The Civil War Battlefield Guide
by Frances H. Kennedy, Editor and Principal Contributor
More than 300 additional battles described
Statistics from each battle
Information on the present-day use of battlefield sites
Photography in the Civil War
These are extraordinary photographs from the Civil War. But let the viewer be warned. There is an accompanying risk here. It is our natural tendency to accept such photographs, because they are photographs, as faithful representations of the reality of a bygone time, and to assume that such people as we see here were like us.
We and they share that part of history that has transpired since the advent of photography, and so we feel a kinship of a kind we do not for those whose lives and world were never recorded by the camera. The soldiers of the Civil War are closer to us, much more "real" in our eyes, than are those, say, who fought in the Revolutionary War, for the very reason that we have their photographs. Yet the soldiers of the Civil War were closer in time to those of the Revolution than they are to us, and had far more in common.
We see them posed here, young, proud, a little awkward before the camera, and we know the feeling. We too have stood or sat dutifully attentive, turning this way or that, breath held, whatever was required of us by the photographer, trying as they do to look our best. And so we take them to be the same. They are people we know, we feel. Only the clothes are different, we are inclined to conclude, and we are quite mistaken.
They were not like us, be assured. Theirs was a vastly different world from ours, different in detail, different in atmosphere, and they were correspondingly different as a consequence. They did not live as we do, or think as we do. Their outlook was different, their adversities. Their food, whiskey, the everyday implements of their lives, all were different, and crude by our standards. Such toil and hardship as they took to be natural we would consider unacceptable. Most of the young men you see in these pages have come to the army from the farm. They were accustomed to discomfort, to ten- and twelve-hour days of rough toil in all weather, accustomed to making do under nearly any circumstances, used to working with animals, used to the everyday reality of death. To say they knew nothing of indoor plumbing or central heat, let alone Freud or Einstein, or even Darwin, is only to begin to fathom the difference in their world, their outlook, from our own.
As for the black Americans in the photographs, nearly all were slaves but a short time earlier and had known no other life.
What we see are shards of time. These are incomplete messages of a kind, jumping-off points for the imagination, and only with imagination is the past ever recoverable. In the expression of our motion picture era, these are "stills." And still motionless, silent they are. There is no sound here of war, no stench of death, none of the fragrance of spring winds in Virginia after the rain.
And, of course, the world was in full color then, too. There was color in all these faces, save the dead, color in their eyes, color in the sky. The raw earth of Virginia is red, let us remember. Nor were any flesh-and-blood Americans ever so stiff or solemn or so funereal in real life as we have come to suppose from so many posed pictures from the time.
Yet with a little imagination, how vivid, how haunting these images become, and the more so the more time we give them. To dwell on even one, to close out the present and live within the photograph, is almost to bridge the divide, while the cumulative effect of one photograph after another, with such amazing clarity and detail, can be profoundly moving.