Rememberings of the American Civil War

The American Civil War started in 1861 when eleven Southern slave states declared their secession from the United States of America and formed a Confederation.

Before the war, the North and South differed a lot on various economic issues, in particular on the economic outcomes of slavery. The Northern states were indeed much more industrialized than the Southern ones, and therefore claimed for economic expansion – which required a high level of available workforce. On the other hand, the South was mainly rural and used slavery as an inexpensive way to secure traditional plantations which were labor intensive. So basically, although many people refer to the Civil War as an ideological battle between pro and anti slavery activists, the heart of the matter was mainly economic. Slavery was indeed a significant obstacle for the Northern industrial states to get a cheap workforce while the South had it for free!

Besides, political opinions collided on the role of federalism: the North was in favor of the federal government to ensure the survival of the Union, while the South wanted to keep its sovereignty within the new nation.

The election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 initiated the Secession process: South Carolina immediatly broke off from the Union and formed its own country, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Confederate States of America, led by Jefferson Davies, were officially formed in February 1861.

This article is not meant to be a recap or an analysis of the Civil War. What interests me here is that it is the first modern war to be photographed, as well as the most covered conflict of the 19th century. Considering the state of photography back then, it was only possible to capture still objects, which is why most of the pictures show dead bodies and devastated buildings.

The most famous photographers of this period were:

Mathew Brady, the father of photojournalism who even recorded commentaries related to his pictures.

“Civil War Battlefield” – Mathew Brady (1862)

Alexander Gardner, officially hired by the Union Army.

“Bodies on the Battlefield at Antietam” – Alexander Gardner (1862)

“A Lone Grave on the Battlefield of Antietam” – Alexander Gardner (1862)

Timothy O’Sullivan, who produced the most well-known photo of the war (see below).

“The Harvest of Death” – Timothy O’Sullivan (1863)

Between 1861 and 1865, over 600,000 soldiers from both sides were killed on the battlefield or by disease. War photographs are never pleasant to look at but testify on the atrocities of what men can do to each other as well as how war is a vector of economic and social changing (whether good or bad). Here are a few shots that I find interesting:

“Cold Harbor, Va. Collecting bones of soldiers killed in the battle” – John Reekie (1864)

“Hanging a Deserter” – Unknown (1864)

“Ruins of Houses in Fredericksburg” – Unknown (1862)

“A Dead Confederate soldier in the Slaughter Pen” – Unknown (1863)

Dead horses

4th United States Colored Infantry

Black Drummer Boy

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. However, no major exhibition has been planned in the U.S., which is kind of surprising since it led to the abolition of slavery in the whole country. The photograph, painting and writing resources are immense, so there is no real justification in underrepresenting or minimizing such an event. Although we may now be accustomed to all sorts of atrocious war images conveyed by the media from all around the globe, let’s just remember that the American Civil War gave birth to photojournalism. At the time, people faced these representations for the very first time, and the psychological as well as artistic impact on the public was huge.

Up to now, the U.S. Civil War is still a wound that has not completely healed. A lot of political, economic and racial incidents happened in the aftermath of the war, and although all states are now united under the same banner and things have progressed for the best, there’s still a significant cleavage between the Northern and the Southern states. But above all, this fratricidal conflict does not represent a “heroic” war, which may be the reason why art institutions seem reluctant to commemorate it and reopen old wounds. But still, this dark time should be taught and remembered, and clearly constitutes a very good basis to discuss some persistant and universal hot topics.