There’s a reason you can readily conjure a composite image, in your mind’s eye, of a Civil War soldier. He’s young, probably, with a bit of facial hair, a rifle slung over his shoulder, his gentlemanly uniform buttoned up, his stare hinting at pride or fear, his eyes somewhat glazed over. There’s a reason you can conjure, too, his fields of action, if not also the real action thereupon. There’s a reason American history textbooks begin to have a different aspect when chronicling this watershed period in our nation’s past. The reason for all of the above: photography had arrived. Newly intimate glimpses of war’s trappings and ghosts could now be left behind.
Installed off to the periphery of rooms brimming with sculptural reminders of warfare’s deep footprint in the relics and histories of antiquity, Photography and the American Civil War (through September 2) is intense and extensive, a miniature blockbuster of sorts whose epic sweep is nearly Homeric in scope. Gathering sundry forms of photographic portraits and landscapes, as well as a wealth of surprisingly miscellaneous objects, the exhibition is sobering, wrenching and enlightening. Lincoln is everywhere, as you might have guessed, in images and in quotes, and the point of view is all but unwaveringly skewed in favor of the Union—justifiably enough, for various reasons, not least because the photographer who set much of this documentation in motion, Matthew Brady, had his biases. Thus alongside simulations aplenty of your mind’s eye’s soldier, you’ll find portraits of Lincoln hatless or beardless, on electoral pins and game boards, even collaged amusingly into female attire. And you’ll find the frozen gazes of a great many Union generals and scrappy battalions. Yet you’ll also find lockets, stereoscopes, portable mini-prints, and photos of anonymous photographers with apparatuses set up in big tents. You’ll find the heroic and the heroically maimed; series of horizon-lighted silhouettes; glimpses of civic ruins reminiscent of those of antecedent civilizations; various and abundant manner of documented death and memorialized dead. Among all such items, though, tune in at least occasionally to the narrative details. Doing so will acquaint you, for instance, with little Sergeant John Lincoln Clem, the 12-year-old drummer boy of Chickamauga. You’ll not soon forget him and his rank-earning tale.
Death and destruction sundered and sutured our nation, but you knew that. Early photographic images of all sorts are eerily timeless, but you knew that. Corpses and ruins sit awfully still for long exposures, but you knew that. So go see this exhibition to deepen your mental imprint of all such knowledge. And to add a little drummer boy, and manifold then-somes, to your mind’s-eye’s resident likenesses.