Americas and Oceania Collections blog

30 October 2009

There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War

Civilwar 

The right statistics can really help to focus the mind. I knew that around 620,000 Americans had died during the Civil War, but when I heard Professor David Blight say that if you applied the same death rate per capita to the Vietnam war, some 4 million American soldiers would have died in Vietnam (as opposed to the actual –and still staggering figure of c.58,000), that really helped to bring home to me the enormity of the conflict.

I’ve been following Professor Blight’s Yale course on the war on the wonderful Academic Earth (we can all have a Yale education now!) and another statistic that I learnt, equally staggering but in a different way, is that over 65,000 books have been written on the Civil War, which would tend to give credence to Gertrude Stein’s comment on its enduring interest. I certainly don’t think that the Library can claim to have all of them, although our holdings are strong. Matthew is in fact currently working on a feature on the subject for the Library's online gallery.

These days we are all too used to seeing images of war in the papers or on our TV screens but photography was still relatively new at the time of the Civil War.  Roger Fenton’s photographs from the Crimea in 1855 represent one of the earliest attempts to document war, but although he recorded the landscape and the military personnel etc, there are no battle scenes. Not really surprising since the cumbersome equipment and laborious wet-plate photographic process made it much too difficult and dangerous to photograph actual fighting. But Fenton also deliberately chose not to record the bloody aftermath of battle.

Alexander Gardner, a Scot who worked for Matthew Brady, went to photograph the Civil War in 1861 and, unlike Fenton, he did record the resulting carnage. This included the aftermath of one of the bloodiest days in American history at Antietam, Maryland, in September 1862, when McClellan’s Army of the Potomac faced Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. And here’s another statistic from Professor Blight- each year 23,000 candle lamps are placed on the battlefield at a ceremony held to commemorate the number of casualties that fell there over the course of the almost day long battle.

Gardner’s photographs of the dead at Antietam were exhibited at Brady’s New York gallery and understandably caused a sensation. But he was soon to part company with Brady (who often took the credit for the photos of others) and set up his own studio. More of Brady’s photographers joined him and together they continued to document the encampments, soldiers and battle fields. Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War appeared in 2 editions -one in 1865 and one in 1866, both consisting of 2 volumes, each volume containing 50 albumen print photographs, and each photograph accompanied by a descriptive caption. 

Of course, much has been written on Gardner's 'staging' of some of the scenes and bodies, not to mention the veracity of some of the descriptions (for some examples see our Points of View webpages and also the Library of Congress), but the Sketch Book still represents one of the earliest visual evocations of the horrors of war.

[C.H.]

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