“Securing a Likeness”: Union Soldiers Visit the Photographer’s Studio

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back guest poster James Brookes

Many northern volunteers had a portrait taken upon their enlistment. Several post-war memoirs exist in which Union veterans recall a visit to the photographer as a significant moment in their transition from civilian to citizen-soldier. These accounts reveal not only the subjects’ unfamiliarity towards the difficult conditions of military service but also their incomprehension of soldierly demeanour and their naïve appreciation towards the seemingly-novel military uniforms they donned. The theatrical nature of photographic studio manifests itself in range of ways in these accounts. The photographic portrait of the subject cloaked in military regalia and bearing ferocious props acts as a confirmation of the man’s fulfilment of his obligation as a citizen-soldier. This stands in opposition to the fact that these men testify that they were in no way full-fledged soldiers at this point in their temporary military vocations.

Jesse Bowman Young recalls his service through a protagonist named Jack in his book What a Boy saw in the Army. Young enlisted in the 4th Illinois Cavalry in 1861 and a visit to the photographer formed a significant feature in his retelling of the experience. Having arrived in Chicago the soldier-boy furnishes his uniform before his full induction into the army. Though he feels “stiff and awkward in the suit,” this uneasiness mingles with “a sense of pride and elation.”[i] Catching a glimpse of his reflection in a mirror, Jack at first barely recognises himself, and yet is inspired to seek out a photograph.

Jack intends to have this portrait sent back to Pennsylvania. During the “operation of securing a likeness,” he can “barely keep his face straight” as he speculates about how the “remarkable portrait” will present him as a “curious mixture of valorous discomfort, military ambition, uneasy vanity, and conscious awkwardness in his novel costume.”[ii] That these thoughts occur to him during the taking of the image suggests his uneasiness under the gaze of the camera’s lens. The theorist Roland Barthes claims that this discomfort results from one “suffer[ing] from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture” when confronted by the camera.[iii] Titling his new uniform a “novel costume,” Jack’s account suggests it allows him to assume the identity of citizen-soldier regardless of his inexperience. A photograph of the subject with a particularly soldierly pose and appearance allows the subject to some extent to become that identity. The self is remade through the portrait with the intention of that representation coming to define the subject itself.[iv]

Jack’s emphasis on the home-circle’s receipt of the image suggests the portrait’s utilisation as an announcement of this new identity. The account continues, encapsulating the naïve braggadocio of the volunteer in the early-war period. The portrait carries an expression, “an ‘atmosphere’… that seemed to say:”

This trouble will very shortly be at an end. The country has been waiting for me, and here I am, ready for duty, accoutered for action, prepared to crush the rebellion at short notice, and thus save the land and the flag. The great object of my appearance on the scene is to quell the disturbance and summarily put an end to the hostilities of the war. This revolt will not last long after I commence active operations against the enemy. All I ask is a fair chance to get at him.

Jack reveals the depth of meaning contained in his first military photographic portrait. As the historian James M. McPherson ascertains, “for Union and Confederate volunteers alike, abstract symbols or concepts such as country, flag, Constitution, liberty, and legacy of the Revolution figured prominently in their explanations of why they enlisted.”[v] Jack proclaims that the image presents him as a defender of the Union and the flag and a destroyer of the Confederate “revolt.”

The account illustrates Jack’s inexperience. The rage militaire that swept the North in the weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter caused cities and towns to “erupt into volcanoes of oratory and recruiting rallies.”[vi] Such fervour heightened the sense of agency that volunteers held regarding their ability to influence the war’s outcome, for at that point the battlefield “seemed remote, and [a] lack of martial experience made its horrors incomprehensible.”[vii] Jack’s desire to have a “fair chance to get at [the enemy]” was a common concern amongst the early-war volunteers. One recruit in the 2nd Michigan acknowledged “a general fear that it will all be over before we have a chance to do anything.”[viii]

Jack reinforces the notion of the portrait as a means to mark the transition from civilian to citizen-soldier. His previous language, specifically in referring to his uniform as a “novel costume”, twinned with the magniloquence of the phrase “appear[ing] on the scene,” illustrates the theatrical nature of the studio. The supposed plainness of the Union’s republican soldiers is not apparent. Instead the portrait sent home allows the civilian to imagine his anxious family members waiting impatiently for the triumphant sounding of their soldier-boy’s entry into the army. His tone then shifts to acknowledge his untested fighting abilities, though this does not reduce his self-confidence:

I have any amount of a latent courage, loyalty, strategic ability and general military capacity hidden away under this new uniform, and the country will be startled when these powers begin to appear. If you want to see signs and wonders wrought, only wait until this raw recruit takes the field!

Courage, loyalty, and military capacity, all required traits that a multitude of volunteers would attest to hold and expressed their desire to showcase in the army. These qualities are supposedly latent and hidden away beneath his uniform. They are purportedly characteristics that he held before the war: military service is the opportunity to reveal these “wonders.” His mention of his supposed strategic ability, hardly the concern of a private, reveals his inability to understand the reality of his position as an enlisted man. His dormant military expertise will supposedly be uncovered on the battlefield and this attitude aligns with the “eagerness of green recruits for combat.”[ix] A soldier in the 72nd Illinois explained that the “men want to be tried to see what they are made of.”[x] Many perceived the battlefield as a testing ground for their manliness.

Jack’s visit to the photographer and the subsequent portrait provides a visual declaration of his preparedness for war and yet he simultaneously claims that he can only provide an exhibition of his abilities in battle. The image demonstrates the façade of military capability many inexperienced recruits attempted to showcase in the early days of the war. Furthermore, he emphasises the photograph’s utilisation as a means to counter any anxieties towards war by defining the subject as a steadfast citizen-soldier, regardless of their inexperience.

There exists an element of humour in Young’s post-war memoir. Writing 33 years after his enlistment he reflects on the absurdity of his misdirected confidence. Another soldier made a similar claim. Isaac Gause of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry recalled a similar innocence when he visited the photographer in his new attire:

I was so proud of my saber that I borrowed a long knife, strung it on my belt also, stalked over to the picture gallery, and had my picture taken, and placed it in the nicest case that could be found and sent it home. The picture is in existence yet, and well preserved, but to an experienced eye it looks like anything but a soldier.[xi]

In recounting his enlistment with the benefit of hindsight Gause ridicules his younger self for his conceited attitude. As a veteran Gause views his first military portrait as one that exudes a boastful confidence despite the fact that he was yet to begin any form any rigorous instruction. That he admits that his military portrait “looks like anything but a soldier” is a particularly strong self-criticism that emphasises that although “volunteers did become soldiers… the transformation from civilian to soldier was rarely completed.”[xii] Gause recognises his misrepresentation.

Gause further highlights his inexperience with his preceding remarks. What spurred him to have his likeness taken was the issuing of “sabers, revolvers, and belts” to his regiment. He notes that he “felt proud that the authorities had recognized the fact that we could be trusted with the most harmless instrument in modern warfare.”[xiii] Evidently, Gause believed he had passed a certain stage in his temporary military career and the photographic portrait he had taken was used a means to mark the occasion. Despite the pride and elation he experiences receiving his side-arms Gause still acquires a “long knife” to add to his supposedly ‘harmless’ arsenal. This was common amongst soldiers who often sought out a few props from photographers and friends.[xiv] Photographers often offered martial props to provide the soldier with a more warlike and masculine appearance. The exhibition of props also reinforces the notion of theatrical photographic studio.

John G. B. Adams of the 19th Massachusetts had an experience of enlistment that was also marked by photography. Following a journey to Boston in heavy marching order he desires to have a photograph “in the full garb of a warrior” for his “best girl.”[xv] There is a paradigm emerging. The photograph, intended for the home-circle, follows the attainment of apparel or tools associated with the work of war, without which it would be devoid of any inclination towards the man’s new occupation. Regardless of the soldier’s previous occupation, whether “as a factory hand or farmer, store clerk or craftsman – they each sought an image that conveyed their present military vocation.”[xvi] Volunteers could declare their new role in the nation-in-crisis and associate with military tradition.

Prior to his visit to the studio Adams notes that a new colonel assigned to his regiment had turned “a uniformed mob [into] a regiment of soldiers.”[xvii] However, speaking of visiting the photographic studio and the subsequent image, Adams writes:

I arrayed myself in heavy marching order and went to an ambrotype saloon to have my picture taken. I have seen the picture since the war. In an ambrotype everything is reversed, so my musket is at my left shoulder, haversack and canteen on the wrong side – in fact, I was wrong to in every respect.

Although speaking of the lateral reversal typical of photographs developed with the wet-collodion process, Adams’ account suggests that viewing the image as a veteran reveals it as a façade. Carrying his arms and wearing his equipment on the wrong shoulders seems trivial but his comment that “I was wrong to in every respect” demonstrates the recognition of his early-war inexperience. Lateral reversal emphasises his novice state.

These reminisces of enlistment are all significantly punctuated by a visit to the photographer’s studio. All three accounts illustrate a certain naivety amongst the recruits. Despite their admitted inexperience they all utilise the portrait to attempt to convey a connection to martial traditions. With hindsight the veterans reveal an inexperience they had attempted to disguise. Soldiers could alter their identities to those who receive and display the images. Though portraits would serve more vitally by allowing families to memorialise those soldiers who did not return, they nevertheless served an important function in permitting volunteers to manage the unfamiliar circumstances relative to their new roles in a society-at-war.

[i] Jesse Bowman Young, What a Boy saw in the Army: A Story of Sight-Seeing and Adventure in the War for the Union (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1894), p. 29

[ii] Young, What a Boy saw, p. 30

[iii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (London: Flamingo, 1984), p. 13

[iv] Alfred I. Tauber, Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing (Oakland: University of California Press, 2001), p. 217

[v] James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 21

[vi] McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, p. 16

[vii] Franc B. Wilkie, Pen and Powder (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1888), p. 15

[viii] Charles B. Haydon, ‘Diary Entry of July 12, 1861.’, in Stephen W. Sears, ed., For Country, Cause and Leader: The Civil War Journal of Charles B. Haydon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), p. 45

[ix] McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, p. 31

[x] Joseph Stockton, ‘Diary Entry of Nov. 10, 1862.’, in War Diary (1862-5) of Brevet Brigadier General Joseph Stockton (n.p., 1910), p. 10, in McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, p. 31

[xi] Isaac Gause, Four Years with Five Armies (New York & Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1908), p. 35

[xii] Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 21

[xiii] Gause, Four Years, p. 34-5

[xiv] Jeff L. Rosenheim, Photography and the American Civil War (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014), p. 128

[xv] John G. B. Adams, Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Company, 1899), p. 6

[xvi] Michael L. Carlebach, Working Stiffs: Occupational Portraits in the Age of Tintypes (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), p. 33

[xvii] Adams, Reminiscences, p. 5

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