Times Past, Pausing to Remember


They came to the battlefields with their equipment-laden wagons, hoping to arrive in time to capture the carnage on film. The roads were poor, communications were slow, battles broke out by accident, just where ever two opposing armies happened to come together. Assaults upon the enemy's forces that were planned were, commanders hoped, kept secret. The photographers had to be opportunists, ready to move when they heard news of a battle.

The photographer who took this picture of three prisoners standing at a battle-damaged rail fence may have felt disappointed, may have wished for a more dramatic scene. Yet, this is one of the most famous and widely used photos of the Civil War. It tells many stories.

For those of us accustomed to seeing war (live!) on television, it may seem strange that nothing like that was ever photographed during the Civil War - no soldiers lined up for battle, no artillery firing, no couriers galloping from commander to commander. The Library of Congress, American Memory Division, explains:
During the Civil War, the process of taking photographs was complex and time-consuming. Two photographers would arrive at a location. One would mix chemicals and pour them on a clean glass plate. After the chemicals were given time to evaporate, the glass plate would be sensitized by being immersed -- in darkness -- in a bath solution. Placed in a holder, the plate would then be inserted in the camera, which had been positioned and focused by the other photographer. Exposure of the plate and development of the photograph had to be completed within minutes; then the exposed plate was rushed to the darkroom wagon for developing. Each fragile glass plate had to be treated with great care after development -- a difficult task on a battlefield.
The dead were photographed on battlefields, sometimes where they were killed, sometimes in groups gathered together for burial. The battle at Sharpsburg, Maryland, also called battle of Antietam (Creek) in September, 1862 yielded such photographs. Gettysburg, ten months later, was another source of images of the dead. In both places, the Union Army buried Federal soldiers first. The photographers were able to take pictures of Confederate dead, but these men, too, were buried as quickly as possible. I decided not to include those photos of the slain on this page.

The actual exposure of the film took time, so people had to "pose", at least they had to hold still. The results were peculiar sometimes; at other times they were amusing. This next picture shows three men in various degrees of discomfort over the whole enterprise.

Pinkerton, Lincoln, McClernand
Pinkerton, Lincoln, McClernand

If we didn't have pictures such as this one, it would be easy to credit the awful descriptions of Lincoln's dress, how his clothing fit, to disgruntled political foes. This photo has to bring a smile to his admirers, perhaps a sneer to those who wish that war had yielded different results.

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Sometimes, a photographer would capture an image, perhaps not finding just what he wanted, and seeing something else of vague interest. Was this photo meant to be of the Union soldier in a casual pose or was it focusing on the sign above the man's head? Did the photographer know the significance of his creation? Did he realize its impact on future generations? I suspect not.

The picture was taken in Atlanta in October or November, 1864. The sentry, if that was his duty assignment, was one of Sherman's men. Other pictures of Atlanta have drawn more interest - pictures of destruction - but this one speaks of something else. It tells us a great deal about why the war was fought, and why it was worth the cost.