Photos of the American Civil War
Touched
By Fire
A Photographic
Picture of the
Civil War
William C. Davis,
Editor 

(Little, Brown) 
    What is honor? A word. What is that word, honor? Air...Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. It is insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I'll none of it: honor is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism...
--- "Henry IV, Part I"
Everyone has his favorite war. For classicists, it's the Trojan War; for neo-classicists, it's The War of the Roses. Those into insensate slaughter find it a toss-up between WWI and WWII; and for those who relish The End of The Belief that War Will Solve Anything, it would have to be the Spanish Civil War.

The American Civil War has its own boosters. It was the first "living-room war" (photography had been discovered some fifteen years before). It contained all the necessary elements of tragedy --- family against family, ancient feuds brought out in the open and resolved (by murder), the rivers of blood that Civil Wars always seem to inspire.

It was nakedly and shamelessly futile: slavery was on the decline, and would have gone out of existence by the start of the 20th Century from determinism (the economic structure of the industrial revolution and the ownership of humans are incompatible).

Further --- it was doomed, as well, by mere inertia and superior morality. We can easily witness the bad press given to those who have the temerity to own slaves in this day and age: the Muslims on their way to Mecca who sell their children en route (they're called living travellers' checks); the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean companies that own and run maquilidoras on the Mexican border; Fundamentalists, who, according to the Bible, are allowed to own their wives and children, lock, stock, and barrel.

Our Civil War made a hero out of one who should be considered one of the most misdirected, moody rapscallions in American history ---Abraham Lincoln. And it unjustly villified one who was the most noble and self-effacing --- Jefferson Davis. Further, it put an end to a natural sectional evolution that could have been immensely beneficial to the future, tolerance, and the ease of America: that is, the division of the country into the northern tier of states, and The South.

Had this been allowed to happen naturally, the continent would have come to be divided into several more appropriately-sized countries. In addition to the Northern Republic and the Confederacy, there would've been the Republic of Texas, the Middle West, the Upper West, California, and the Washington/Oregon Territory.

Since smaller nation-states are uniformly more efficient, more encouraging of civil liberties, less subject to the inefficiency of grandiosity, we would have ended up with six or seven nations which would have grown independent politically --- but which would have been nicely married in language and commerce, and, perhaps, war-making and bomb-building.

To put the loss more succinctly: compare the present government in Washington to the governments of Copenhagen, Bern, Oslo, or Helsinki. Denmark, the Benelux Countries, Switzerland, Scandinavia --- not to say Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Japan --- end up at the top of a list compiled by The Economist of those nations which observe a greater degree of civil liberties and personal freedom as opposed to, say, Russia, the United States, China, India, Brazil. Appropriately small size and hegemony are the key to those freedoms idealized in the United Nations' "Declaration of Human Rights."

In any event, the American Civil War is at the top of the love list for many amateur historians. In terms of sheer quantity of red juices leeched into the ground (see the introduction to Edmund Wilson's appropriately named Patriotic Gore) the war between the North and the South was a dandy.

As Touched By Fire points out, it was a grossly unfair war --- if wars by their very nature can be considered to be "fair" or unfair." There were nine million inhabitants of the South (one-third of whom were black) --- as opposed to twenty-two million in the North. In addition,

Telegraph, factory and farm figures were all six to seven times greater in the North than in Secessia, and except along the Maryland- Missouri border, the unseceded states were little disturbed by actual combat. Washington possessed foreign recognition, functioning credit and fiscal structures, and existing government institutions.

Given this imbalance --- it should have been a quick in-and-out war. But, as with World War I (for which, technologically, it was the precursor) it went on and on, draining resources, ruining the land, killing almost 650,000 men, wounding another 200,000. The tolls for death and disfigurement were four times greater than those of World Wars I and II.

The ear-piercing and peculiar Rebel yell of the men in gray and answering cheers of the boys in blue rose and fell with the varying tide of battle and, with the hoarse and scarcely distinguishable orders of the officers, the screaming and bursting of shell, the swishing of canister, the roaring of volley firing, the death screams of the stricken and struggling horses and the cries and groans of the wounded formed an indescribable impression which can never be effaced from memory...

Or:

Once I tumbled over two bodies and found my face close to the swollen, bloody features of the man who lay uppermost, judging from the position of other bodies. A shower of grape and canister must have torn the ranks of a regiment into shreds, for 50 or 60 bodies lay there in a row. I came across the corpse of a drummer-boy, his arms still clasped around his drum, his head shattered by a shell...

So few of the photographs chosen reveal the blood-letting, the real blood-letting. Soldiers, batallions, armies at a standstill (photography was not an instant or moving picture; glass plate photography could take an hour to set up, shoot, and dismantle.) But there is enough to know, and know intimately, the pillage, the starvation of the camps, the ruined buildings, the disfigured faces, revealing what we now know for a fact: that the war and its aftermath was to put the culture of the South back a hundred years, instill a hatred and mistrust that survives, in some regions, to this day --- brought about, not a little, by Sherman's march from Atlanta to Savannah, documented here, in pictures, and in words:

We had a gay old campaign. Destroyed all we could not eat, stole all their niggers, burned their cotton & gins, spilled their sorghum, burned & twisted their R. Roads and raised Hell generally.

As historian Stephen Oates reports,

The South was not only defeated, she was annihilated. Half her men of military age were dead or wounded, two-fifths of her livestock wiped out, more than half her farm machinery demolished, her major cities in ruins, her railroads and industry desolated...two-thirds of her assessed wealth, including billions of dollars in slaves, destroyed...

And, as some commentators have noted, its victory was of "base coin:" blacks were freed, but not given equal rights and education for more than a century.

Over five hundred photographs are included here. Armies, warehouses, factories, individuals. Women, men, children; hospitals, the dying, the starved, the dead. Are any wars different? Every human that appears in these innocent, posed photographs is now gone. Can we grieve for those who are now no longer among the living? What can we learn from these images --- outside of the few appallingly gripping ones: the bone men released from Andersonville; the dead on the field at Gettysburg; the empty walls of Richmond and Atlanta; the factories ravaged; the graves of Tennessee; the wounded in the hospital waiting for the surgeon's saw (it was more dangerous to be under medical care at the time than it was on the field: almost two-thirds of the casualties took place in the hospitals.)

This is the first war to be documented by photograph, the first to show the sheer callousness, dust, and mayhem of battle. Everything before was line-drawing or painting. And with the usual American fascination for technology --- the new toy of photography was, within a decade of its earliest existence, being utilized in force, with religious fervor.

The present editor has an unfortunate need to put dumb phrases under self-explanatory pictures, cloying titles such as "Inventive minds could equip this poor Yank with fork and spoon. He could feed himself. But his hands would never feel the softness of a woman's hair or the velvet of his child's cheek..."

Even this idiocy cannot lose for us that poignance of innocence from more than a century ago, an innocence which brought the flowers of a country on the field to decimate each other, amidst a strange innocent beauty, and joy. It brings to mind the words of Wilfred Owen, on a later, equally ferocious war:

    Hour after hour they ponder the warm field, ---
    And the far valley behind, where the buttercup
    Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up...


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