By Isidora Stankovic
“Dear sister,” “Dear father,” “Dear brother,” “Dear son,” reverberate throughout the thousands of letters left behind by men who served in the American Civil War. When writing home to mama or to a sweetheart, these men articulated their fears, accomplishments and desires, and often included portrait photographs to serve as sentimental mementos, as they walked with death on the battlefield.
With the advent of photography, the souls of soldiers became incarnate as the men preserved the integrity of their flesh and features through their portraits. Pictures of these fighting boys record sets of broad fingers, ruddy cheeks and wry lips. But most significantly, the relationship between the soldiers and their photographic likenesses demarcates a critical transition in military history. In mid-19th century America, the medium became ubiquitous and powerful, prompting soldiers to photographically preserve the memory of their being, as they grappled with their impending mortality. Moreover, in this total war, the volunteer fighters secured a new individualized identity for the common soldier. The birth and use of photographic portraits underscores the evolving understanding and commemoration of the soldier.
The Times of London in 1861, highlighting the intersection between photography’s surge in popularity and the outbreak of the Civil War. Photography represented a versatile artistic form, and it particularly found a place in the tradition of portraiture, which, in comparison to painting, was far more affordable, as well as reproducible. Photographs democratized the process of the portrait, allowing for the first time in history a poor farmer from North Carolina or a former slave from Pennsylvania to have their likeness taken in the same way as the plantation owner and industry titan. Thus, the cheap, reproducible photographs presented significant allure for common soldiers. Letters by both Northern and Southern soldiers demonstrate that the men could send home several portraits, as seen in a letter by David Demus to his wife. Demus, a black Union soldier, wrote that he got what he thought an unflattering picture taken, but that he “Wod send it to [his wife] eney how but [he would] get it taking a gane as son as [he could] rase a doller.” Demus showed that even a little-educated black man’s ability to enjoy the luxuries of photographic portraiture in 1864 relied solely on his ability to “raise a dollar.” His casual statement belies the tremendous significance of a poor, ordinary soldier’s ability to send not one, but multiples of his image.
In this total war, the volunteer fighters secured a new individualized identity for the common soldier through portrait photographs.
“In every glade and by roadsides of the camp may be seen all kinds of covered carts and portable sheds for the worker in metal acid, and sun-ray,” observed
Furthermore, the medium allowed men the opportunity to have as many portraits taken until they found one suitable to their liking—a circumstance that author Alan Trachtenberg notes in his book, Reading American Photographs, caused Americans to develop a new “social identity” as people “[learned] a new way of seeing themselves in the eyes of others, seeing oneself as an image.” A single photographic image could reflect an individual’s personality, social standing, intellect—in sum; one’s being—all through the tools of pose, expression and props. The power of the body and of one’s own individualism crafted an identity, consequently elevating and christening photography as “an art of the Person.” Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that portrait photography was “‘the true Republican style of painting…’ for, ‘If you make an ill head, not [the artist] but [oneself is] responsible.’” Indeed, Demus wrote to his wife, “you must not get Ceard [scared] Whean you se [my photo] fer i had now raser to shave and i heafet to heave mi hear Cut of Clos.” He concludes that his unkempt beard and close-cropped hair are unbecoming by saying that the image “is not taking.” Demus also encouraged his wife not to worry however, because he expected his next picture “Will lok better.” Thus, through photographs, Demus and other soldiers could control their appearance and how they presented their image to the world. Ultimately, Demus’ photo and hundreds of other wartime portraits channeled democratic self-presentation because, “‘The artist [stood] aside and [let the men] paint [themselves].’”
Additionally, soldiers did not simply appreciate the accessibility, reproducibility and individuality of photographs for reasons of vanity. War, violence, hunger and disease haunted the men, and the consequent proximity between soldier and death prescribed greater meaning to their photographic portraits. The men found relief in the fact that there existed multiple opportunities to create a pleasing image of oneself because the photo would probably soon outlive the sitter. Confederate soldier and Blue Ridge Boy, Clinton Hatcher, of Virginia, expressed this sentiment in a letter to his sweetheart Miss Mary, commenting, “There is not a single ambrotypist in Loudon now, is not that dreadful…I have never had a very good ambrotype taken to leave at home even and now if I should get killed it would be unfortunate.”
The Civil War remains the historical apogee for American wartime losses with approximately 750,000 military killed—almost double the number of American soldiers and seamen deaths in World War II. Though disease claimed the most lives numerically, the change in technologies and tactics that occurred with the historic shift to total war increased the likelihood of death on the battlefield in comparison to the warfare practiced by European monarchies in earlier centuries. During European cabinet wars from the 17th century to mid-18th centuries, armies would meet to fight at prescribed times, and approach each other in orderly formations on the battlefield. Cabinet wars, such as the Seven Years’ War or the War of the Spanish Succession, and even the later Napoleonic Wars, seem tepid when compared to the warfare of the Civil War, which advanced strategies and tactics to new levels. Soldiers fighting for the North and the South escaped the restriction of battlefields, and adopted guerrilla tactics that added an element of surprise to their modes of warfare. Death became such a constant in the lives of soldiers that they treated its existence with a new level of acceptance. The relationship between soldier and mortality became so intimate that men even dined with the dead. “We ate breakfast over all the dead,” wrote Georgia infantryman Eli Landers to his mother in 1862. “Some with their brains out on the ground.”
Death became such a constant in the lives of soldiers that they treated its existence with a new level of acceptance.
Death’s banality meant that soldiers assumed new attitudes toward death, attempting through these rituals to fulfill their key goal—to be remembered. Death on the battlefield threatened soldiers with its anonymity because it failed to provide the men with individual recognition of their existence and service. Facing the total obliteration of their corporeal forms and the erasure of their identities, soldiers took it upon themselves to ensure the persistence of their memory. The cheap, highly accessible portraits soldiers commissioned channeled the men’s cognizance of their own mortality. The pictures served as metaphysical tokens that helped soldiers transcend painful and impersonal deaths. At their core, photographs easily and personally promised soldiers the preservation of the their likeness and enshrined the memory of their being for posterity.
Portrait photography furnished the ideal method for soldiers to self-memorialize before their possible deaths, due to the intrinsic nature of the medium: photography attests to existence, in addition to transcending the photographic subject’s death. Photographs confirm the existence of the sitter by virtue of being able to accurately and candidly capture an individual as he was in the past, for “in Photography [one] can never deny that the thing has been there,” Thus, as theorist Roland Barthes concludes in Camera Lucida, the “founding order” of photography is “neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference.” In this mode, soldiers’ photographic likenesses, by virtue of the “genius” of photography, ensured family and friends could use the images to elicit memories of even the commonest of soldiers, assuaging the men’s fears of being forgotten. Landers exemplifies the idea, proudly writing to his mother, “Mama I want you to keep my picture as long as you live and show it to all the girls. Tell them that it is a Virginia Ranger…keep this picture My Dear Mother for it is just as I am now.”
The photographs also conjured the ghosts of soldiers far from home. Celebrated jurist and Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., illustrated the popular amazement at the photograph’s magical ability to invoke and preserve the dead in his essay “The Doings of the Sunbeam.” He described the development of photos as deeds of darkness in which, “invisible ghosts, trooping down from the world of day, cross a Styx of dissolved sulphate of iron, and appear before the Rhadamanthus of that lurid Hades.” The Hellenic allusions likened the photographer to the necromancer, suggesting that photographs defy natural law by reuniting a dead soldier with his beloved friends and family. Reflecting on his probable death, Clinton Hatcher supports Holmes’ description and explains, “I have been wishing for some time to get a good [photo for my mother] and although [this photo is] not very good, it will serve to recall to her mind how I looked as a soldier.” The portraits for which these men paid and posed would simultaneously confirm their existence and maintain it, allowing the soldiers to conquer the ephemeral truth of their being. The men could determine how they would look, and they could take as many photographs as they liked, but ultimately the soldiers’ pictures demonstrate their desire to be remembered, and point toward a new era for the commemoration of the soldier.
With photography, even infantrymen could control how they would appear in the cartes de visite they sent back home, for photographs offered the ability to individualize one’s legacy, no matter rank or race. Men like Demus, Hatcher, and Landers actively desired and sought remembrance because they possessed deeply personal and patriotic reasons for engaging in battle. The men were common citizens, volunteers who mobilized and endured the omnipresence of death during wartime because they felt a duty to their nation. These Northerners and Southerners followed in the ideological footsteps of their forefathers in the Revolution of 1776—ordinary citizens who traded their farming implements for flintlock muskets.
Historian James McPherson reminds us that the soldiers of all backgrounds cared fervently about the major issues of the war, such as states’ rights, slavery and democracy, and they demonstrated their concern in letters either through detailed analyses of ethics and politics, or simply through brief affirmations of their patriotism. Therefore, the Civil War rallied masses of citizens rather than small armies fighting limited goals for princes and despots. Union and Confederate soldiers fought because they identified with the objectives of their respective governments, and the profoundly personal impetus for their mobilization signified that the soldiers deserved recognition at the individual level.
The Times of London article contextualizes the shift in a soldier’s identity that occurred with the transition from limited to total war. The author remarks that when a viewer observes paintings depicting the “battlefields of the last century,” he looks “on the acres of canvases…covered with the semblance of…men and serried squares and lines of infantry.” The viewer, however, “know[s] that the figures, with a few exceptions of prominent individuals…are purely imaginary.” Paintings and other creative renderings of preceding wars failed to distinguish an individual soldier’s contribution, and the lack of commemoration manifested itself artistically in the visual histories left by artists. The birth of photography gave rise to the recognition of a common soldier as an individual, a fundamental artistic shift first glimpsed during the Crimean War.
A few years later in America, soldiers emphasized their military impact through their photographic portraits: the pictures recorded the shadows of their scruff and the sheen of their skin, for “the private soldier [had] just as good a likeness as the General.”
The photographs that the soldiers sent home ultimately depicted men who were not “hireling mercenaries,” but rather proud members of a government built with a faith in the common man. The men controlled their presentation, and warded off anonymity through the photos because they believed they deserved to be remembered. In a letter Landers wrote to his mother, he described his loyalty to his infantry and acknowledged the potentially fatal cost of his service. But he also reflected these feelings through his enclosed photograph. “Remember,” entreats Landers, “that [this photo] is a son of yours who is in the noble cause of his country and who will willingly stay with it till death if needed.” The 19-year-old felt that his military sacrifice merited respect, and, in case of death, remembrance. Only through a photograph could soldiers, such as Landers, uphold the integrity of their bodies and legitimize their individual service. “So let the Sweetwater girls see it,” concludes Landers, asking that the community look upon his image and recognize the honor of his patriotic obligation.
Photographic portraits individually commemorated the personal wartime experiences of Confederate and Union soldiers for families, loved ones and comrades. The federal government elevated the contributions of citizen soldiers by awarding the Medal of Honor, brevet ranks and publishing declarations in the form of congratulatory orders. The beginning of photography resulted in an intersection between the public and the private, creating, what Trachtenberg calls, “a new social value” in which “the private is consumed…as publically.” Thereupon, images of the individual entered the spheres of public consciousness as family members at home collected cartes de visite of their own soldiers and placed them in albums containing pictures of political and military legends like Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, or Ulysses S. Grant.
Nicholas “Nick” Biddle, an African-American First Defender from Pennsylvania, demonstrated this nexus of the public and private spheres through the production and distribution of his wartime portrait. Due to a flesh wound suffered in a mob attack, Biddle christened himself the Civil War’s first casualty, and the photographic portrait he paid for in order to celebrate his experience and contribution reads: “‘Nick Biddle,’ Of Pottsville, Pa., the first man wounded in the Great American Rebellion, ‘Baltimore, April 18, 1861.” The picture exhibits Biddle’s command over his memorialization, for through it, he could rightfully claim his experience as a soldier and identify as part of the nation through a cheap, mass-produced print. Most significantly, Biddle sold copies of his image at the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia to Americans eager to add his picture to their albums, which were filled with images of the famous and their families. Indeed, a veteran recalled that “‘A photographic album [was] not considered complete in Pottsville without the picture of the man whose blood was first spilled in the beginning of the war.”
The public’s appreciation of soldiers prompted the national government to recognize the soldier’s sacrifice. And nowhere did the partnership between constituent and nation establish itself more clearly than in the process assumed to bury the dead. Across America, citizens and military companies honored the fallen through burial programs funded by private resources. The federal government’s reburial program for Union soldiers however, represented a revolution in the relationship between a polity and its people. By caring for the bodies of each slain combatant, the government honored the common soldier, and upheld the contract between the citizen and the state on a dramatic scale. For a soldier however, this indicated that death no longer sentenced him to obscurity. Even in a sea of departed, the government promised to know each individual’s face.
Biddle could rightfully claim his experience as a soldier and identify as part of the nation through a cheap, mass-produced print.
The Civil War changed the texture of American history, allowing the bruised nation to claim a new, official respect for the nobility of all men. For soldiers specifically, North and South, the war elevated the public and national respect for the individual soldier. The concurrence of photography’s popularity with the outbreak of the Civil War delineates this transition, because the photographs for which soldiers sat demonstrate every man’s ability to self-memorialize. Poet Walt Whitman noted the portraits “sang their bodies electric,” showing images of firm-lipped men in uniform who took advantage of photography’s cheapness to not only get their pictures taken, but also buy multiples to distribute to friends and family. Indeed, Biddle shows that a photograph’s reproducibility could raise a soldier from a common individual to a celebrity. The men assumed full control over their images, reminding the photo’s viewers that the war was the fight of masses of individuals—volunteers who fought for themselves and their ideals rather than for kings or autocrats.
The men entered a brutal conflict that forced them to embrace death as a trivial, natural consequence of the wartime condition. As a result, photographic portraits became a necessary method for preserving a record of their service. The fight was personal, and the photograph’s ability to simultaneously democratize the process of memorialization and legitimize a man’s act of duty appealed to the soldiers’ sensibilities.
Throughout homes in America, the public responded to soldiers’ appeals for remembrance by creating albums that united the images of military legends with their own soldiers, and even with that of Biddle. Ultimately, the deference shown to the images of the soldiers extended to their physical bodies, with the public and government commitments to provide the dead with proper burial.
Today, we can visit the individual graves of Eli Landers, Clinton Hatcher and Nicholas Biddle, or weave amongst the rows of Union and Confederate dead at national cemeteries. More importantly, we honor our living soldiers, who continue the Civil War tradition of photographic portraiture through digital photos and “selfies” transmitted to us instantly through web-based platforms. As a result of the instantaneous exchange of images, we can better understand the experiences of the soldiers, and even try to grapple with the greater philosophical meaning of war. In regards to our understanding of violence, then, as Barthes notes, “it is the advent of the Photograph…which divides the history of the world.”
Isidora Stankovic is an undergraduate at Yale University pursuing a double major in Economics and History. She is interested in the intersection between death and visual histories, and finds military history to be a particularly rich source of inspiration. For questions or comments, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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