Images of American Civil War

March 19, 2014
Battlefield of Gettysburg:
Detail of Soldiers from 6th Maine Infantry on Parade after Fredricksburg by Mathew Brady

Background

Many historians call the Civil War the central event in U.S. history. The formation of the Constitution corrected the autonomy of individual states that the Articles of Confederation did not harness. Still, the young country struggled for 75 years to find a graceful balance between the power of the federal government and the several states. The rights of states and the issue of slavery propelled the country into civil war. Today, America defines itself from that point forward, as it still seeks a more perfect union and equality for all its citizens.

The sociology of the American Civil War can be viewed through a medium that was coming of age in the middle of the 19th century: photography. The National Archives and Records Administration makes available on-line over 6, 000 digitized images from the Civil War. Mathew Brady and his associates, most notably Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, and Timothy O'Sullivan, photographed many battlefields, camps, towns, and people touched by the war. Their images depict the multiple aspects of the war except one crucial element: battle. Photographs show camp life, routines, war preparations, the moments just prior to battle, and the aftermath of battle. The primitive technology of photography required that subjects be still at the moment the camera's shutter snapped. Battle scenes are, therefore, missing from the record of history of this era. The study of war journals and artifacts has developed a network of people, particularly located on the East Coast, who perform Civil War re-enactments. Recently, these groups have helped American filmmakers portray the war in realistic terms in movies like Gettysburg and Glory and in other documentaries on key Civil War battles. Thus, the more modern technology of cinematography fills the gap left by photography in recording the battles.

Other Resources

The Library of Congress has over 1, 000 photographs of the Civil War in its American Memory collection. It includes a search engine

McPherson, James. For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. (McPherson read over 1, 000 letters and 200 diaries of Confederate and Union soldiers to come up with his answers to the book's title question.)

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. (This is McPherson's Pulitzer prize-winning history of the Civil War.)

Source: www.archives.gov
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