The Faces of Death: In Our Own Dooryard
An immediacy remains in images made nearly a 150 years ago.
I derived the headline for this installment by paraphrasing a New York Times editorial, dated October 20, 1862. The unnamed author of that piece was covering the macabre success of a photographic exhibition at the New York Gallery of Mathew Brady, entitled “The Dead of Antietam.” Struck by the allure and immediate popularity of the exhibit he opined, “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 dooryards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”
Brady is the man popular history has labeled the paramount photographer of the Civil War era. There is an ironic twist however. Brady was secretly going blind by the time of the Civil War, and whatever greatness he had attained as the preeminent “Daguerreian artist” in the antebellum days, was being maintained by a staff of photographers under his direction. As Brady’s personal fame continued to rise, and their work wasn’t being credited, some of these staff photographers branched out as independents. Alexander Gardner would lead this exodus from Brady’s establishment, and with him, he took another accomplished lensman, Timothy O’Sullivan.
By May 1864, Alexander Gardner and his brother James had well established their reputation with the Army of the Potomac and James was permitted to travel with the Army as the Spring Campaign opened. O’Sullivan was also under Gardner’s wing when he recorded the Union force’s crossing of the Rapidan River near Germanna, on May 4.
James Gardner concentrated on subject matter closer to, and east of, the town of Fredericksburg. Warehouses and private homes converted to overcrowded field hospitals dominated his focus, along with shelled out structures in a community desperate to return to normalcy.
To the south west of town, Timothy O’Sullivan’s output had gone dry for over two weeks. He resumed exposures near the Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 19, 1864, documenting the headquarters of 5th Corps commanding General Gouverneur K. Warren at Whig Hill. Either the perils of traveling so close to a constantly engaged battlefront made an already cumbersome process impractical, or an unfortunate loss of fragile supplies forestalled his work until replacements could be acquired via the Fredericksburg supply route under control of the Federals.
During the early evening of May 19, a Confederate incursion on the Federal right brought on a substantial firefight on the neighboring farms of Harris, Alsop and Peyton. The action centered on the modern Woodfield subdivision, west of Smith Station Road.
As darkness fell, Union tenacity compelled the Confederates to withdraw, having suffered nearly a thousand casualties. Their dead were left as they had fallen, and by the next morning, photographer O’Sullivan was making his way toward the scene of the fighting in order to document the interment of the southern dead. Burial parties were making short work of the gruesome task, first gathering the scattered bodies into centralized locations and then committing them to mass burial trenches.
With the sun raised high in the noontime sky, O’Sullivan recorded a series of six images that captured, with shocking detail, the faces of Confederate dead who had fallen seventeen to nineteen hours earlier. Analysis of the regiments engaged on this part of the field has suggested that these were most probably men from a North Carolina regiment. Within their eyes we can sense the surprise of imminent death in one, and the instantaneous squelching of life in another. What likelihood was there that one of these somber faces would be recognized by a mother, sister or lover?
As the Civil War concluded its final year, other fields of battle, particularly around the Confederate fortifications defending Petersburg, offered up additional scenes of carnage, all with lurid concentration on southern casualties.
We take great pause to reconsider such garish display of our military fatalities today, even those depicting our enemies. For a time, approaching one hundred and fifty years ago now, the popularity of images such as these was a thriving enterprise. It should be noted though, that not long after the guns fell silent in April 1865, followed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, their popularity swiftly diminished as the general population grew tired of the wreckage suffered upon the nation, north and south.
John Cummings is a visual historian and the author of two books on the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania region, the newest due out June 27. He has also written for several national and local magazines and newspapers, and provided historical research and commentary for three documentary films. John has served on the former Spotsylvania Courthouse Tourism and Special Events Commission, and is the chairperson for the Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, (FoFAB). Visit his blog at: http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/