In light of that gruesome photograph of a dead Confederate at Petersburg, here is something I wrote for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire at the very beginning of the Iraq War, when newspaper editors were furiously debating how graphic their coverage of the war could be . . .
The Associated Press recently moved a photo on its wire showing American soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. The dateline was not Iraq, however; it was Maryland, one day after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. It was attributed to Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer.
The copy editor in me immediately noticed that Brady’s first name was misspelled (it should have been spelled Mathew). And the history buff in me remembered that he didn’t even take the photograph. Credit should go instead to a Brady associate named Alexander Gardner, who, with help from his assistant, John F. Gibson, composed ninety-five photographs in the days following that horrifically bloody battle.
They were the first photos ever taken of American war dead.
The story of Gardner and Gibson, their struggle with Brady to receive full credit for their work, and the effect these images had on the American public is told in William A. Frassanito’s Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. Published twenty-five years ago, the book has been on my shelf ever since I was a gun-toting Civil War reenactor, back in high school. Its images—many of them gruesome, even by today’s standards—nudged me toward the realization that the bloodless business of reenacting is absurd. Imagine the impact they had, displayed in Brady’s New York City gallery, just one month after Antietam, a battle in which more than 26,000 were killed or wounded.
A reporter covered the exhibit for the New York Times (Oct. 20, 1862). According to Frassanito, he was “a sensitive man, (who) could not help but admit to himself and his readers that these photographs were morbidly captivating, for the views that attracted the greatest attention depicted clusters of bloated corpses stiffened in grotesque positions.” The man’s article, writes Frassanito, “is one of the most pensive commentaries ever written concerning a series of war photographs.”
To read it is to wonder if such an exhibit would find a home in today’s America during wartime:
The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement. There would be a gathering of skirts and a careful picking of way; conversation would be less lively, and the general air of pedestrians more subdued. As it is, the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type. The roll we read is being called over in Eternity, and pale, trembling lips are answering to it. Shadowy figures point from the page to a field where even imagination is loth to follow. Each of these little names that the printer struck off so lightly last night, whistling over his work, and that we speak with a clip of the tongue, represents a bleeding, mangled corpse. It is a thunderbolt that will crash into some brain—a dull, dead remorseless weight that will fall upon some heart, straining it to the breaking. There is nothing very terrible to us, however, in the list, though our sensations might be different if the newspaper carrier left the names on the battle-field and the bodies at our doors instead.
We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. The crape on the bell-pull tells there is a death in the house, and in the close carriage that rolls away with muffled wheels you know there rides a woman to whom the world is very dark now. But you only see the mourners in the last of the long line of carriages—they ride very jollily and at their ease, smoking cigars in a furtive and discursive manner, perhaps, and were it not for the black gloves they wear, which the deceased was wise and liberal enough to furnish, it might be a wedding for all the world would know. It attracts your attention, but does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door, and the corpse is carried out over your own threshold—you know whether it is a wedding or a funeral then, without looking at the color of the gloves worn. Those who lose friends in battle know what battle-fields are . . .
Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it . . .
These pictures have a terrible distinctness . . . We should scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the taping trenches. For these trenches have a terror for a woman’s heart, that goes far to outweigh all others that hover over the battle-field. How can a mother bear to know that the boy whose slumbers she has cradles, and whose head her bosom pillowed until the rolling drums called him forth—whose poor, pale face, could she react it, should find the same pillow again . . . when, but for the privilege of touching that corpse, of kissing once more the lips through white and cold, of smoothing back the hair from the brow and cleansing it of blood, stains, she would give all the remaining years of life that Heaven has allotted her—how can this mother bear to know that in a shallow trench, hastily dug, rude hands have thrown him. She would have handled the poor corpse so tenderly, have prized the boon of caring for it so dearly—yet, even the imperative office of hiding the dead from sight has been done by those who thought it trouble, and were only glad when their work ended.
It’s worth noting that the dead in Gardner’s exposures are mostly Confederates, such as the anonymous boy curled up under a tree, almost peacefully, near a cornfield owned by a German farmer named Miller. The Union dead, by contrast, were buried quickly, saving them from the camera’s disrespect. All that’s left of a twenty-one-year-old infantry lieutenant from Michigan, John A. Clark, who must have fallen near the boy, is a simple wood marker. [Find the photograph here. You have to scroll down a bit.]
The Confederates were the enemy, and for that reason, it was less likely a woman in New York City “should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies.” We can more easily distance ourselves from the enemy, after all, and perhaps that’s why we at the Monitor have seen on the AP wire and published images of Iraqi dead in the last few weeks, but none of Americans.
On the other hand, all the dead at Antietam were Americans. Whether you were from New York or Virginia, it would have taken real courage to look into those faces, to cut through the layer of politeness that covered all transactions then, and ask the obvious questions: Do I understand the cost? Is it worth it?
Today the trappings of our culture—television and the movies, mostly—are much more violent; our cameras, certainly, are much more numerous. Yet confronting our dead seems harder somehow. Is it that Gardner and Gibson’s photographs would no longer seem so shocking? Or are we less willing to be so honest with ourselves?
NOTE: I’m given to understand, by the way, that Frassanito lives in Virginia. Perhaps readers can correct me if I’m wrong.
UPDATE: Is it right or wrong to show our war dead? I don’t know, but I find the question interesting. Still, we’re a long way from Antietam when we still can’t even show our funerals.
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