The Real War: The Civil War in photography and paintings

Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, “Tom Cobb Infantry,” Thirty-eighth Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, 1861–62

For students of the American Civil War, it’s hard to imagine a better classroom this summer than the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Two sterling exhibitions there, one entirely devoted to photography, the other chiefly to painting, illumine the years from the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, to General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. In ways statistics and texts never can, their images show us the hearts and faces, the human valor and horrific carnage of this crucible of our nation’s history.

Start with “Photography and the American Civil War," a show you will be hard pressed to leave without tears. Organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, chief curator of the Met’s Department of Photography, it offers the usual pictures of battlements, military equipment, devastated cities and fields agonizingly strewn with the bloated dead. But aching depth and interiority are added by a wide range of individual portraits, from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to many unknown soldiers, white and black, whose newly available likenesses—photography was just 20 years old when the war began—helped families to hope for their return. Over a thousand artists from the North and South—“the mighty tribe of cameristas,” The Times of London called them—produced hundreds of thousands of photographs. It was, as the show’s catalogue says, “an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making.”           


The exhibition’s installation is beyond handsome. You enter through a canvas tent-like enclosure. Succeeding rooms, with dark gray walls, are occasionally hung with similar tenting canvas and accented with banners bearing stirring quotations. You learn about the early processes and types of photographs—daguerreotypes (a silver image on copper), ambrotypes (a silver image on glass), tintypes (a direct positive process on a thin sheet of iron) and large albumen silver prints on paper that could be painted with oils. You admire the bravery of photographers at battlefields, who seldom if ever, however, photographed actual scenes of battle, since their equipment was so cumbersome and it took relatively long at the time to capture an image. On display also is Mathew B. Brady’s actual studio camera and tripod, as well a set of thirty-six stereoscopic views that were seen in special (and very popular) viewers known as stereopticons that gave the illusion of three-dimensionality.

The Named and Nameless

The remarkable achievements of the early camera are nonetheless less likely to command viewers’ attention than the faces of the named and nameless, of whom 750,000 lost their lives.  “Gordon, A Runaway Mississippi Slave,” for example, with his horrifically scourged back. The Hawkins brothers, the elder a captain, the younger a sergeant, taken by an unknown artist, from the remarkable David Wynn Vaughan archive of Southern portraits. Sojourner Truth, the former slave and human rights activist, who sold “the Shadow [her image] to Support the Substance [emancipated slaves and the poor].” The wounded, and sometimes their amputated limbs, shockingly memorialized in the diagnostic medical studies of Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou. Or Frances Clalin Clayton, one of the women who dressed as men to fight in the war.

The best-known photographers are all strongly represented, especially Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and George N. Barnard. Brady, who had opened his gallery in New York in 1844 and then one in Washington, D.C., in 1858, did little work in the field, we learn. Rather, he sent operatives to work for him on site and then published their work. Gardner started his own studio in 1862 and in 1866 published a two-volume Photographic Sketchbook of the War,with one hundred of his best negatives. The Irish-born O’Sullivan did fully 45 of these, including two images that rank among the most heart-rending from the war, “A Harvest of Death” and “Field Where General Reynolds Fell,” both taken at Gettysburg in July 1863.

One grim gallery presents material from Antietam, where on September 17, 1862, 26,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were killed or wounded, the bloodiest single day of any war in United States history, and from Gettysburg, where 160,000 men fought out the turning point of the war and the casualties after three days exceeded 20,000. Another is devoted to George Barnard’s “Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign,” with images recalling the general’s scorched-earth march from Tennessee to Georgia. Hired as an official government photographer, Barnard later explained that Sherman’s army moved so rapidly that the artist had to travel south in 1866 to produce his views. While printing the negatives he also added cloudscapes over his landscapes to enhance their drama, heightening the distinction between documentation and graphic creativity.

The show closes with a memorial gallery centered on the end of the war and, five days later, on Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. You wish you could wear the mourning corsage of black-and-white silk ribbon with a tintype portrait of Lincoln that is shown here. With a heavy heart, you silently cheer the armies that marched through Washington for two days to honor their president. You may well think then that it’s time not for more art but for prayer.

A Coming Storm

And yet. There is indeed another revelatory exhibition in the museum, “The Civil War and American Art,” no less solemn or mournful but with a shock that comes upon you more slowly. It includes 18 photographs, among them ten from Barnard’s “Photographic Views.” But the emphasis is on the 57 paintings which curator Eleanor Jones Harvey insightfully discusses in her accompanying catalogue. Beginning in 1852, the show also offers work that anticipates the war years and later paintings, through 1877, that interpret its aftermath.

In many cases these are paintings you may have admired before. But they take on added meaning in relation to the war. I thought I knew Martin Johnson Heade’s “Approaching Thunder Storm” (1859) by heart. The smoking man and his dog on the crescent beach, the little boy rowing toward them, the looming inky clouds covering the whole top of the painting: I knew it was a painting not only about a particular storm but about unpredictable threats in life more generally. But I hadn’t connected it to Lincoln’s repeatedly speaking of “the storm coming” in his 1860 campaign. Nor had I known that it was first owned by Rev. Noah Hunt Schenck, an ardent abolitionist at Baltimore’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Nearby is Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “A Coming Storm” (1863), a somber view of Lake George quite unlike Gifford’s more typical atmospheric views in golden light. When Herman Melville saw it exhibited after Lincoln’s death, he wrote of “the demon cloud.”

By 1860, Melville, Walt Whitman and others came to associate meteors with abolitionist John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Henry David Thoreau, in his diary for July 1860, described Brown’s last six weeks as “meteor-like, flashing through the darkness in which we live. I know of nothing so miraculous in our history.” Well, here is Frederic Edwin Church’s “Meteor of 1860,” and directly next to it Church’s “Our Banner in the Sky,” a homage to the standard lowered at Fort Sumter and accepted by critics as the country’s first “war picture.” (The small scale saves the image from sentimentality.)

A central gallery pairs two sketches and five realized paintings by Gifford with nine paintings by Conrad Wise Chapman. Raised in Rome, Chapman in 1861 returned to enlist in the Third Kentucky Infantry and was commissioned to create a pictorial record of the Confederate army’s defense of Charleston Harbor. The scenes on view, all from The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, are small in scale and workman-like. Still, they achieve poignancy through their sober detail, as in “Fort Sumter, Interior, Sunrise” (1863), a harrowing view of the ruin illuminated by early morning light. Gifford, who enlisted for three tours of duty with the New York Seventh Regiment, presents his comrades encamped near Frederick, Maryland (with Lee’s army retreating in the background) and by moody moonlight at Arlington Heights, Virginia. Unusually, in “Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington” (1862), a minister at a make-shift lectern draped with the flag appears preaching to the troops.

A New Medium and An Old One

Eastman Johnson, prized for his portraits and scenes from everyday life and even in his day called “the American Rembrandt,” stands out in a section of the show entitled “Abolition and Emancipation.” His masterpiece, “Negro Life at the South” (1859) is here, a domestic view rife with racial ambiguity. So too is “A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862,” based on a scene he reported seeing at the Battle of Manassas. A small painting with large effect, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” (1863) depicts a black man reading the bible (actually not the Psalm but the Book of Exodus). “The alphabet is an abolitionist,” proposed an editorial in Harper’s Weekly several years later. “If you would keep a people enslaved, refuse to teach them to read.”

Winslow Homer, with thirteen paintings, is the star of the show. In canvas after canvas, his deceptive directness opens depths that capture your heart as well as your eye. Harper’s Weekly sent him twice to the front in Virginia, where he made sketches for later woodcuts. One of these, “Sharpshooter,” inspired his first oil, an emblem of modern warfare: with his telescopic sight, the young soldier in the tree could shoot an enemy a mile away. Homer thought this “as near murder as anything I could think of,” and when he returned North after two months at Yorktown, Virginia, his mother wrote to his brother: “He came home so changed that his best friends did not know him.”

Perhaps most celebrated among his war-related work is “Prisoners from the Front” (1866), which shows General Francis Channing Barlow’s capture of an officer and two Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, in 1864. Subtly foreseeing the hardships of reconciliation and reconstruction, the picture was a sensation when Homer showed it in Paris in 1867. My own long time favorite, though, is the spare threnody of “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865) with its lone figure having laid aside his jacket and canteen to harvest a field of wheat. (The vast majority of Civil War battles were fought in wheat and cornfields.) What will capture our attention most? The promise of the golden wheat or the mortality symbolized by the soldier’s scythe? The picture haunts—a good deal more, I think, than the grand landscapes by Church and Albert Bierstadt with which Eleanor Harvey concludes her show. (Throughout, she argues persuasively that artists of the time used landscapes as barometers of the nation’s psyche.)

These two exhibitions are compelling at many levels. Aesthetically, they draw the very best from artists in a new medium and in an old one. Historically, they reveal a notion lurching its way agonizingly towards a new identity in what Lincoln called “essentially a People’s contest.” Religiously, they are mournful laments for devastated cities and destroyed young lives. Ethically, they radically challenge whatever comfort visitors may take from the theory that war may at least sometimes be just. (“No more war. Never again war,” Pope Paul VI insisted at the United Nations in 1965.) “The real war will never get in the books,” wrote Walt Whitman. At the Met, 150 years after Gettysburg, it penetrates your heart and soul.

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