I was writing about this photo today for a piece Kris and I are working on…
Frequently, the Mississippian in the foreground gets cropped from the picture in order to make the image more “viewer-friendly.” The corpse, dirty—perhaps bloody—is twisted at an awkward angle and sprawled across the ditch. Toward the center of the photo, another body lies in a heap, but it looks nearly indistinguishable from the blankets and bedrolls scattered around it, so it’s not nearly as uncomfortable to look at as the body in the foreground is.
With the body gone, this becomes a more generic photo of the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg and, as such, can serve multiple purposes. There is, after all, a lot of interesting detritus and debris to look at. The photo captures the desolation of war. The place it captures is iconic.
Most people who look at the photo don’t know that it was taken by Andrew J. Russell on May 3, 1863 following the Battle of Second Fredericksburg—not after the more famous Battle of (First) Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Most people who see the cropped version of the photo don’t even realize that a dead Mississippian has been cropped out. They see a story and think they know the story they’re seeing. For illustrative purposes, perhaps that’s enough.
But it always bothers me when we prefer the sanitized version of history over the messy version. It bothers me when we consider a body expendable in any way. That soldier from Mississippi had a mother somewhere…perhaps a wife…perhaps kids. To make him a casualty of our modern sense of aesthetics or comfort seems like a small-scale travesty. After all, I’m sure he’d have thought being dead wasn’t such a great idea, either—but he didn’t have a choice about it.
Russell and his fellow photographers were documenting history in all its ugliness. They were, as The New York Times famously said of the photos of Antietam’s dead, laying the war at our very footsteps. If it’s unpleasant to look at, even after 150 years, then perhaps that’s all the more reason to take a long, long look.