By Brendan Wolfe
The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam arrived September 17, and the photograph to the left has become an iconic marker of that day. It was taken not by Mathew Brady, as is sometimes supposed, but a Brady associate named Alexander Gardner. With help from his assistant, John F. Gibson, the Scottish photographer composed ninety-five glass negatives in the days following that horrifically bloody battle.
They were the first photos ever taken of American war dead. The story of Gardner and Gibson, their struggle with Brady to receive full credit for their work, and the effect these images had on the American public is told in William A. Frassanito’s Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. Published thirty-four years ago, the book has been on my shelf ever since I was a gun-toting Civil War re-enactor, back in high school. Its images nudged me toward the realization that the bloodless business of re-enacting is absurd. Imagine the impact the photographs had, displayed in Brady’s New York City gallery just one month after Antietam, a battle in which more than 26,000 men were killed or wounded. A reporter covered the exhibit for the New York Times (Oct. 20, 1862), and it is clear that the mangled bodies and bloated corpses had unsettled him. “We see the list [of war dead] in the morning paper at breakfast,” he wrote, “but dismiss its recollection with coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type.” Now imagine “if the newspaper carrier left the names on the battle-field and the bodies at our doors instead.”
The reporter’s article, writes Frassanito, “is one of the most pensive commentaries ever written concerning a series of war photographs.” To read it is to wonder if such an exhibit would find a home in today’s America during wartime. The dead in Gardner’s exposures are mostly Confederates, and for that reason, it was less likely a woman in New York City “should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies.” We can more easily distance ourselves from the enemy.
On the other hand, all the dead at Antietam were Americans. Whether you were from New York or Virginia, it would have taken real courage to look into those faces, to cut through the layer of politeness that covered all social transactions then, and ask the obvious questions: Do I understand the cost? Is it worth it?
Today the trappings of our culture are much more violent; our cameras, certainly, are much more numerous. Yet confronting our dead seems harder somehow. Is it that Gardner and Gibson’s photographs would no longer seem so shocking? Or are we less willing to be so honest with ourselves?
For more about the Battle of Antietam, see EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Maryland_Campaign.