Mr. Gardner and the Erosion of the “Good Death”

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author James Brookes.

Alexander Gardner’s images of the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam were the first serious attempts of their kind to document the true carnage of conflict. Prior to the Civil War the preponderance of visual representations of conflict sought to display war as an honourable and glorious affair. Uniforms remain pristine during aggressive charges and artillery cannonades, whilst national flags are fixed in the images in order to capture the viewer’s attention and appeal to their patriotic sentiment. In comparison, The Dead of Antietam images were taken in such a meticulous and detailed manner that they appear almost as visual forebears to Wilfred Owen’s Great War poem, Anthem for a Doomed Youth, which is a morbid, seemingly universal tribute to the young dead of war. By interpreting Gardner’s images, one can not only view the physical remnants of a Civil War battlefield but furthermore the broader repercussions of the Civil War. A photograph of deceased and disfigured Confederate soldiers not only presents the audience with evidence of the destructive power of nineteenth century armaments, but more importantly the issues that surround this morbid scene; the lull of the Victorian “Good Death” ritual and the loss of a soldier’s individuality due to the lack of military identification.

Gardner’s images presented “beautiful stretches of pastoral scenery, disfigured by the evidences of strife, either in the form of broken caissons, dead horses, or piles of human corpses” to their audiences.[2] The Dead of Antietam exhibition allowed spectators to view the true nature of warfare despite being physically absent from the scene of conflict; a first in American history. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who ventured to Antietam in search of his injured son following the battle, recounted that the landscape surrounding Sharpsburg “was like the table of some hideous orgy left uncleared”, littered with “the trodden and stained relics of the stale battle-field.”[3] Holmes stated “It is well enough for some Baron Gros or Horace Vernet to please an imperial master with fanciful portraits… The honest sunshine… gives us, even without the crimson coloring… some conception of what a repulsive, brutal, sickening, hideous thing it is”. Holmes evidently believed that Gardner’s images provided a realistic view of the aftermath of battle, asserting that “It was so nearly like visiting the battle-field… that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and sordid scene… came back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represent.” [4] Similarly, the New York Times reviewed Brady’s exhibition in October, 1862, declaring “If [Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it”.[5] These explicit reactions allow one to better understand the sentiments of nineteenth century audiences, who, as Vaughn Wallace writes, confronted Gardner’s photographs “with no expectations or precedent… Unconditioned (and perhaps not yet protected by) the daily and hourly cataract of imagery that we endure today,” they viewed the images as “immediate reminders of the brutal nature of mankind.”[6]

Image

Gardner, Alexander, ‘Antietam, Md. Bodies in front of the Dunker church’, Sept. 1862, Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, glass negative, wet collodion, Civil War glass negative collection (Library of Congress), http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cwpb.01099/

The images not only illustrated shocking depictions of carnage, but also alluded to various social issues that Americans were attempting to grapple with during the Civil War. The above image displays a spectacle of “dead bodies, stretching into the distance, in the form of an obtuse angle, and so mathematically regular that it looks as if a whole regiment were swept down in the act of performing some military evolution.”[7] This image, and others like it, illustrates this “new prominence of bodies” to nineteenth century Americans, and the overwhelming depiction of them in deformed and destroyed conditions. The peculiar pattern in which these soldiers were laid for burial highlights the contemporary fears regarding the elimination of distinction between men and animals; just as it was being simultaneously eroded by the doctrines of nineteenth century science. Victorian ideals regarding death centred on the concept that the dying were not “losing their essential selves but rather defining themselves for eternity.”[8]

The ritual of the Victorian Good Death dictated that one should die amongst family assembled around the deathbed so that kin could evaluate the family’s chances for a reunion in heaven. Gardner’s images present us with a scene extremely distant from this ideology which exemplifies the lull in the Good Death during the war. This was not lost on nineteenth century spectators as Holmes recalled that “An officer may here and there be recognized; but for the rest, – if enemies, they will be counted, and that is all.” Holmes provides an example of the systematic burial of soldiers; one epitaph at Antietam merely read “80 Rebels are buried in this hole”.[9] The chaos and confusion of battle severely limited any attempt to preserve the Good Death, causing these wrecked, anonymous bodies to be remembered only through Gardner’s images. A journalist for Harper’s Weekly wrote that “by bringing a magnifying glass to bear on [the bodies]”, one could identify their “actual expression. This, in many instances, is perfectly horrible, and shows through what tortures the poor victims must have passed before they were relieved from their sufferings.”[10] Regarding women’s responsibility for their sons, a writer for the New York Times observed “how can [a] mother bear to know that in a shallow trench, hastily dug, rude hands have thrown him. She would have handled the poor corpse so tenderly, have prized the boon of caring for it so dearly”.[11] Gardner’s camera not only captured the physical absence of family for these deceased soldiers, but also their melancholy countenances in lieu of their “life-defining last words.”[12]

In the early years of the war hundreds of thousands of American citizens enlisted in the Union and Confederate armies, and many had taken it upon themselves to have their ‘image struck’. However, portrait photography had been widespread prior to the war and citizens had used the medium in order to collect images of national celebrities and to create albums of family members’ likenesses. Photography was used as a tool for recognition and familiarity, an evocation of memory, and an emotional gesture. Holmes referred to carte de visites as “the social currency, the sentimental “Green-backs” of civilisation”; a concept he asserted that “everybody knows.”[13] With this considered, Gardner’s use of the camera in his Antietam series signalled a fierce attack on the traditional use of photography. Gardner’s photographs presented scenes of anonymity and obscurity; images of soldiers with their full forms forgotten. Holmes wrote of the dead of Antietam: “These wrecks of manhood, thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial, were alive but yesterday.”[14] The image below displays unburied Confederate soldiers, their bodies bloated from decomposition and their limbs ridden with rigour mortis. Their state, as with many others in Gardner’s collection, denies recognition. Such circumstances are excusable, as for the Army of the Potomac it was the first time in the eastern theatre in which they had retained control of the field after a major battle and with it the work of burying the dead, a system that was still in its infancy in 1862.

Image

Gardner, Alexander, ‘Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road’, Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, Sept. 1862, glass negative, wet collodion, Civil War glass negative collection (Library of Congress), http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cwpb.01097/

Gardner’s skilful utilisation of the camera ensured that his images transcended documentary photography; they explore various themes that go beyond the initial slaughter at Antietam. The New York Times argued that “there is one side of the picture that the sun did not catch… the background of widows and orphans… broken hearts cannot be photographed.”[15] However, by photographing the neglected dead and the physical absence of family, Gardner provides a catalyst for the spectator to be drawn to these morbid conclusions. Such a technique is also used in his Photographic Sketch Book, in which he omitted the graphic views of Antietam in favour of landscape scenes to represent key locations, whilst “calling on his reader’s imagination to fill in the rest.”[16] Despite the limitations of an art form only several decades into its existence, Gardner’s series encapsulates the “terrible reality and earnestness of war” through graphic scenes and haunting themes.[17]


[1] Gardner, ‘Introduction to Dover Edition’ – (Bleiler, 1958)

[2] ‘The Battle of Antietam’, Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VI, No. 303, October 18th, 1862, pg. 663

[3] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., ‘My Hunt After “The Captain.”’, Soundings from the Atlantic, (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), p. 66

[4] Holmes Sr., ‘Doings of the Sunbeam’, Soundings from the Atlantic, pp. 266-8

[5] ‘Brady’s Photographs – Pictures of the Dead at Antietam’, The New York Times, October 20th, 1862, p. 5

[6] Vaughn Wallace, ‘150 Years Later: Picturing the Bloody Battle of Antietam’, Time Lightbox (http://lightbox.time.com/2012/09/17/150-years-later-picturing-the-battle-of-antietam/#1), September 17th, 2012, (accessed 06/01/2013)

[7] ‘The Battle of Antietam’, Harper’s Weekly, pg. 663

[8] Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Random House, Inc., 2008), p. XVII

[9] Holmes Sr., ‘Doings of the Sunbeam’, p. 267

[10] ‘The Battle of Antietam’, Harper’s Weekly, p. 663

[11] ‘Brady’s Photographs – Pictures of the Dead at Antietam’, p. 5

[12] Patricia Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 2

[13] Holmes Sr., ‘Doings of the Sunbeam’, p. 255

[14] Ibid., p. 267

[15] ‘Brady’s Photographs – Pictures of the Dead at Antietam’, p. 5

[16] Jeff Bridgers, ‘Antietam: Can One Picture Tell the Story?’, Library of Congress Blogs (http://blogs.loc.gov/picturethis/2012/09/antietam-can-one-picture-tell-the-story/), September 14th, 2012, (accessed 12/01/2013)

[17] ‘Brady’s Photographs – Pictures of the Dead at Antietam’, p. 5

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Civil War Events, Common Soldier, Memory, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mr. Gardner and the Erosion of the “Good Death”

  1. wdonohue1 says:

    Wonderfully analyzed imagery, powerfully described. Yet in spite of the photography or maybe in part because of it the northern audience to which Union veterans returned showed only an initial interest in hearing about what they had experienced and sacrificed and then put it behind them and rushed to reconciliation.

  2. Bryan C. says:

    Very interesting post! Photography was only one part of the imagery of war, though. Have you looked at how sketches and lithographs published in such magazines as Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s portrayed the war to the public? As the only source for the portrayal of battle and combat itself, those lithographs demonstrate a drastically different culture of war in which nobility and romanticism in combat remained very much alive throughout the war.

  3. Pingback: Sailors, Slaves, and Henry P. Moore | Emerging Civil War

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