Ten Civil War Events that Should Have Been Photographed, but Weren’t, Number 2: Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (a trifle late)

July 11, 2011

 My promise of posting something every week or so seems to have devolved fairly quickly into one post every three or four weeks. This is alarming to me mostly because it indicates that I’m doing too many things this summer, not all of them by choice or by plan. Still, let’s think about photographs of Pickett’s charge. Yes, it would have been nice to get this posted a little closer to July 3, but here it is now.

                “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

White Southern boy, Faulkner meant, or rather it went without saying; Pickett’s Charge would have had a very different meaning for a black Southern boy contemplating the meaning of the third afternoon.

I’ve probably owned ten copies of various editions of John Keegan’s Face of Battle over the years, and in one of those copies some editor or publisher had caused a few generic photographs to be bound into the book. My perhaps faulty memory is that one of those photographs showed, in a full frontal way, a massed line of attacking soldiers moving towards the camera’s position. Perhaps the photograph was from World War I or perhaps not, I just don’t remember. There was a caption that made a slightly arch comment about the understandable rarity of photographs of oncharging troops. On the other hand, there are examples of Civil War photographers who from some sort of safe perspective—a hilltop, for example—captured images of troops under fire. [examples to be inserted later, if this is ever revised for purposes beyond this blog] But it is a little much to have expected a nineteenth-century photographer to do all the wizardry that needed doing for him to make a wet plate photograph while the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia bore down on him and his position on July 3, 1863.

Which is not to say that we’re without visual images of the many moments of Pickett’s charge. There’s the Cyclorama (below), and then there’s the Rothermel painting (below) now at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, and the cinematically inclined would include The Killer Angels. And so forth: everybody knows how to use Google Images. We even have images of survivors from the two sides shaking hands 50 years later. (below)

So what would photographs from July 3, 1863 reveal? Especially since they would have had to be taken from some sort of high ground, either head on from Cemetery Ridge (the roof of the Gate House?) or looking over the shoulder of the chargers from Seminary Ridge. We’d want a time lapse series, as the Confederates gathered, and as they set off, and as they came down Seminary Ridge, and as they crossed the Emmittsburg Road, and as they came up Cemetery Ridge. And we’d want the fighting at the High Water Mark as the boys from North Carolina and wherever else were pushed back.

Better yet, it would be moving pictures, movies. I’m thinking Private Ryan, in kepis and with a lot less English Channel.

The one photograph I’d really want to see, the one that couldn’t be from too great a distance, would be the candid resulting from when Pete Longstreet is alleged to have looked at Bobby Lee and declared that he had no division left.

Next in the series: the Lincoln Assassination.


Ten Civil War Events that Should Have Been Photographed, but Weren’t, Number 1: The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation

June 15, 2011

Well, it’s taken me three weeks or so to get this post up, not one as planned. Which is an index to how well this summer’s going. I did enjoy the one panel of the Society for Military History I was able to attend—it was on Civil War prisons and prisoners, a subject on which I’ve been known to have strong opinions, and I think my opinions may get stronger in the future. And I enjoyed the meet-and-greet-the-new-divisional-head open house that I had to leave the SMH to attend. As for the round of summer-term student papers I just graded, that I didn’t enjoy; the students enjoyed it even less. At least the term is over soon. But fall is just around the corner.

Now to photographs and non-photographs of the American Catastrophe.

If the war was about slavery, and if the great result (Whig history alert) of the war for subsequent generations, even down to the present day, was the abolition of slavery and the [insert bromide about unfinished business and American race here], then it stands to reason one of the major events of the war was the formalizing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The story is that Lincoln worried about his signature on the final Emancipation Proclamation appearing shaky because his hand was so fatigued and bruised after a morning of grasping hands and otherwise receiving New Year felicitations. Hence, we have always assumed that Lincoln had an understanding that what he was doing was of sufficient historic import that he wanted to be sure that posterity would not believe that he hesitated in its execution. And Lincoln, as Harold Holzer has reminded us most recently in his book on the Cooper Union speech, was savvy enough to understand that photographs and other visual images could be useful propaganda tools for a political leader.

So why not drag in a photographer to memorialize the moment, when Lincoln signed what he “sincerely believed to be an act of justice” on which he wished to “invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God”?

The more I consider it, the more I wonder if this is really that good a question. Of course, we would love to have the image. With the technology available today we could isolate and enlarge Lincoln’s face as we sought to divine his true feelings (or some such twaddle) as he committed the Union war effort to the final destruction of the Southern way of life. But would Lincoln putting pen to paper have become the iconic image of this particular emancipation moment?  Would the existence of such a photograph have convinced  B.F. Carpenter to NOT take up residence in the Executive Mansion and create the picture of Lincoln revealing to the Cabinet his plan to free slaves still in Confederate territory?

Carpenter’s original hangs in the Senate part of the Capitol, and the image has been reproduced and copied and plagiarized (borrowed from extensively?) in so many of the visual media formats of the last 150 years. Carpenter, of course, was after bigger cultural fish than merely recording one fleeting moment when pen was set to paper: he was producing a History Painting, 1863-1864 style, in which what was portrayed was a distillation of the debates in the nation and especially in the government that had led to Lincoln’s decision to do this great and historic thing. And Carpenter was making money, selling the first knock-off prints of the painting and the accompanying book and so forth; artists have to eat, too, which leads to mixed motives even for History Painters.

At this point, some of my readers may be getting slightly impatient. Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, the slaves freed themselves, they want to remind me. Well, I have long challenged students with the self-emancipation point-of-view, long before it enjoyed its current popularity / faddishness; not for nothing I read all the way through Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America and contemplated the notion of the General Strike and voting with your feet and so forth. (I wish I had a copy of the paper I wrote in about 1983 for John Hope Franklin during his first year at Duke, where I compared Du Bois with the histories of Reconstruction produced by Franklin and by Kenneth Stampp.) And here we come to the final question raised by considering the non-existence of a photograph of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. For us in the twenty-first century, when we have expanded the Civil War beyond merely white men politicking and fighting, the most effective documentary visual evidences of emancipation and its many moments are the images of contrabands and ex-slaves and freed men, women, and children. Just as the images we remember of the Civil Rights Movement of the Second Reconstruction years are the fire hoses in Birmingham or the beatings on the Edmund Pettis Bridge or the hundreds of thousands dreaming with Dr. King on the National Mall, not some posed shot of Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. Was the same dynamic true for the Civil War generation, or at least some parts of it?

Still, somebody should have taken a picture as Abe set pen to paper.

And I don’t want to get into why are there no photographs of slaves at work.

Next in the series: Pickett’s Charge.

(The Carpenter image is from the Senate website, the contraband image is from the Library of Congress website, LC-B8171-0383)


Ten Civil War Events that Should Have Been Photographed, but Weren’t: Introduction

May 23, 2011

To kick off this new blog on subjects (usually) related to the Civil War, I’ve decided to start a series, which I hope to maintain at roughly the pace of one a week, of blog posts in which I consider Civil War events that should have been (or that we wish had been) photographed, but weren’t. I’m going to start off calling this Ten Civil War Events that Should Have Been Photographed, but if it ends up being 8 or 12, I hope no one sues.

Some of these moments may have left behind other images, other pieces of visual culture, and some of these other images may have been contemporary to the events or even created by eyewitnesses (a travelling artist accompanying the armies, like Waud or Homer or Mosler, for example). These nonphotographic images may have helped shaped nineteenth-century and later perceptions and understandings of events, may have shaped the ways we think and speak and write and teach about the past, but they were not photographs, which at least initially seem to make particularly documentary claims on viewers. 

At the time of the Civil War, photography was still a complex process, requiring clumsy equipment and at least one trained specialist photographer. Whether shooting indoors or outdoors, the process required the lighting conditions to be right, and things generally worked best when a scene was relatively static or the humans and other animals were cooperating. 

I want to start next week with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Evidently no one yet had the notion that great historic events should be photographed, since there was no reason why Lincoln could not have held his hand steady in front of a camera. But this left room in the contemporary image market and in our memories of the war for B. F. Carpenter’s painting, and the images based on it.


Why call this blog The American Catastrophe?

May 23, 2011

Well, why not? I want the freedom to consider a variety of Civil War topics, and other stuff too, and The American Catastrophe sounds like an accurate description of what was a period filled with all kinds of nastiness and in which reflections that America seemed to be imploding on itself came all too naturally. I’m sure that there’s an echo of Friedrich Meinecke’s The German Catastrophe of 1946 in my use of the phrase, since I read the book back in my grad school days at about the same time I started using American Catastrophe periodically as a shorthand to describe the Civil War Era; this was way back in the early 1980s, pre-McPherson, when a few brave souls who had read Paul Fussell and / or John Keegan were trying to revive an academic field of Civil War Studies.

I have all kinds of ideas about what to do with this blog, and all kinds of doubts about whether I can find the time or energy to carry it off past a couple of weeks. One reason I’ve decided to start with a series of related posts is that it gives me an initial structure for the first couple of months.  And, of course, it being summer and me being an academic, I have nothing else to do. Except teach two courses, one far outside my fields of expertise; advise students, including it now appears incoming students; help to break in a new division head (think department chair; for better or worse, he is an historian) and another new divisional colleague; participate in various ways in various ongoing searches, including one for a new academic dean (a big, big deal); hire, supervise, mentor, and evaluate adjunct faculty; finish an article that just came back from the readers, one of whom seems to have a particular animus against the article AND the entire book it is due to be a part of; restart some other much-delayed research; and generally participate in the life of my institution and my discipline during particularly evil times in the history of the American academy, especially for the humanities and social sciences. And, oh yeah, my remaining and still-too-recently widowed parent is in indifferent health and lives 200 miles away.

Let’s see what happens.


A Possible Plan

May 9, 2011

Does the world need a consideration of Civil War moments that should have been photographed, but weren’t??


One More Time, with Feeling

May 9, 2011

Okay, maybe now I’ll get this up and going during the current summer; it’s not like nothing else is going on with my life.


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