1Just as historians ponder the underlying causes of the American Civil War (ideology, slavery, constitutional interpretation, sectional politics…), so too might the question be debated as to where exactly the terminal point of the conflict should be situated. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 may have marked the military end to the war, while the end of Reconstruction in 1877, and the triumph of Redemptionist politics in the former Confederate States, may stand as alternative landmarks in a not so unanimously-embraced closure of the Rebellion. But in what other ways and instances, beyond purely political and social considerations, did the Civil War conclude? Given the ever-increasing role and place of images, especially photographic images, in mid- to late-nineteenth century America, it is far from unreasonable to suggest that photographs taken during the War were used as a means to control the Civil War narrative in the United States of the Gilded Age. How might have the use of images contributed to an even further closure to the war, eventually leading to a kind of North/South reconciliation, a reconciliation that re-read the conclusion to the war, to some minds, as stalemate? How did the photographic images from the war lead to a re-evaluation of its fighting, and, in due course, call into question the role that memory played therein: does how we remember influence how we see or does vision manipulate memory? Our aim in this paper is to focus on the role of two organizations, the Grand Army of the Republic and the War Photograph & Exhibition Company, and on the way they helped respond to these questions of the placement of the Civil War in the collective and individual memories of Gilded Age Americans.
- 1 For a discussion of George Cook, one of the most prominent Confederate photographers, see http://o (...)
2Fundamental to this discussion is the understanding of just whose memory is being defined. If the proverbial spoils belong to the victors, then the plunder of the Union included control of the visual discourse on the war: the war was literally seen through the eyes of Union artists and promoters such as Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and George Barnard. Southern photographers did exist, but for the most part remained attached to portraiture, given that most of the demand would have come for pictures of individuals to be provided to loved ones1. Photographers in the South were also under the constraints of the blockade imposed on the Confederacy by the Federal government, which meant that chemicals necessary for the development of photographic images were largely inaccessible in the South, though a major Southern photographer like Charleston-based George Cook was not above a bit of blockade-running and bill-of-lading subterfuge. Nineteenth-century photographers’ establishments, too, being inherently prone to destruction by fire because of the storage of chemicals, were particularly hard-hit in the South, given that the bulk of the fighting took place behind Confederate lines (McCaslin 4-5). The disappearance, after the military surrender at Appomattox, of pictures taken by Confederate photographers has also been linked to self-censorship on the part of their Southern owners, as if the images of the war were too painful a reminder of the defeat to be viewed. If Southern participants were largely forgotten in the visual discourse of the war, except as dead bodies or as foils to the valorous Union soldiers, the same cannot be said for the landscape, for almost the entirety of the war was fought on Confederate soil. The land became the vector of memory, retaining meaning through the physical acts perpetrated upon it.
3One of the unexpected and ironic consequences of this Northern predominance in the control of the vision of the War may very well have been the rise of what some interpreters of the post-war period see as the victory of the South ex post facto. This wrangling of success by the Confederates from the realities of battlefield defeat might be attributed to their ultimate control of the verbal discourse of the war, namely what has come to be known as the Lost Cause ideology. This latter suggests that defeat was practically inevitable for the South given the overwhelming material advantages that the North possessed in manpower, manufacturing, and logistics. What the South lacked on the supply front, it more than made up for on the rhetorical front. The Confederate population was courageous and gallant, as theory would have it, united behind their leaders and soldiers who had fought against the affront that a strong central federal government had imposed upon them. Slavery was rewritten as an enabling device to help blacks live in the codified world of the plantation. Slaveholders were benevolent, paternal even, losing money on the very institution that defined the region. The Lost Cause was above all a Romantic view of a chivalrous and genteel South whose population was not just willing but expected to fight against all odds in order to repair perceived indignities. What is surprising is that this rhetoric eventually prevailed in both the South and the North. That such rhetoric should take primacy in the South is more than understandable, but the Lost Cause also flattered the North. It credited the North with creating a mercantile giant that could steamroll its will on its opponent (including, by extension, the rest of the world). It allowed Northerners to maintain certain stereotypes of the South, revolving around gentility and cordiality, and, perhaps most importantly for sectional reconciliation, it permitted the North to have defeated an admirable enemy: a worthy opponent bestows worthiness upon yourself. Thus in the ever-growing fervor of reunion in the late nineteenth century, the rancor of battlefield and political hostilities gave way to an almost good-natured camaraderie. The symbols of the Confederacy, the flags, the uniforms, the ceremonies were sanctioned; the losers were not forced to disappear, to assimilate, to forget. If during the Civil War such images were erased from the visual discourse, they became part of that same discourse in the post-bellum period.
Figure 1 G.A.R. Medal
4To suggest that this view of the Confederacy easily became dominant would be to overlook the persistent bitterness on the part of many former Union soldiers, who maintained that theirs was the fight that had sided with right. Whether for or against abolition or constitutional integrity, large numbers of soldiers fought the war and fought it again through the end of the nineteenth century in magazines, tracts, clubs, and towns. Primary among these organizations was the Grand Army of the Republic, the G.A.R., an association founded in 1866 originally as a kind of fraternal organization for former Union soldiers. The tangibility of the rancor held by certain Union soldiers against the rebels, which lay at the heart of the construction of the G.A.R., could be found in the group’s membership badges (Fig. 1). As soldier and sailor shake hands, they are watched over by the Goddess of Liberty and a group of children: the group’s core values of fraternity, loyalty and charity are thus represented on a medal cast from melted-down Confederate cannon. By 1890, fraternity shared the stage with political lobbying; the G.A.R. had grown to over 430,000 members and the organization used its collective weight to campaign for issues dear to its members’ hearts, including veteran homes, government jobs, and increased pension rolls. The G.A.R. also used its considerable influence to campaign for political candidates supporting these issues, chiefly Republicans.
Figure 2 Joseph Keppler, “As Natural As Life – Patching Up the Republican Jumbo for 1888”, Puck, March 31, 1886.
Note the man in the orange shirt stuffing bloody shirts into the elephant’s belly.
Figure 3 Joseph Keppler (after Meissonier), Puck, 1890 (after a Republican defeat in the mid-term elections).
Figure 4 Victor Gillam, “Their War Records Contrasted – ‘Not one Union Soldier will vote for Cleveland’”, Judge, 1892.
- 2 Patrick J. Kelly forcefully argues that McKinley’s 1896 election was in no small part due to a con (...)
5The clearest signs of the importance of the G.A.R. came during the presidential campaigns of 1888 and 1892.2 The Republicans, behind their candidate Benjamin Harrison (not so incidentally a Civil War general, as were all Republican presidents in the last quarter of the nineteenth century—Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Arthur—McKinley was a breveted major) courted, or at least counted on the active support of G.A.R. members to be elected. While images had accompanied presidential elections before, the rise of politically impertinent publications such as Puck, the Daily Graphic and Judge meant that the hot button issues of the day were treated with visual sophistication, even while gladly indulging in partisanship (Figs. 2, 3, 4). The erudition which these images implied suggests that the reading public of the time was informed by a visual culture of some depth, juggling references to French history and contemporary painting (Meissonier painted Campagne de France, 1814 in 1864 as an interpretation of Napoleonic defeats to come), as well as popular culture (the skeleton of P. T. Barnum’s recently deceased elephant, Jumbo, had been transferred to the American Museum of Natural History after the pachyderm’s death in 1885; the cartoon is also a remarkable prefiguring of the eventual stuffing and moving of the elephant to Tufts University in 1889). Questions around tariffs and immigration figured prominently in these periodicals, but in 1888 and 1892, a quarter-century after the end of the Rebellion, the War took on a central role in the campaigns. Democrat Grover Cleveland, the incumbent in 1888, had infuriated former Union soldiers for two principal reasons. In 1887 he vetoed the Dependent Pension Act which would have extended war pensions to veterans who had been disabled, whether during the war or not. He also published an executive order that would have returned Confederate battle flags that had been captured. The uproar surrounding this last point was swift and virulent: “May God palsy the hand that wrote that order. May God palsy the brain that conceived it, and may God palsy the tongue that dictated it” (“Gen. Lucius”). General Lucius Fairchild (and Commander-in-Chief of the G.A.R.) decried Cleveland’s action, knowing full well that the trophies of battle flags, tangible symbols—and often image-laden (Fig 5)—of military engagement had been captured with reckless abandon and loss of life. They had become the stuff of story-telling, and thus of a narrative (re)creation of the War, by aging veterans, in an echo of the previously mentioned appropriation of Confederate cannon for G.A.R. membership badges. More decisive for Cleveland was the defection of General Dan Sickles, a fellow New York Democrat, who in no uncertain terms let Cleveland know that he had lost the former soldiers’ vote. Though Cleveland won the popular vote, the split along sectional lines was pronounced, thus favoring Harrison. Once in office, Harrison pushed through the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, enlarging the pool of potential pension seekers and making sure that military pensions became the single largest item in the federal budget, accounting for more than 30 percent of expenditures.
Figure 5 Captured Confederate Battle Flag, unknown regiment.
6The 1892 campaign was a rematch between Harrison and Cleveland, and the waving of the bloody shirt—the use of military martyrdom of Northern soldiers in political rhetoric—of four years earlier was just as heated. The Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Cleveland and Adlai Stevenson, had paid for substitutes to fight for them during the Civil War, and this came back to undermine their campaign. The Republican candidates, Harrison and Whitelaw Reid, were held up by their partisans as patriots who had not shirked their war time duty (Fig. 4). This time, however, the importance of the Civil War seemed to have diminished as a national issue; instead, voters expressed their discontent with the Republicans over economic questions.
Figure 6 Gurney’s Daguerrean Saloon, New York, Illustrated News, November 12, 1853.
7The question is to determine where exactly we can situate the crossroads of the Civil War, memory, and the photographic image. The transmission of a visual culture in the nineteenth century has often assumed a central role in the private sphere. Hand-held photographic images, the stereoview, and the rise of the illustrated popular press are but a few examples of the intimate quality of image-viewing in the nineteenth century. But this leaves aside another, relatively important aspect, that of the spectacle, the show, the sharing of images in the public arena. This public facet lay at the root of the invention of photography with the diorama and was part of the photographic experience in large cities, with the emergence of galleries/studios such as those of Mathew Brady and Jeremiah Gurney in New York (Fig. 6).
Figure 8 Stereopticon view, Battle at Philippi, Virginia, 1861.
Figure 9 Currier and Ives, “The Second Battle of Bull Run, Fought August 29th, 1862”.
8One of the most important tools of the late 19th century in terms of public image viewing was the stereopticon. Stereopticons (also known as sciopticons and magic lanterns) first appeared in the 1850s, with the Langenheim Brothers promoting a process, that of the magic lantern, which had already had a long existence in various forms. The principle is simple, being for all intents and purposes the predecessor of the 35mm slide and, closer to us, the PowerPoint presentation. An operator placed a lantern slide—a positive image on glass—into the stereopticon and projected the image onto a curtain whose size varied with the size of the room (Fig. 10). A market existed during the Civil War for scenes from the war, a market that Mathew Brady tried to crack (apparently with little success); from the slides that are left to us today from the era, it would appear that artistic renderings of battles and patriotic exhortations dominated: Currier and Ives-type imaginings writ large so to speak (Figs. 7, 8, 9). These images, like their lithographic cousins, often had little to do with the reality of warfare. The image of the Battle of Philippi comes across as almost bucolic, while that of the Second Battle of Bull Run persists in the representation of war as organized and rectilinear, and thus easily comprehensible. It is stating the obvious to say that the images that Brady, Gardner, and Gibson brought back from Antietam in 1862 exploded the myths of Civil War soldiering, the very myths that had more than likely contributed to the fervor of the first recruits (Thompson 15).
Figure 10 Advertisement for Stereopticons, 1885?
9Demand for images of the War lessened once the conflict was over. Brady’s ultimate bankruptcy is well-documented (Panzer 113-120); his collection was first passed over to E. & H. T. Anthony in payment of debts and was then sold to Colonel Rand and General Ordway in the 1870s. In 1890 the collection (augmented by negatives by Alexander Gardner) was purchased by John C. Taylor of Hartford. Taylor and his partner William Huntington had been sergeants in the Union Army during the War, and by cornering the market on views taken by “government photographers”, as their promotional material constantly mentioned, the two veterans presumably hoped to cash in on the strength of the G.A.R. in order to market their images, at a time when the very divisive nature of the War was being called into question. By the early 1890s, the public lecture accompanied by lantern slides had become commonplace: The New York Times regularly reported lantern slide lectures on such topics as Mexican antiquities, eighteenth-century French painting and Ancient Egypt. The ubiquity of the phenomenon can be gathered from the fact that even Harper’s Young People, a weekly aimed, as the title suggests, at a junior audience, could parody it:
Our town is getting to be full of lecturers. Mr. Travers says that they spread all over the country, just like cholera, and that when one lecturer comes to a town, another is liable to break out at any time.
The last lecturer that we had happened a week ago. He was a magic-lantern one, and they are not so bad as other kinds. He had magic-lantern pictures of Europe and Washington and other towns, and he showed them on a big white sheet, and talked about them (Brown 81).
- 3 For a description of political street skirmishing using stereopticons, see “Battle of Stereopticons (...)
10News and election results were delivered to people on the streets of New York via stereopticon, the ancestor in this case of the news ticker in Times Square. The stereopticon was even used by political parties in New York City to “broadcast” slogans onto curtains placed on rooftops across the street from the projecting room, resulting at times in cross-party shenanigans and fisticuffs3. Taylor and Huntington were attempting to cash in on a technological novelty.
Figure 11 Alexandria Slave Pens, Lantern Slide published by Taylor and Huntington.
- 4 Evidence of Taylor and Huntington’s close ties with the G.A.R. can be found in the letter included (...)
11What Taylor and Huntington proposed with the War Photograph & Exhibition Co. was to provide prospective lecturers with raw materials: slides, lecture notes, a catalogue of images (stereoviews, real photos pasted on cardboard backing in various sizes) to be sold to customers, logistical arrangements, an equitable division of territory. Thus equipped, the lecturers could be expected to make a living of some kind by setting up in towns throughout their territories for a night or two. The company even marketed a series of museum cases where images could be displayed through stereoview lenses to four people at a time, a situation somewhere in between the private side of individual viewing and the public quality of the shared spectacle (the exhibitor would give a small talk while the views were being shown). Crucial to the success of the enterprise appears to have been the involvement revolving around G.A.R. posts4. These were captive audiences, made up for the most part of men in Northern states, getting on in years, quite possibly with grandchildren who needed to be instructed in the ways of the “cult” of the Union soldier. These were the same veteran soldiers that magazines such as the Maine Bugle, a periodical from the 1890s sent to members of the Maine Cavalry regiments of the Civil War, would have addressed:
[Your memories] may vary from the actual facts but such variation must be due to the smoke and confusion that hangs over every participant in actual battle, and not to a desire to vary or wrongfully color. Every excited and actual worker in front of the enemy’s fire sees a narrow field of view with no perspective and with a universal misconception of time and distance (Reveille, 81).
12What could be of greater use to the veteran, whose own memories were becoming hazy with time, than the “realism”, the “mirror image”, of the photograph in order to transmit “the” memory of the War? Taylor and Huntington addressed this group through their lecturers:
Just how things looked ‘at the front,’ during the great war, is, with most of us, now, after the lapse of more than twenty-five years, only a fading memory, cherished, it is true, and often called up from among the dim pictures of the past, but after all, only the vision of a dream. Artists have painted, and sketched, and engraved, with more or less fidelity to fact and detail those ‘scenes of trial and danger,’ but all of their pictures are, in a greater or less degree, imaginary conceptions of the artist. Happily our Government authorized, during the war, skillful photographers to catch with their cameras the reflection, as in a mirror, of very many of those thrilling and interesting scenes (Taylor 1).
13Naturally, it was necessary to provide a verbal discourse over the scenes being projected. Taylor and Huntington proposed texts for the lecturer, and even suggested enrolling the local choral group to sing patriotic songs during the show, thus emphasizing the spectacular quality of the presentation. A montage of views was thus ordained, or at the least ordered: the lecturer’s job was to impose a narrative on a non-linear “reportage”. The available images of the war were by no means exhaustive, and the lecturer would have been required to make a choice of what to show among the available photographs. Taylor and Huntington admitted that veterans would love to see “their” regiments or “their” companies. “But a moment’s reflection will convince you that this is not possible; the only practical way is to make a selection of views which will be likely to interest the public generally; therefore the assortment should be made to include Battlefields, Batteries, Regiments, Forts, Picket Posts, Pontoon Bridges, Signal Towers, Rebel Prisoners, the wounded, the Dead just as they fell, Burial of the Dead after the Battle, Libby Prison, the Monitor, etc. etc.” (Taylor 19). The Civil War became a generality, a wholly-inscribed narrative, rather than an individual experience. Those experiences would have to be built upon the pre-existing norm of how the war was to be seen, and consequently remembered.
Figure 12 Alexander Gardner, The “Sunken Road” at Antietam, 1862, stereoview reprinted here by Taylor and Huntington, 1891?
14Taylor and Huntington provided the prospective exhibitor with one final caveat: namely, to choose his slides with an eye to his audience (Fig. 12). “Unless you are exhibiting to Veterans, do not put in too many views showing such terrible scenes as the wounded at hospitals, the dead on battlefields, burial of the dead, embalming scenes, etc. etc., because there are many people (especially ladies) who object to looking at these awful views” (Taylor 18). The war was to be sanitized, and re-memorized through what was shown, not what was lived, especially in the transmission of the soldier’s own memory; one veteran even wrote a letter of thanks to Taylor and Huntington in which he added, “My wife complains and says [the pictures] make me moody and distressed. They do not. They only make me live over the past again” (Taylor 28). Was the temporal distance still insufficient to smooth over the brutality of the War? Does when we see affect how we see? Did the spectacle entail a different esthetic for the audience? Was this a late nineteenth-century reading of womanhood that separated vision into genderized spaces, which disallowed the introduction of the gruesome into the visual field of the “weaker” sex?
Figure 13 Advertisement from The Dedication of Grant’s Monument, 1897.
15The distance in time between the Civil War and the Taylor/Huntington enterprise underscores the necessity of trying to come to grips with the vicissitudes of memory. Certainly, the images proposed, projected, exhibited and sold were as close to eyewitness accounts as could be found, but they were now being offered as substantiation of a political agenda as well as a token of a lived past. The paradox was, of course, that such eyewitness accounts were being sold and exhibited to eyewitnesses in their own right. The combined power of the image and the text was expected to revive the veterans’ memories of the War, and act as a teaching tool for those who had stayed at home or had not yet been born at the time. But as some spectators suggested, the show was even more real than the fighting itself, or at least promoted as such; participants in the War were so caught up in their individual experiences, Taylor and Huntington surmised, that they were unaware of the “truth” of the conflict. “… [E]ven veterans who were ‘at the front’ for three years or more got ideas of the immensity of the dread war which they did not pick up by actual experience” (Taylor 28). The images being projected were to be seen not just as conduits to personal memories but as the very foundation of the Civil War itself. This confusion between personal and collective memories might well be located in the construct of the idea of the Civil War: a contest formed of individuals with conflictive relationships with their wartime experience, most notably in the necessity to render the private subservient to the collective. Ethnologist and social anthropologist Marc Augé sees something similar to this in the initiation rites he studied in Africa. “The collective and individual meanings [of the rites] do not necessarily coincide,” he suggests. “The collectivity guards the memory of the episodes of the possession; the possessed individual must forget them” (Augé 80). But the horror of the rites, and arguably of the war, also acts as a means of creating group cohesion. Groups like the G.A.R. banked on the camaraderie that shared suffering demanded and on what Augé locates in the recurrent quality of the experience. Taylor and Huntington, through the repetition of public image viewing, enabled the spectactors to relive the very reasons of belonging to the group.
16By the end of the nineteenth century, the physical landscape of the United States was filling up with monuments to Civil War combatants, monuments which were thought to be immutable images of prior experience and communitarian ideals: the monument as a crossroads of long-term homage to sacrifice within strict temporal boundaries. To these layers of time, time lived as well as time imagined and memorialized, must be added the newly established Kodak Company (Fig. 13). Soon, the average person would have access to his or her own images of a newly-minted present. There would be, thus—in theory—less reliance on the “official” quality of the image, even if stereoscope companies, it is true, still provided images for the private space of home viewing well into the twentieth century. This new process and manner of seeing would, of course, be no guarantee of a “disenfluctuating” memory, but would seem to have allowed for a new manner of remembering, a manner that put the “casual picture taker” on the same level as that of the “official government photographers” of the Civil War. Indeed, as Kirsten M. Jensen reminds us, “[…] Kodak taught amateur photographers to see experiences and memories nostalgically and transformed the perception of how individuals could organize, present, and even remember their lives and significant events through snapshots. Photography’s instantaneous character became a signifier for its value as a historical document as well as its importance as a tool for capturing memories—stilling a moment in time so that it could be re-told and re-lived later.” (Levine, 22-25)
Figure 14 The Confederate Mound Monument, Chicago (Oak Woods Cemetery), 1895.
Figure 15 Moses Ezekiel, The Confederate Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, 1913.
17The blurring of distinctions between memory and ideals, a blurring that is the prerogative of time, eventually wins out over the certainty of youthful ardor, and the Civil War was no different, as evidenced by a series of post-war events: the inclusion of Confederate pallbearers during the funeral of Ulysses Grant in 1885; the dedication of a Confederate memorial in Chicago on Memorial Day in 1895 (Fig. 14); President McKinley’s proclamation of national unity before the Georgia legislature just after the Spanish-American War in 1898; the return of Confederate battle flags in 1905 (pushed through by Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican), and the commemoration of the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1913 (Fig. 15). The publication of The Photographic History of the Civil War in 1911 (to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the War) announced the triumph of sectional reconciliation through the photographic image. In the few short years that separated the Taylor-Huntington enterprise from the 10-volume history, the vision and the moral of the War had been tempered. Even though, as might be expected, the visual discourse of the History was almost entirely Northern, the narrative discourse was now slightly more equitable compared with the lectures that accompanied the War Photograph & Exhibition Company’s stereopticon shows. In his introduction to the Photographic History, President William Howard Taft set the tone for the work. “We have reached a point in this country when we can look back, not without love, not without intense pride, but without partisan passion, to the events of the Civil War. We have reached a point, I am glad to say, when the North can admire to the full the heroes of the South, and the South admire to the full the heroes of the North” (Miller, I: 12). With the reconstruction of the narratives around the images from and of the Civil War, images that had been thought to be inalterable in their meaning at the time of their taking, the conflict between North and South appeared to have moved from one of rending to one of concord.