THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Ron, you've written a number of works on American history, in particular focusing on the Civil War. What got you interested in this particular era of US Military History, and with regards to your upcoming book Silent Witness, how did you come to produce a book looking specifically at Civil War photography?
My earliest interest in the American Civil War began in 1961, the centenary year, when as an 18 year-old I read a short article about it in a British newspaper. Although not very informative, the piece planted a seed and my interest steadily grew into a passion as I acquired books and magazines during my twenties and thirties. A quantum leap further and during my retirement I have collected original Civil War photographs – ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite and stereoviews, and naturally became curious about who the men and women were who took them. Then I realised that, despite the thousands of books published about the Civil War, there was nothing much specifically about the photographers.
For many historians, photographs are a primary source, but your book looks beyond the pictures and also studies the people, the equipment and also the context within which those photographs were taken. How do you feel photography has contributed to our understanding of the Civil War, and what can the photographers themselves tell us about the conflict?
Each individual photograph of the Civil War, whether of a battlefield view or of an individual soldier or civilian, helps us to understand one of the most important periods in American history. The battlefield views of Gardner, Barnard and Brady, published for sale before the end of the war and often depicting the fallen soldier, brought home the horror of war to the civilian population in the North. Those published as stereoviews showed the devastation to man and nature even more starkly. Apart from the aesthetic beauty of the image on copper, iron, glass, or paper, individual portraiture of both Union and Confederate officers and men provides a wealth of information about them. The demeanour of the subject can be an indicator as to how he or she felt about the times. The uniforms, headgear, weaponry and equipment of the soldier often serve as a guide to when the photograph was taken. This is particularly important if the individual in the image is not identified, which is the case with the majority of Civil War portraits.
From a historical perspective, as one of the first major conflicts to be photographed, how did the involvement of photography change the ways in which the conflict was reported and recorded, both publically and militarily?
Although the regular newspapers of the day reported the course of the war in great detail, it was not possible to reproduce photographs on their pages. However, the weekly illustrated journals such as Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, the New York Illustrated News, and Southern Illustrated News employed engravers who would copy in great detail from original photography in order to bring home to the masses what was going on in every front of the war. Known as "lithographic likenesses", individual portraits of generals and statesmen were re-produced in the same manner. But without the original photography none of this would have been produced so readily.
From the book, it feels as though photographs of the era can be seen from different perspectives - as art, as records of history, as propaganda, as simply commercial products (even as military intelligence). What do you think were the most important motives for Civil War photographers in their work?
Their motives were as varied as the work they produced. The likes of Matthew Brady and George N. Barnard knew they and their assistants were producing a precious pictorial record when they drove their flimsy wagons on to spent battlefields, set up their cameras, and captured what have become classic views of Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Indeed, Brady is on record as stating in 1861, "We are making history now, and every picture that we will get will be valuable." Lesser known "travelling artists" who obtained permission to operate their primitive tented studios in virtually every military encampment did a different kind of work. They were mostly interested in making as much money as possible by producing as many "likenesses" as they could of individual soldiers. A quote in my chapter about photography in camp and barracks concludes that their galleries were "thronged from morning to night, and ‘while the day lasteth’ their golden harvest runs in."
The book reveals the many ways in which photographs were utilized during the conflict - did you find a particularly interesting example of how photographs were used during the Civil War?
What held me in particular awe was the use of photography in map and document reproduction in both the Union and Confederacy. Important photographers such as George N. Barnard, in the North, and Andrew J. Riddle, in the South, sometimes worked for their respective military departments producing maps composed of full-plate albumen prints glued to a canvas backing, sun prints on cloth, or "Margedant’s Quick Method" on paper which by-passed the need for a camera. Their work, and that of countless other unknown "artists", meant that army field commanders had relatively easy access to relatively up-to-date maps with which to conduct campaigns and fight battles. The fact that these maps were occasionally captured had an important influence on a battle’s outcome, such as happened during the First Manassas Campaign of 1861 and the Siege of Petersburg in 1864. Regarding the photographic copying of important military documents and letters, the widespread circulation of albumens of the Dahlgren letter, copied by Confederate photographers Sanxy and Gomert in 1864, cannot be overestimated. Orders to Colonel Ulric Dahlgren in this much publicized letter to kill President Jefferson Davis during the raid on Richmond in 1864 may well have put in motion the chain of events that led to Confederate revenge and the assassination of Lincoln on April 14, 1865, at the hands of the fanatic John Wilkes Booth. This was possibly the most powerful and consequential use of photography during the Civil War.
There's something very intimate about photography in the context of war; you mention one example of locks of hair being placed behind images as mementos. Were photographs an important part of memorializing the victims of the war?
Sadly countless thousands of photographs eventually served as memorials to those who died in battle or of disease during the Civil War. Some men seemed to know that was the case. For example, in my book I mention how Private Florence Sullivan, 27th New York Infantry, had a premonition that he was going to be killed as he went into action at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, as part of the division of Brigadier General David Hunter. Advancing by his side, Private John Biggs later recalled, "there was something singular about him; when he reached the field … he requested me to take a likeness he had and send it to Geneseo [his hometown in New York]; he had the impression he was about to be shot; I tried to talk him out of it but in vain – in less than five minutes he was a corpse." Surviving the battle, Biggs dutifully sent the photograph home to his fallen comrade’s grieving family, and it was doubtless treasured as perhaps the only visual record of their lost son.
The history of the United States has often been linked with its art - music, paintings and writings have all contributed to the American ideal and the country's conception of the nation. Did photography have a similar role to play in building ideas of the USA?
In terms of the American ideal, the images created by the Civil War photographer preserved the courage, conviction, and camaraderie of the young volunteer soldier, whether Union or Confederate, as he prepared for war. In the North, soldiers and sailors often posed for their "likeness" either holding, or standing by, the Star Spangled Banner. Some Confederates wore miniature First National flags pinned to, or draped around, their caps. Occasionally an actual battle-scarred flag was carried into a studio and photographed as a symbol of sacrifice. It is immaterial now which banner they fought for – their allegiance to their flag was all important, and the only thing that mattered to them. That same allegiance has helped to build the USA we have today.
Do you have a particular favorite image, one which you feel tells an important story about the conflict, or that is simply a wonderful example of photography of the era?
That is a simple choice! The cobalt blue glass ambrotype of an unknown Confederate soldier (below) used on the front cover is without question my favorite image. The book designer did not know this. He worked through over a hundred photographs I provided as possible choices for the front cover design, and finally he chose that one! Apart from the rarity of blue glass ambrotypes, and particularly Confederate ones, the fresh-faced young soldier’s haunting expression seems to sum up the impact of Civil War on a whole generation of young Americans.
And finally, what do you hope readers will take away from reading Silent Witness?
It is hoped the reader will be informed and enriched by my narrative. The book describes in some depth and in many instances for the first time, the exploits of the stalwart men and women who, in most cases, silently worked with their primitive cameras and volatile chemicals to create a vivid pictorial record of one of the most important periods in the making of the United States of America. The beauty in the images they have left behind and which illustrate my book should speak for themselves.
Ron's new book, Silent Witness, is available to pre-order now, and is released on October 19th. You can find a copy from most good bookstores, or you can purchase copies online at the Osprey Publishing website