The hidden face of the Civil War

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2013 |

This summer the nation will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Most historians believe the repulse by George G. Meade of Robert E. Lee's emboldened Army of Northern Virginia was the turning point of the American Civil War. Fought in and around a small town eighty-five miles north of the nation's capital, the brutal three-day battle was marked by some fifty thousand casualties, Confederates and Unionists combined, and more than eight thousand deaths. Four months after this collision of armies, President Abraham Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate a new National Cemetery. He used the occasion to state once and for all that the war was being fought over the moral principle that all men are created equal.

The images presented here, selected especially for The Magazine Antiques, depict Southerners who fought for the Confederacy. In the large field of American iconography, these photographs are among the most provocative and rare nineteenth-century portraits. All of them will be featured in Photography and the American Civil War, an exhibition opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 2. The show examines the role of the camera during a cataclysmic period in American history and attempts, as much as is possible, to effect a balance between North and South, and between what we know and what we do not. Formal field portraits of well-dressed officers are tempered by more intimate likenesses of common soldiers, Rebels and Yankees, in whose eyes and body language rest much of the pathos of the war.

At the start of the war in 1861, the nation's image purveyors were overflowing with a great variety of products and services. On offer were small silver-on-copper images known as daguerreotypes, silver images on glass (ambrotypes), and silver images on blackened iron (tintypes). Housed in miniature cases, each of these portraits was unique. To expand their businesses, photographers in the late 1850s had also begun to offer a wide range of paper prints executed from collodion-on-glass negatives. Both amateur and professional picture-makers used glass negatives to generate a seemingly endless supply of albumen silver print cartes de visite for collecting in family albums, stereographs for parlor viewing, and large-format prints suitable for framing. Once the war began, however, southern artists had difficulty gaining access to standard photographic materials, especially sensitized photographic paper for making prints from negatives.

The blockade of southern ports was an effective military strategy that also significantly altered the materiality and look of southern photography during the war. In the North, most Civil War likenesses are on paper; in the South, they are cased images, ambrotypes and tintypes, as shown here. One extraordinary exception is a carte de visite of a Confederate captain with his manservant, who wears a nine-button shell jacket (Fig. 5). A portrait by A. J. Riddle of Macon, Georgia, it is one of only eight known images of an African-American slave wearing military garb and posing with his owner.

The exhibition also features oft-reproduced yet superb studies of military bridges and camp life, the rotting dead at Gettysburg, and portraits of Lincoln as well as his assassin John Wilkes Booth. It examines likenesses of General Lee and Sojourner Truth; exceptionally rare views of the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter and the squalor of Andersonville Prison; the recruit from Georgia gripping his fighting knife (cover) and the battle-worn Corporal Hiram Warner, a sharpshooter from Pennsylvania already a veteran after just a year's service (Fig. 1). Warner would die at Antietam in action along Hagerstown Pike. The exhibition will present more than two hundred such photographs of the War Between the States. Building on the holdings of Civil War photographs that the Met began acquiring in 1933, the show also includes extraordinary loans-particularly portraits of Confederates whose likenesses are seldom seen outside the confines of Civil War history. They are among the lost treasures of American photography.

Photography and the American Civil War is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from April 2 to September 2.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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