The Photographic Reality of the Battle of Antietam
The American Civil War has long been one of the most fascinating conflicts in history. The idea of brother fighting brother, one in order to preserve the Union and the other standing up for their rights, has captivated the interests of scholars for nearly 140 years. The direct relation of today’s population to those who risked and gave their lives fighting for the intangible ideals that they believed in is a largely influential factor for the ultimate popularity of ceaseless Civil War studies.
The literature of the Civil War also provides a way of bringing the battlefield to life. In the absence of modern technology, literature and writings provide vivid details of Civil War life and events in which one must use the imagination to decipher. However, the photography of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and others present to us a new facet of Civil War reality. An article in the New York Times on October 20, 1862 said, “We recognize the battlefield as a reality, but it stands as a remote one.
It is like a funeral next door… 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. ” This text will delve into the role of reality and understanding of the scenes recorded by the cameramen at the Battle of Antietam, as well as a more realistic appreciation for photography’s innovative new role in its documentation, as opposed to ordinary literature. Prior to the Battle of Antietam, the population failed to realize the startling effects of the war.
Antietam marked General Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north on September 17, 1862. Known as the bloodiest single day of battle, the conflict claimed 23,000 men. Previously, the public received all their account of battles via local news journals and word of mouth. The American public had minimal exposure to war photography, although Roger Fenton captured personalities and groups of soldiers in the Crimean War of 1854 and 1855. Alexander Gardner of Scotland, who was responsible for the photography at Antietam, examined these.
Photography, up to Antietam, was quite common for the time, but was essentially limited to portraits that were used to reinforce newspaper articles. Therefore, the emergence of a set of photographs that depicted the scene of battle merely hours after the final shot was fired is considered revolutionary for the time. The images were the first photographs ever published that depicted the ghastly corpses in the positions which they fell.
These images were displayed first in New York in October of 1862 under the title of “The Dead of Antietam. An unknown reporter for the New York Times was bothered that these scenes should have been repulsive but were instead terribly fascinating. He goes on to say that, “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 battlefield and the bodies at our doors instead. ” These photographs grew in popularity as Mathew Brady sent them on a tour of the north, informing those during that time of the complete reality of the death and destruction of war. The photographs of the dead at Antietam provide the same reaction today as it did 140 years ago by providing a visual element to the horrors of war as opposed to the literary works that described the events in such detail.
The key for altering the perception of an event such as this is for the photograph to stand alone and tell its own story. William Frassanito’s Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day thrives on this principle as a way to leave the reader captive to the images as opposed to the words. Frassanito’s book provides the reader with one of the original photographs from the dead and decaying and then provides a modern alternate view from the same angle.
The original war photography in conjunction with the modern photographs provides a dramatic experience that still allows the mind to use its imagination, but to a different degree than that of any literary work. Photographs are historical documents as well that are crying to be heard to tell their fantastic stories if we can only learn to provide the proper support necessary for the comprehension of its visual tale (Frassanito 15). By using a modern black and white photograph next to the original, the moment that is produced is surreal.
The viewer becomes transfixed on the image of old and then is hit with the overwhelming idea that the modern photograph is the same exact setting where blood was shed and history was made. The modern photographs give a chilling sense of where the action occurred and by glancing to the original, the viewer is seemingly traveling back nearly 140 years into the past. The comparative photography is a very effective method in allowing one to visual the events that transpired on that piece of land, thus providing a new sense of reality unmatched by most literary works.
Unlike literature, the photographs tell the ultimate truth and cannot be exaggerated, underestimated, or ignored. By being able to see where a human being took their last breath, both then and now, a newly found sense of harsh reality is discovered within the soul. Names and faces have a tendency to become abstract with the passage of time, but the images seen in the photographs at Antietam are unforgettable. Common soldiers frequently take a back seat in our rush to analyze and make heroes or villains of the generals and other high-ranking leaders.
This is a result of the ability of literature to alter the perception of reality from being a war fought by individual men, to a war of mass soldiers fought my leaders such as Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan, and Ulysses S. Grant. Photography, however, leads one to feel otherwise. The reality of war is faced by the presence of just one dead, decaying 12 year-old boy who was, maybe just hours before, full of life and ambition. By examining the photographs of the dead, we tend to forget the politics that condemned them to die.
Here, everything is placed into perspective and the finality of war resides. As a result, the overall sentiment of Civil War photography is that each black and white still photograph tells an entire story of life and death aside from the war itself. It produces a unique emotion that is absent from simple works of literature. War is a dangerously easy thing to glorify. Vivid accounts of battles and campaigns frequently make war seem exciting, even attractive as a vicarious adventure. This is especially true for those far removed from the actual sights, smells, and pain of a freshly scarred battlefield.
By reducing war to its most fundamental elements of personal human tragedy and suffering and by interpreting this one battle through the photographs, the result is the primal reality that defines war more vividly than any dictionary. With assistance from William Frassanito’s study of the Battle of Antietam, it is apparent that the photographs taken by Alexander Gardner provide the most intrusive observation into a time the modern world has difficulty understanding. It is a world of reality and of survival. It is a world of death and destruction. But most importantly, it is a world that, thanks to these photographs, will never be forgotten.