Artifacts give war a human dimension
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, January 18, 2013
How do you tell the story of a war that divided a nation, lasted four years and claimed between 600,000 and 700,000 lives? It’s hard to imagine any single exhibition fully grappling with the American Civil War, in all its complexity and contradiction. Still, many museums have been contributing to the conversation since 2011, as we move through the multiyear commemoration of the conflict’s 150th anniversary.
The most recent shows to tackle the subject include the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “The Civil War and American Art” and the Library of Congress’s “The Civil War in America,” both of which opened late last year.
The latter is a broad and evenhanded tour of what the exhibition calls the “valor, sacrifices, emotions and accomplishments” of those on both sides whose lives were affected by the fight. It’s a sober chronology of letters, photographs, books, artwork, maps and other ephemera, roughly bookended by drafts of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural addresses. Midway through is Lincoln’s first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The final version of the document abolishing slavery in rebellious states was signed 150 years ago this month. (If you want to see those original historic documents, you’ll have to hurry. Although the exhibition is up through spring, those three items will be replaced by facsimiles after Feb. 18.)
As you can imagine, there’s plenty of official reading material in the show. Scattered throughout the more than 200 artifacts, however, are objects and documents that tell a very human tale. Though not exactly eye candy, they bring the Civil War to life, at times poignantly.
These include General Ulysses S. Grant’s June 7, 1864, letter from the field of battle to his wife, along with a lock of his hair. A print is also on view, by artist James Fuller Queen, depicting the folk hero known as Johnny Clem. As a 12-year-old tagging along with Union troops, Clem was said to have shot a Confederate colonel in Chickamauga, Ga. The 1863 lithograph is a sentimental image, made slightly creepy by its evocation of more contemporary images of child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere.
Another notable item is the highly detailed, tablecloth-size map of the Shenandoah Valley, from Harpers Ferry to Lexington. Made by Confederate topographic engineer Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss -- who drew the contours of its twisting river from sketches made on horseback -- the 1862 map is a vivid reminder that the way in which wars are waged hasn’t changed, although the technology that enables them has. Whether via a 3-by-8-foot map or a hand-held GPS device, military commanders have always needed to know the lay of the land.
Toward the end of the exhibition is a display that evokes, in oblique and subtle strokes, the costs of the war.
Along with a photograph of Pvt. John F. Chase, a Union soldier who lost his right arm at Gettysburg, are materials promoting a “left-handed penmanship contest” that Chase and other amputees participated in. Chase’s heartbreaking entry, featuring his misspelled account of his injuries, is in the show, along with a pamphlet advertising an exhibition of contest entries that opened in Washington on May 1, 1866.
I can only imagine what that earlier showcase of documents must have been like, but this one is surprisingly moving.
The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, January 18, 2013
As photography evolved during the Civil War, from daguerreotypes to less cumbersome technologies, one thing remained fairly constant: long exposure times. Because a camera’s shutter might have to stay open for five to 20 seconds, a session at a portrait studio might require the subject to stand in front of an iron “posing stand.” (Imagine a ramrod-straight armature, like a coat rack, with a clamp around your neck to keep your head still.)
For that reason, most of the war photographs in “The Civil War in America” involve not battlefield action but highly posed camp scenes -- or dead people.
Alexander Gardner’s “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,” for example, depicts a Confederate soldier lying where he apparently had been killed, next to a stone wall at the Devil’s Den, a hill used by snipers during the Battle of Gettysburg.
In actuality, the man had been shot about 70 yards away. Gardner first photographed the man where he had fallen, then moved the body, staging the more picturesque shot for dramatic effect.