Memories of the Civil War
By Stephen J. Greenberg
Although the American Civil War was not the first armed conflict to be extensively photographed (that dubious distinction belongs to the Crimean War of 1853–1856, where Great Britain and France fought with Russia over control of the Black Sea and access to the Eastern Mediterranean), the conflict between North and South over slavery and states’ rights brought a distinctly American flavor to the use of photography to bring images from the battlefront to the home front. Newspapers such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and Harper’s Weekly clamored for images for their readers. The technology did not yet exist to print photographs directly in newspapers and magazines; artists laboriously hand-carved blocks called “wood engravings” that could sit in the printing press alongside metal type. As accurate and fine as these engravings could be, they were not the same as photographs.
A photographer/entrepreneur named Mathew B. Brady stepped into the breach. Brady had been a studio photographer for over fifteen years when the Civil War began, and had galleries and studios in New York and Washington. Brady and his staff (Brady had suffered from poor eyesight since childhood, and by 1861 took relatively few pictures himself) photographed all comers, including Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration. Sensing an opportunity to both record history and make some serious money, Brady wrangled permission from Lincoln for Brady photographers to accompany the Union Army in its campaigns, and photograph what they saw. Pictures could be sold to newspapers, but the main product were small photographs, mounted on card stock, with captions on the front and the Brady name on the back. They were called cartes de visite, as they were about the same size as calling cards, roughly 2.5 x 4 inches. It was a format that Brady had used successfully before the war. There now seemed to be an insatiable market for cartes de visite depicting the war.
Among the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine is a Civil War-era photograph album designed to hold just such cartes. Resplendent in heavily tooled leather with gold lettering, brass clasps, and ivory bosses to protect the leather, it was the property of a Miss Anna Lowell and contains fifty pages of plates. It was a gift; there is an inscription on the front endpaper dated 24 November 1864 “present to Miss Anna Lowell by the attendants of Ward K” of the U.S. General Hospital at Armory Square in Washington DC.
Thanks to the research of former NLM employee Dever Powell, we do know something about Anna Lowell. A trained nurse at a time when such training was a rarity, she was the niece of the critic and poet James Russell Lowell. Anna Lowell served on the hospital ship Daniel Webster before moving to Ward K. There she learned of the death in battle of her brother Charles in October of 1864 (another brother, James, had been killed in 1862). The ward staff, recognizing her steadfast service even at a time of mourning, presented her with the album. It is not clear who selected the individual images, but certainly it reflects Lowell’s taste as well; there are images of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who had died in December of 1861.
Brady’s photographers were limited, by both their technology and Brady’s personal taste. The cameras of the day, with their cumbersome wet plates and slow shutter speeds, could not capture the action of an actual battle. Moreover, Brady was not in business to shock his customers with images of the carnage at Gettysburg or Antietam. Brady images show heroic officers and men between battles, images of camps and hospitals, neat and tidy and comfortably distant. A Brady photographer might show a graveyard well after a battle, but never the unburied corpses. One Brady photographer famously disagreed: Alexander Gardner, who had worked with Brady before the war and urged Brady to produce masses of the cartes to feed the growing demand. Gardner eventually broke with Brady, founded his own studio, and went on to produce far harsher images of the war. Lowell’s album contains both Brady and Gardner pictures, and it’s often easy to tell which studio produced any particular image.
There is one picture in the album that presents a bit of mystery. Officially, it’s No. 321 in the “Brady’s Album Gallery” series. The caption reads “Soldiers’ Graves at Bull Run.” The image itself, reproduced here, shows lines of simple tombstones in the foreground, and log cabins further back. A gaunt, lanky, bearded man in a dark frock coat and a tall hat stands pensively, hands on hips, looking down at the graves. His sadness is self-evident.
The figure greatly resembles Abraham Lincoln, but it is certainly NOT the president. On closer examination, the hat is not the famous stovepipe—it has a peaked brim and a sort of muffin-top crown—and the trousers are workman’s pants, rolled up at the cuff. Moreover, various day-by-day calendars of Lincoln’s movements during his presidency contain no evidence that the president ever visited the Bull Run battle site, although it was only roughly thirty miles from the White House. Nevertheless, it’s hard to avoid the strong impression that this unknown figure was meant to evoke the 16th president, if only just for the purposes of marketing.
The Lowell album now resides in an acid-free storage box in the NLM stacks; some of its images have been scanned and can be viewed through the NLM Digital Collections portal. They are the shared memories of a conflict that is long over, but always with us—lest we forget this Memorial Day.