Visualizing the Civil War


Friday, April 08, 2011

Winslow Homer, Civil War Winslow Homer’s The War for the Union, 1862 - A Bayonet Charge (Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

Many of the images we know of the Civil War come from the photos of Mathew Brady. Brady and his assistants recorded the rigidly posed generals and the battlefields scattered with bodies. But very few people at the time actually saw Brady's pictures – and those who did were horrified. Illustrators like Winslow Homer (later famous for his land- and seascapes) did things the photographers could not: take audiences right into the action, behind enemy lines, and up a tree with a sharpshooter. Produced by Studio 360’s Jonathan Mitchell.




Slideshow: Mathew Brady and Winslow Homer

Mathew Brady Studio, General Irvin McDowell and staff, Arlington House, 1862, photographic print

Today’s popular imagination of the Civil War has been shaped by Mathew Brady’s photographs. But photographic technology was still new during the war, so Brady and his assistants could only capture carefully posed images.

Alexander Gardner, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Confederate soldiers as they fell near the center of the battlefield, negative: glass, wet collodion

The chaos of the battle unfolded too quickly for 19th-century cameras to record, so battlefield photographs were taken after the fighting ended.

Timothy O'Sullivan (also attributed to Alexander Gardner), Battle-field of Gettysburg -- Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top, photographic print

Even photographs taken after battles had ended were often staged. The give-away here is the gun: guns were too valuable to be left behind on the battlefield, so those seen in photographs are thought to be photographers’ props.

Mathew Brady Studio, Rebel soldier killed in the trenches of Fort Mahone, called by the soldiers “Fort Damnation,” photoprint on stereo card

The difficulty of making and distributing photographs prevented much of the public from viewing Brady’s work during the war, and those who did see it often recoiled from its graphic exhibition of death.  Stereo views of Brady’s photos displayed soldiers’ bodies in (simulated) three dimensions, making the violence even more immediate and horrific.

Winslow Homer, The War for the Union, 1862 - A Bayonet Charge, from Harper's Weekly, July 12, 1862, wood engraving on paper

Illustrators like Winslow Homer could do what Mathew Brady could not: record the hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War. Most civilians “saw” the war through the engraved drawings of weekly magazines.

Winslow Homer, The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, from Harper's Weekly, November 15, 1862, wood engraving

Homer was embedded with the Army of the Potomac.  At the front, he witnessed the war’s fierce combat. His drawings brought viewers close to the action, even up into a tree with a sharpshooter.

Winslow Homer, A Shell in the Rebel Trenches, from Harper's Weekly, January 17, 1863, wood engraving on paper

Drawing was a medium that allowed Homer some editorial control over his images. This illustration focuses the viewer’s attention on the black figure at its center, who is reinforcing the battlements of a Confederate fortification under attack.  Homer places his audience in the trench with the slave as he realizes that the Army of the Potomac that is trying to liberate him may also cause his death.

Winslow Homer, The Empty Sleeve at Newport, from Harper's Weekly, August 26, 1865, wood engraving on paper

The tension that belies this seemingly peaceful scene expresses the lasting impact of the Civil War.

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Jonathan Mitchell

Comments [2]

Hi Sandra,

We tweaked the credit information for slides two and three to reflect the most up-to-date scholarship and conventions. Thanks to your comment, Gardner and O'Sullivan now get their due on our site.

Thanks for listening!

Apr. 13 2011 11:44 AM
sandra jordan from new york city

Surely misleading to refer to Brady's photographs without crediting the actual photographer of so many familiar images--Timothy O'Sullivan or the other entrepreneur of Civil War photography Gardner who published the famous Gettysburg photographs taken by O'Sullivan Harvest of Death, Slaughter house and Round Top etc.

Apr. 09 2011 05:16 PM

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