Category Archives: Civil War

Civil War Photography…Worth the Read

Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017). By Nicholas Pistor

Photography was a relatively new medium in the 1860s, and the Civil War was the first war photographed in any significant way. Nicholas Pistor’s new volume traces how photographers approached and chronicled the war for posterity from its earliest moments to its final days. Readers with a fluency in Civil War history might find the brief sketch of the issues that divided the nation and the military events as they unfolded a little thin. Pistor provides a cursory narrative, and as such there is nothing resembling war analysis. The author is more concerned with infusing another narrative against the backdrop of the war.

In this effort, Pistor offers a compelling story: one that includes robust competition and what we might consider a Civil War era manifestation of personal branding. Photographer Matthew Brady, as Pistor notes, brought the war to peoples’ doorsteps in a way previously unimagined, and for this he should rightfully assume his place among some of the great media innovators. But Pistor also notes that Brady was not always responsible for the images that bore his trademark name, and that others on his team were often responsible for some of the most iconic images.

But in early photography, name meant a great deal, and Brady’s fame as a national figure delivered. His name today is nearly synonymous with Civil War era photography. Still, others did well with the medium. Former Brady underling Alexander Gardner also made a name for himself. What’s more, he may have had a better business sense – perhaps better negotiating skills than his former supervisor, and thus found himself as the “official” government photographer by the end of the war – a title that would position him among the more noteworthy participants in one of the era’s most macabre culminating moments.

Pistor excels at telling the story of war photography in its infancy, and those with an interest in the subject will find much to offer. What is confusing is the title. The play on words – Shooting Lincoln –  does not really work, simply because this is not a story about photographing Lincoln, who would of course eventually be “shot” and killed, as a “story of the century.” Rather, it is an overview of Civil War photography and a hurried look at the war narrative, which does eventually weave its way to a very interesting story of how Alexander Gardner photographed the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The subtitle of the book is equally misleading. There does not seem to be a “race” here…as in a competition, because as Pistor states, it was Alexander Gardner (not the more well-known Brady) who had the “monopoly” on government photography work.

Pistor suggests in a brief coda that all film makers owe a debt to Gardner for his near live action series of photographs graphically showing the moments leading to the conspirators’ hanging, their final seconds on the scaffold, and the eerie swaying of the dead at the end of the hangman’s ropes. One might agree that Gardner should receive credit for creating a technique for capturing the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators that foreshadowed motion pictures. Pistor’s claims are fair – let the readers be the judge.

Peace,

Keith

Hardtack 2017

One of the primary objectives in my Civil War class is to have the students understand and experience some of the things a typical soldier in the ranks might have experienced during the war. Of course, the kids do not get ticks or lice (thankfully), nor do they contract dysentery (also thankfully), further…no one is shooting at them (I am especially pleased about this one).

But there are a few things we can recreate. For example, I recently tasked them with a research project where the students read a number of soldiers’ letters and journals. From this point they assumed the identity of a soldier (Union or Confederate) and wrote a letter home.  The objective was not only to recreate an authentic look and feel but more importantly, voice the spirit of the times. You can check out the results HERE.

Last week I took a break from the more rigorous classroom work  – we formed ranks and marched to the school kitchen where we made…and then subsequently ate the Civil War delicacy: hardtack. To get them in the mood, I had them read an excerpt from John Billings’s 1887 Hardtack and Coffee – you can read the excerpt yourself HERE. I’ve included a recipe with the document. Trust me, it’s not very complicated.

So, we made it…we ate it…and some kids asked for seconds. Go figure.

As you all most surely know, this stuff – the standard Union soldier ration – was as hard as a rock. So, many would fry up some delightful (perhaps rancid) pork fat to help soften the concrete-hard cracker. Now, we didn’t do that. Those of you who know me will know why and those of you who do not – well…suffice it to say…that would not fly at my school. Instead, we soaked the hardtack in coffee, which is also a perfectly legit recreation of what an actual soldier might have done to ease the blow to his molars.

At any rate – teachers, take a break from the hard stuff (see what I did there) and put together this very hands-on project. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of it and your students will have a nice snack…who knows, they might even learn something 🙂

With compliments,

Keith

The Commercial Landscape at Gettysburg

The very first time I visited Gettysburg, with my UCLA undergraduate class…way back in 2001, I was particularly struck by the commercialism of the battle. Everything, or nearly so, is geared to selling that fight. I suppose I understand. After all, the town itself is nearly completely surrounded by a national park, and thus cannot expand into other areas of the marketplace. Its main attraction of course, is tourism, and businesses have responded accordingly.

This academic year, I am taking my own class to Gettysburg. As part of the experience, we are going to spend some time examining the commercial landscape. A few questions I expect them to tackle: at what point (if any) does tourism trivialize the struggles of those who  fought at and lived in Gettysburg in 1863? If you looked only at the commercial landscape, would you understand any of the issues that had been at stake during the war? Similarly, could you tell who won the battle by looking at the commercial landscape? When visiting the park visitor center, what are the dividing lines between consumer culture and history?

That should certainly keep them busy for a few hours – I am open to your suggestions as well.

With compliments,

Keith

Soldiers’ Letters in the Classroom

I have had my Civil War class write op-eds on 1860 presidential candidates, I have had them debate and vote on Virginia’s secession in the wake of Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops (secession carried), next week we are making (and eating) hardtack, in the near future we are going to review the Gettysburg Address from all perspectives on the political spectrum, and – just for fun, we are going to put Jefferson Davis on trial for treason. But of all of the things I have developed in an effort to get the kids engaged, my favorite by far is the soldiers’ letters assignment.

It’s simple really, I have the kids read a handful of typical soldier letters that I assemble for them, then I have them go to the virtual archives to research on their own. I give them some patriotic stationary (both Yankee and Rebel) and task them to write a letter home…paying particular care to strive for an authentic voice.

The results are remarkable, without fail. Now I owe much of this to the unbridled enthusiasm of my exceptional students. My kids tend to be ambitious and go above and beyond the call of duty, as it were. But this last group of letters really hit the target. They captured the soldiers’ sentiments and recreated an authentic look with cursive, stains, misspellings, bad grammar, tears and holes.

Teachers – give this a shot. I think you will find that the kids learn quite a bit about soldiers’ thoughts on loneliness and missing their families, camp life, terrible food, weather, fear of being killed, the enemy, ideology, and any number of other things a typical soldier would have recorded in a letter home. If you want, download this stationary to help recreate the look:

Union Stationary

Confederate Stationary

And you can find resources from which to draw HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

If you have your kids do this project, I would love to here about the results. Below are a few examples from my class:

With compliments,

Keith

Six Days in September: A Novel of Lee’s Army in Maryland, 1862 by Alexander B. Rossino

Greetings all – I am about to take something of a different tack with this blog – and get back to my roots: historiography, popular history, memory, and teaching. As much as I love calling out the asinine in the world…I think there is enough of that out there to go around. So there you go.

Let’s kick things off with a review of a first-rate book: Six Days in September….

Alexander B. Rossino’s Six Days in September: A Novel of Lee’s Army in Maryland, 1862, paints a vivid picture of Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, which culminated in the bloody Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Rossino captures the spirit of the Army of Northern Virginia, simultaneously depicting the events as they unfolded for the upper echelon of command, a number staff and field grade officers, and a handful enlisted soldiers as they maneuvered from South Mountain to Sharpsburg to slug it out (spoiler alert: unsuccessfully) with George B. McClellan and the Union Army of the Potomac.

I found the layered narrative to be especially engaging. The narrative style reminds the reader to take both a wide and narrow view of the military landscape. Rossino deftly lays out the grand strategy with Lee and his lieutenants and then refocuses his attention on the more personal exploits and adventures (as it were) of a Maryland Confederate officer and a group of Alabama enlisted men.

Alexander B. Rossino

I was particularly satisfied with how Rossino chose to deal with the broader Civil War issue of slavery. Waters such as these are difficult to tread in a fictional recreation of a historic event. To simply sidestep the institution’s role in the cause of the war seems imprudent. And so an author might be tempted to resolve this problem by following one of two general paths: he or she might apologetically absolve the actors as people of their times or pander to a 21st century audience with cliché modernist critiques of the institution. By my estimation, both narrative courses are equally unwise. And thus I was relieved that Rossino chose neither. Instead, he is forthright about the issues that moved men to fight, including the Confederate preservation of slavery from a 19th century perspective.

Readers versed in Army of Northern Virginia lore will certainly be familiar with the strategic disputes between Lee and his most trusted lieutenant, James Longstreet. Rossino explores the tensions between these two, as well as others among the Confederate high command, in a way that foreshadows the more famous strategic disagreement between Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg the following year. In ways similar to Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the 1863 Gettysburg campaign, Six Days in September leaves the reader questioning Lee’s wisdom in Maryland that preceding autumn, challenging the notion of the peerless Lee. In Six Days, Lee is not without virtue, but he is clearly flawed as any mortal man tasked with such great responsibility might be.

After reading this thought-provoking, well-researched, and beautifully written novel, my only hope is that Rossino adds an additional layer (or layers) to the story by once again taking on the battle from the perspective of Lee’s adversaries: George B. McClellan and the men of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan makes only a peripheral appearance in Six Days, and only through a Confederate understanding of his cautiousness. I would personally love to see how Rossino would have McClellan act (or fail to act) when he finds himself in possession of the Lee’s famous “lost orders.” I would be equally intrigued by Rossino’s take on McClellan’s relationship with his commander in chief. These, of course, are hopes for the future. For now I am quite satisfied with Rossino’s novel – and I recommend it highly.

Buy the book HERE – and stay tuned, I’ll be posting a lot more frequently in the days to come.

With compliments,

Keith