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The Absolute Truth of Photos

“Today, we are the first Americans to see, for the first time, the weary and pained face of the man destined to lead a lost cause whose echoes reverberate still.” 

Back in 1976 when we celebrated the Bicentennial of our declaration of independence from Britain, I was often asked why it was that during the ensuing commemoration of the Revolution more people were actually interested in the Civil War than in the people and events of 1775-1783. There were perhaps several answers, but the one that seemed most trenchant to me was the fact that we can actually see our Civil War ancestors at home, at leisure, and at war.  Thanks to television and magazine journalism we have become a visual people.  We are accustomed to viewing actual events and their participants as they are, and we have nothing of that sort for the Revolutionary era.  There are only stylized paintings, portraits, and woodcuts to show us the look of Washington and his generals and the conflict they fought.

Thanks to the invention and rapid perfection of photography from the 1830s onward, we can know what the Civil War looked like, and we can see the faces of the combatants, the actual look of their landscape, and the brutal carnage of their battlefields.  The photos may not be moving or in color, but they are perfectly honest images down to the individual hairs on Lincoln’s beard and the blood of the mangled dead.  The absolute truth of the photos, I believe, is a major part of what draws us to that conflict and keeps it alive in our imaginations.  Spiritually and emotionally we can associate with those people because we see with our own eyes that they looked like us.

Quarter-plate tintype attributed to Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. John O’Brien collection.
Quarter-plate tintype attributed to Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. John O’Brien collection.

That truth is enhanced with every discovery of a new or unknown image—especially when it is a photograph of one of the major moments or leaders. President Abraham Lincoln sat for at least 200 photos, a few of which have not yet come to light. But every decade or so another new view emerges.  

His counterpart, that other “president” of 1861-1865, is a different matter. We have only one or perhaps two portrait photos of Jefferson Davis taken during the life of the Confederacy, and the days leading up to the war (in nearly 40 years, only one, circa 1857, has come to light).  Hence the discovery of another is an event of profound importance. The announcement of a pair of portraits of Davis and his wife, Varina, is a stunning revelation.

Moreover, as near as we can tell, these portraits were probably taken circa December 1860-January 1861, during one of the pivotal periods of his life and that of the Union.  Off and on during those months, he was confined to his hotel room, suffering excruciating facial pain from some unknown cause. Davis was just 52 years old when this portrait was made, but the aging effects of the pain are evident in his face. Within weeks—perhaps just days—of this sitting for the camera, he spoke for the last time in the U.S. Senate. He resigned his seat on Jan. 21, 1861. The next morning, he left Washington and went home to Mississippi. He may have had some notion of becoming an army commander for the new nation, though he protested publicly now that all he wanted was stay at home on his plantation while the maelstrom gathered force. This face knew full well that the seceding states were not prepared to go to war to defend their independence. Yet, in less than three weeks, he would be elected president of the Confederacy, and charged with the task of building that defense.

Regardless of how successful advocates of this cultural “cleansing” may be in the end, artifacts such as this pair of portraits will last. 

With him went his wife, destined to be a controversial first lady of the Confederacy. She, too, has had few known photographs from before secession, and this one shows her much as she appeared during the war. She bears a dark complexion that gave rise to whispered rumors about her ancestry. She possesses a look of determination and strength that would make her a potent behind the scenes force in the new government as her husband’s most effective assistant.

These tintypes have a history of their own as relics of the collapse of the Confederacy. When the Confederate government evacuated Richmond on April 2, 1865, the Davises packed hurriedly and left much behind, chiefly furniture, clothing, books and anything else too heavy to move quickly. Apparently these photos were in a drawer or cabinet that they overlooked. When the Federals occupied the executive mansion, Thomas Welles, son of Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, took a pair of chairs and these photos, and sent them to his father in Washington as souvenirs. They remained in the Welles family until the 1980s, when the chairs were returned to the Confederate White House, and these images were sold to their present owner through an agent representing the family.  Only now are they revealed to the public for the first time.

Some Confederate imagery has been controversial for many years, especially the battle flag. There have been moves to take down statues of Confederate leaders, to remove their names from parks, schools, highways and more, as if somehow we can expunge them from our history. Regardless of how successful advocates of this cultural “cleansing” may be in the end, artifacts such as this pair of portraits will last. That is the power of the photograph in our world of today. Few things can help us emotionally link with the momentous and often tragic moments of our past like the actual faces of the people who lived those events. Today, we are the first Americans to see, for the first time, the weary and pained face of the man destined to lead a lost cause whose echoes reverberate still, and whose issues at root still trouble our society in the 21st century. Americans should care about the revelation of these faces and celebrate their discovery, even if some of us choose to reject or even revile the cause that these visages were about to lead, even as they posed for the camera.

William C. Davis is a professor of history at Virginia Tech and Director of Programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. He is the author or editor of more than 50 books about the Civil War and Southern history, including the landmark 6-volume series The Image of War.

More about the Davis Tintypes

On the Eve of War by John O’BrienPreviously unpublished portraits capture future Confederate Commander-In-Chief Jefferson Davis and first lady Varina Howell Davis at a critical moment in history

Essay: On the Eve of a Crossroads by Joan E. Cashin

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