K, 17th Vermont Infantry, shown holding a photograph of his brother Michael who had been killed in Virginia in 1862.
If that were not heartbreak enough, Freeman Mason came achingly close to surviving the war, but died from an accidental gunshot wound in camp at Petersburg, Virginia, on March 12, 1865. Lee surrendered on April 9.
For me, the most agonizing image of all is that of a young girl, wearing mourning ribbons and staring down all these years directly at us. She cradles in her arms a photograph of a Union cavalryman, presumably her dead father.