[This article, which was published on 21 April 2004, originally appeared here.]
BOOKS: ‘The past isn’t dead …’:
George Sullivan’s In The Wake of Battle: The Civil War Images of Mathew Brady
Old times there are not forgotten
When I was growing up in the American South in the 1970s, our Civil War never seemed very far away. When people said ‘the war’, there was a good chance that they meant something a good deal closer to home than the Second World War or even, heaven help us, Vietnam. When a friend explained his refusal to vote Republican, no matter how much he secretly admired their fiscal conservatism, he only needed to drawl at me ‘Those were the folks who burned us out in ‘65’ — and we all knew what it meant, even those of us who were Southerners in part by conversion, whose great-grandparents had in fact marched with General Sherman and who knew the words to ‘As We Were Marching Through Georgia’. Those were the days before anyone stopped to question ‘the Old Flag’ flying proudly over the state capitol building on Confederate Veterans’ Day, or the propriety of joining the Daughters of the Confederacy. We sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ every day during morning prayers, whereas ‘Dixie’ was saved for a treat — and invariably got the full whooping, cheering, rebel-yell conclusion from everyone, black and white. (My school, in anyone is wondering, was an Episcopal parochial school that had broken away from the diocese over the whole issue of segregation — Bishop Ravenscroft’s was socially smarter and whites-only, whereas St Timothy’s was not only intellectually smarter but also, as it happened, so fully integrated as to include not only Afro-Americans but a healthy smattering of Vietnamese, Iranian and even Yankee pupils.)
But then the war wasn’t just there in our minds — it was there in the land around us, too. Driving up through central North Carolina towards the Virginia border, you could still just about make out the remnants of earthworks — not preserved as part of some heritage site, but blanketed with fallen leaves and colonised with quick-growing pine and slower-growing pin-oaks — scars that had ceased to shock but were still a long way off healing. Before the economic boom of the 1980s, my home town, Raleigh, still retained the geography of the angry little red-clay state capital which had fallen to Sherman’s men in the bad last days of the war — the old clapboard houses with their wide verandas and run-down gardens full of debased hydrangeas and rampant wild sweet-potato, the creeks and the mills, the bruised sense of forcible injustice and incandescent pride in defeat which — in those days at least — still hung in the humid air, penetrating in through your skin if you stayed there long enough.
And so if you did stay there long enough, the war became part of who you were, so thoroughly that even if you later travelled very far indeed, and even if you own family had fought with bravery and conviction on both sides of the conflict, you’d never entirely get rid of it — could never entirely lay down arms and admit it was over. It would shape your understanding of every other war, every other peace. It would shape your understanding of ‘history’, discharging upon you that unwanted birthright of romanticism, cynicism and dandyish pessimism, all at once. And as the years passed, its proximity would never recede. Nightmarishly, distance would only bring it closer. Recollections of its nasty modernity, its industrial-scale carnage and its sub-human barbarism would get tangled up with present-day cable news broadcasts, with live streaming internet feeds. And at the centre there would be, ineluctably, the worst suspicion one can entertain about full-scale war — the suspicion that your implacable and murderous enemy might not only be quite normal, decent and even likeable, but that he might also have a generous measure of right on his side. America has, to this day, never experienced a more thoroughly defining event than its Civil War. It has also never seen a sadder one. Perhaps, God willing, it never will.
Winners and losers
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord …” So begins that great Union rallying-cry, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. Glory has rarely worn a more awful face. Out of a population of just over 31 million, the United States lost 620,000 men — two percent of its entire population, male and female, adult and child, enslaved and free. In some states, such as Kentucky, the adult male population was literally decimated. The numbers of maimed and debilitated survivors can only be guessed. The bloodshed ploughed a long furrow through the demography of the latter nineteenth century, affecting everything from the size of the labour market to the number of lonesome old spinsters. The war left cities in ruins, crops destroyed in the fields, railways ripped up, warehouses full of produce burned to the ground, and America’s political constitution scarred and shelled-shocked. Unsurprisingly, the South, in its unwanted role as theatre of war, was hardest hit. In 1860 it had boasted 30 per cent of America’s wealth; by 1870 the figure had collapsed to something like 12 per cent. Meanwhile the big federal state created as an emergency war-time measure never quite shrunk back to its original size, retaining its claims to federal income tax, a high-handed way with the judiciary and the right to insinuate itself into what had, previously, been the business of individual states, their very diverse polities and their decent, law-abiding individuals.
Saddest of all, though, by any standard, was the failure of the war to deliver the one benefit some of its more high-minded foreign observers might have hoped for it. The righting of the vast historical and moral atrocity that was slavery was, clearly, a moment that could hardly have come too soon for America and for all Americans. Yet ultimately, the enforced and sudden abolition of slavery ended up playing itself out amid the ongoing opportunism, exploitation, racism, grinding poverty and needlessly curtailed opportunities that underpinned both Federal Reconstruction and its long Jim Crow legacy — a legacy that had only begun to dissipate, all too slowly, during my 1970s childhood. Here I remember not only the tens of thousands of black American servicemen who were sent to thoughtless, pointless deaths in Vietnam, but — more immediately, because it embarrassed me more directly — an immaculately well-mannered, church-going, straight-A school-friend of mine who was once stopped by police on his way back from my house to his, simply for the crime of being a black youth with the nerve to walk through an all-white neighbourhood. The date was, I think, about 1983. So much for ‘freedom’! In a war where, ultimately, industrial might made right, emancipated black Americans were unlikely to emerge as winners, at least in what might generously be called the short term.
But then it’s sometimes hard to imagine who did emerge as a winner from this worst of American wars. Was it my great-great uncle — the son of a family of Ohio slave-owners — whose campaign diary records the arrival of letters from home, attacks of dysentary caused by eating green corn, small sums earned from engraving his comrades’ rifle-stocks and scabbards (a shoemaker by trade, he was also a talented amateur draughtman), a ‘skirmish’ at a place called Pittsburgh Landing (later better known as the Battle of Shiloh: 23,746 men killed, wounded or missing) — but stops short around 25 November 1863, at Missionary Ridge in Tennessee, when a bullet passed in through his lower jaw and exited through his temple? He had volunteered to fight for the Union against what he called the ‘Sesesh’ — secessionists. If he had any feelings one way or the other about slavery, he never bothered to entrust them to his diary, and one is left with the suspicion that, like so many farmers before and since, he enlisted less out of conviction than out of a lively wish to leave his own little corner of Ohio and see the wider world. Or might my great-great grandfather, his baby brother, have somehow emerged as a winner from the war? A short fellow, even by the standards of his time, his first attempt to enlist was rejected when neighbours pointed out that he was a good deal younger than the requisite 16 years. The next time he tried, the commissions board had stopped being so picky. He followed his brother to war, lay out under the same cold sky on Missionary Ridge with a serious wound of his own, and was invalided out of active service twice — only to return each time, to the admiring bemusement of his men. In his old age, he was an active member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, a veterans’ group, and at his funeral his coffin was draped with his regimental flag. And following on in this military tradition, his son-in-law, grandson-in-law and great grandson all served as officers in the US armed forces — his son-in-law in Cuba and the Philippines, his grandson-in-law in the Philippines, Siberia and Panama, his great grandson in secret and illegal missions over Cambodia as well as in much more congenial postings in Germany and at Greenham Common. Perhaps they were winners. Perhaps not. Perhaps it is simply too soon to tell.
Imagining the unimaginable
Readers who lack sympathy with the sort of bastard-Nietzschean claim that all writing is ultimately a form of autobiography may be wondering where all this is heading, or why it is here at all. The answer is, if not entirely simple, at least direct. These musing are just a long way of asserting that my responses to a marvellous little book recently published by Prestel, George Sullivan’s In The Wake of Battle: The Civil War Images of Mathew Brady were never going to be anything other than highly personal and subjective, because the account of war provided by Brady is so rich as to make any other response almost impossible, at least for someone of my age, background and disposition.
In fairness, In The Wake of Battle is a book for everyone, not just for Southern-born autobiographers. Not least, Mathew Brady was, without question, one of the pioneers of photo-journalism. Although the Crimean War was the first war to be documented photographically with any seriousness, it is fair to say the American Civil War was both the first in which photography influenced public opinion while conflict was still underway, and the first in which photographic records have subsequently become more important in shaping mental images of the war than, say, paintings or drawings. The role of photography is, then, one of those weirdly precocious traits according the Civil War its distance from the wars of the eighteenth century and its proximity to the wars of the twentieth century. It is part of what makes the Civil War seem modern. And of course it is impossible to separate the name ‘Mathew Brady’ from the whole idea of Civil War photography. The strange contingencies by which this came to be the case are ably yet economically addressed in the essays prefacing In The Wake of Battle, and deserve to be more widely known.
The near-blind visionary
Born in upstate New York in the mid 1820s, the son of recent Irish immigrants (Catholics, I guess, although in a rare solecism Sullivan seems to assume this rather than spelling it out) Brady became a department store clerk in New York City, at a cutting-edge commercial outfit that was one of the first to label goods with prices rather than expecting customers to haggle for them and also one of the first to hold well-publicised sales. Here he showed that he had a remarkable flair not just for buying and selling, but for the whole important business of building a high-status, high-credibility brand. At the same time he was studying with Samuel F. B. Morse, a society portrait painter who had spent time in Paris and learned the art of mechanical image-making in the studio of Louis Daguerre. But Brady did not see a way to make money from this infant novelty art-form, and did not give up the day job. Instead, he applied himself to creating a business that sold cases — intricate jewelry-cases, specialised cases for scientific instruments — and in time, the fine embossed cases in which daguerrotypes were kept. It was only in 1844 that he finally decided to open a studio of his own, right across from P. T. Barnum’s American Museum and near the world’s first 600-room hotel, Astor House. It was an area where consumerism met luxury and the frank democracy of the commercial imperative met the petty snobberies of a burgeoning nouveau riche. Brady was in business.
But still there were twists and turns. For one thing, it turns out that Mathew Brady wasn’t actually much of a photographer. His eyesight was too bad, meaning that at best, he could only take studio pictures, and those only with the help of an assistant. He was, however, in the right place at the right time, with the right recognition of what this novelty media could, with time and with the right conviction behind it, ultimately deliver. And frankly, his talents would have been wasted behind the camera. Instead, he was there to greet customers who climbed the long stairs up to his studio — to charm and flatter them, to help them select poses and props — and, later, to offer free portraits to passing celebrities in order to enhance the prestige of his business. Meanwhile, the photographic images were coloured, mounted and framed by a small legion of hired specialists. Copies were made of celebrity photos, which were then sold to the public. Sometimes, Brady simply bought other photographers’ celebrity photos and sold those instead. Tourists — thousands of them — flocked to the ever-growing studio to catch a glimpse, however virtual, of the faces of the great and the notorious. At the same time, Brady courted the print media, shrewdly realising that a planted ‘puff’ was worth a dozen lines of paid advertising. Brady’s collection came to include photographs of presidents and statesmen, soldiers and poets. Even when he failed to make money on particular schemes, his fame continued to grow. A decade before the Civil War began, his was already the most famous photographic ‘brand’ in America.
Since Brady’s attitude towards photography could hardly fail to influence the images of warfare that would later go out under his name, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider how that attitude developed. And to do that, the first step is to strip away our own unconscious attitudes towards photography. We are, I suppose, currently living through the death-throes of the analogue image and its claims — so carefully filleted by Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and others — to objective veracity, and growing to love the infinite mutability of the non-aligned, relativistic, contingent pixel. Our world is saturated with real-looking images but only the very young or the very naive would today make any claim for their reality, as opposed to their ability to conjure up some sort of ironic allusion to an increasingly slippery model of experience. Images can be beautiful, ugly, accidental, slipshod, studied, full of retro-nostalgia or well-polished assertions of their own earnestness. What they cannot be is fresh, startling, serious or (in terms of sheer rarity) as valuable as they were one hundred and fifty years ago. To imagine, today, a world without cinema, without television, without photos in newspapers or magazines or on the internet, without photographic book illustrations or billboards, without recourse to photographic-type knowledge when it comes to imagining Princess Diana or David Beckham, the attacks on the World Trade Centre or how the Lord of the Rings saga really looked — it is to imagine a world in which the whole nature of imagination is radically transformed, in which things themselves seem more familiar than images of things. It is, in other words, all but unrecoverable.
Mathew Brady helped to create this world of images that now envelopes us. In part, he did so by believing in photography’s high seriousness. Although he could have made a fortune out of cheap-and-cheerful cartes de visite — the tiny, affordable personal photographs which for many in America and elsewhere provide the earliest face-to-face glimpse of an ancestor, so accessible were they and so widely did they penetrate throughout Western society — Brady scorned these demotic little products, farming the rights for them out to lesser souls, preferring instead large-format, formal, hand-tinted, expensively-framed portraits that could hold their own against anything created with the time-hallowed media of primed canvas and oils. For most of us, photography (even in its vanishing analogue form, fading now before our eyes like the holiday Polaroid snaps of my youth) has come to be the quintessence of point-and-shoot disposability, existing to document drunken hen-nights, cute things done by household pets and blurry performances by garishly-lit indie bands. For Brady, though, photography was a sort of stern, recording angel. It was there to suggest how we might be reflected in the eye of the Almighty on the day of Judgement. It was a record, a testament, a thing of awful and lapidary substance. It mattered enormously. And however far we have drifted today from that governing sensibility, we could never — as it were — have got where we are without Brady. Brady’s photography was about truth, not entertainment. So when war came to America — that grindingly awful war in which both sides saw the hand of God at work in every event — the imperative to record was, for Brady, more than a mere matter of commercial opportunity or canny reputation-building. It was a matter of historical, perhaps even moral responsibility. And the photographs, in their own way, tend to reflect this, even if virtually none of them were taken by Brady himself. To understand why this is the case is to get very close to the paradox at the heart of war photography.
What paradox? Here it is. While photo-journalism may seem to be about images, actually it is really about captions, actual or implied — about the context in which the images are understood. They don’t tell you something new about war — they express in different terms assumptions that the viewer brings with him to the photograph. They fit into a bigger story, which may be something to do with propaganda, or the role of the photojournalist, or perhaps even with an attitude towards war itself. And this was what Brady brought to the photographs which are now associated with his name, even those he simply bought on credit from ambitious freelancers. The result is a cumulative account of the Civil War which emphasises not so much us-versus-them as a kind of shocked anguish at what war means in practice. It is not the civilian-centred account of war that would come out of Spain in the late 1930s and infect all war photography thereafter; it is governed by an aesthetic that recognises and admires compositional aptness while invariably turning it to more important ends. It embraces incidental detail as a trope for veracity, while keeping its eye trained firmly on the most human aspects of experience. For such a young medium, it grows up awfully fast in the face of catastrophe. Because it does not court shock as an end in itself, the shocks it delivers are both unexpected and unavoidable.
It is worth remembering, of course, amidst all this grand talk, what the photographs were meant to do. Most of the photographs that Brady acquired or commissioned were intended, at least potentially, to be used in printed publications, where they would be reproduced in wood-block print and framed with suitable commentary. (The more direct mass reproduction of photographs would have to wait for the popularisation of half-tone printing technology in the 1880s.) The excellent relations Brady had formed with the print media before the war, especially with the pioneering Harper’s Weekly, ensured that once war was underway, his was the recognised ‘brand’ with which all newspapers and magazines wished to associate themselves. So he sent photographers into the field, and bought up freelancers’ photographs — all appearing under the ‘Brady’ name, rather as ‘Magnum’ would, for instance, become a standard of excellent a century afterwards. As the New York Times wrote in the wake of the carnage of Antietam (about 7,600 killed):
From the outset of the war, Mr Brady has been in the field. His cameras have followed the cannon from the Potomac to York, from the Chesapeake to the Alleghenies. Scarcely has been the camp of volunteers pitched by the more or less muddy waters of the Chickahominy ere the patriotic Polyphemus plants himself within range, flings away his green curtain, and opens his one-eyed battery upon the scene. Like the sunlight, which he presses into his service and ours, this silent Asmodeus penetrates into every secret, unveils every mystery.
As this richly suggestive passage implies, Brady’s brand was a highly personalised one. In a spookily proleptic gesture, and doubtless to encourage ‘puff’ copy of this sort, Brady made sure that there were plenty of photographs depicting him standing there on the field of battle, apparently close to the action — at Bull Run, at Harper’s Ferry at Petersburg and amidst the ruins of Richmond. Do we glimpse here the ancestor, perhaps, of those super-star war photographers like Robert Capa who would later come to make themselves the hero of any world-historical narrative they depicted? Possibly. It is certainly the case that an image becomes more interesting when it is seen to emerge from a coherent individual consciousness, just as a ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ yarn seems both more intimate and more genuine than a blandly impersonal wire-service feed. This is part of the quality that Brady brought to ‘his’ photography as the war progressed, and part of the reason why his photographs have become such a integral feature of what the world now knows about the American Civil War. His name is known to millions, while the names of his actual photographers, where known, are of interest to specialists only. His was the governing aesthetic, the organising intellect. It was, and in some sense remains, his war.
Unfortunately, the war went on rather longer than Brady — and indeed most practical, sensible, optimistic Yankees — expected that it would. Sending cameras into the field (back in the days when cameras required wagons, costly chemicals and highly-trained specialist operators) was an expensive pursuit, while the returns were, in financial terms at least, not all that Brady might have wished. In 1864, Brady filed for bankruptcy. How was he to recoup his position? Remarkably — and again, it was an act that gave some sense of Brady’s self-image — he attempted to sell his vast archives, first to the New York Historical Society and then to the Federal Government. Finally, in 1875 Congress passed a resolution in which the government exchanged about $27,500 for Brady’s negatives and for the full rights to their reproduction. As for Brady, he died in 1869, aged 72, following a street-car accident — widowed, lonely, in terrible pain from arthritis, alcoholic and desperately poor. This is not, really, the way the American dream is meant to work. It was a sad conclusion to a productive, in some ways visionary life.
Yet Brady’s legacy is still very much with us, to the extent that it is hard to envision the America of his age without reference to his work. In The Wake of Battle includes more than 400 of Brady’s images, some of which have never been published before. They are arranged by campaign and event, with a brief but fair and helpful commentary, notable for its attention to the practicalities of war photography in the 1860s. (Specialists will be pleased at the inclusion of full Library of Congress reference numbers.) And really, Prestel deserves a good deal of credit for bringing out this publication in the form that they have done. Presented in a modest, affordable format — with impressively good picture quality, too — this excellent book will prove to be a valuable resource for historians of warfare, Americana, photography and much else. But since Brady also had a very evident concern for the aesthetics of his images, alongside their documentary and exemplary character, In the Wake of Battle should also be of interest to artists and students of visual imagery. Finally, there will also be readers who, for reasons much more tangled and harder to explain, will simply find this little book amazingly moving — distressing, obviously, yet impossible to put down. Since so many of the Civil War’s battles were fought in the South, many of the images seem completely familiar — yet nightmarishly wrong, like the mangled face of a loved one after some sort of terrible accident. Yet the sugar-pines, the overgrown grass, the architecture, the light and the faces all look so normal! It is a very strange thing to see. It is also a very affecting thing to see, especially for someone who has long since moved away, so that a great distance — chronological as well as spatial — now separates him or her from things that once seemed so familiar. It makes war both real and personal. This is a pretty amazing achievement, then, for a small book filled with photographs. In The Wake of Battle may appear small, but there is a frighteningly expansive world of meaning, both mundane and mythic, enfolded within its chaste black-and-gunmetal covers.
The photography of the American Civil War looked nothing like the photography of the Crimean War. Revealingly, this had little or nothing to do with technical constraints, and everything to do with context. Roger Fenton’s early photos were, like Brady’s, all staged, but the story told through the staging was different. Fenton, having abandoned a notably unsuccessful career as a painter, was despatched to the Crimea for a reason — to create an impressive reposte to negative press reports about the war. His photographs speak eloquently of that purpose. His tableaux of soldiers relaxing in camp with their wives, cheery-looking Zouaves and Turks, ships resting at harbour at Balaclava, or even his carefully-choreographed ‘battle scenes’ now look intensely literary, even mannered — far too much like painted scenes to take seriously. Further, it is a vision of conflict sugar-coated with exoticism and distance. There are no skeletons, but lots of handsome uniforms — no outraged landscape or eviscerated terrain, but lots of ship-shape, well-groomed, smiling participants. Doubtless this told a sort of useful truth about war, but it is not a truth that has aged very well. Although at the time, British critics were almost unanimous in their complaints that British artists (unlike their French colleagues) had failed to rise to the challenge of depicting the conflict, it remains the case that most present-day accounts of the Crimean War use paintings, rather than photos, as illustrations — although in some cases, as with Augustus Egg’s The Council of War, the paintings are actually based on photographs. It was as if photography had yet to master the semiotic grammar necessary to convey anything as useful about war as a work like Thomas Jones Barker’s General Williams and his Staff leaving Kars (now in our National Army Museum) or the same artist’s Passage of the Alma, with its acrid haze of powder and jagged horizon.
But then the visual requirements of the American Civil War were very different from those of other conflicts. Unlike the Crimean War, the Civil War was fought exclusively on the home front. Even in the North, the sheer scale of mobilisation meant that few lives remained untouched, sometimes with brutal directness, by the conflict. And although for some notional Yankee hill-farmer somewhere in upstate New Hampshire, the elegant antebellum Classicism of the great houses and the ramshackle slave cabins of the Charlestown plantations may well have possessed a sort of malign exoticism, the distance, though great, was never quite that of East and West, us-versus-them, as it was in Crimea. The Civil War was a different sort of story, a different tragedy althogether. Their dead, in photographs, looked like our dead. Ultimately, their dead were our dead. Possibly this meant that in Civil War photography, since so much of the story was so familiar, simple images could be every bit as heart-rending as dramatic, set-piece dioramas.
Certainly, it is the former that number amongst the most arresting images included in In The Wake of Battle. Probably the the most famous Brady photographs — and rightly so — were the ones that appear the most completely basic and artless. These are his remarkable photographs of lifeless bodies — the fruitless and barren harvest of military victory. Of course, as is well known by now, there was nothing simple about these images. Brady’s photographers were pioneers in the infant science of re-ordering rigid limbs, closing eyes that had swollen open, swapping weapons or even uniforms to make a better point — to make a better image, the sort of image that would lodge in the viewer’s consciousness with the deadly accuracy of a sniper’s well-aimed bullet, and requiring just as much native skill and assiduous preparation.
Several such images are shown in In The Wake of Battle. In one photo from September 1862, a group of Confederate dead are shown laid out for burial in the autumn grass, their bodies making a sort of wavering saltaire, arms flung back, bellies exposed, trousers so often undone as if in one last desperate attempt to gauge through a haze of shock and blood the seriousness of a gut wound. As an image it is both formally perfect, as many of Brady’s images were, but also sickeningly sad. Another Antietam photo shows the Confederate dead lining an old split-rail fence along the road to Hagerstown. Here no one has been laid out properly and the effect is more one of disbelief. There seem to be too many bodies, more than one can really take in, all disordered and incoherent. A year later, Brady’s collection came to include photos of Federal dead at Gettysburg — bloated faces, open mouths, the weary pale grey stains in which monochrome photography describes the spraying of arterial blood. In yet another Gettysburg photo, a lone figure lies in the leaves, face upturned towards the shell-battered trees above him — an astounding quotation, conscious or otherwise, of Altdorfer’s great The Dead Landsknecht (1511-13), left to face death on his own in the face of uncaring nature — the ultimate metaphor, perhaps, for the anonymous, unmourned, inconsequential death that we all most fear.
And yet the odd thing, here, is really the equivalence of these images. The Gettysburg landsknecht — which flag was he fighting to raise? It hardly matters, any more than it does in the other images. Confederate or Federal? Yankee or Sesesh? Blue or grey? Brady’s photos were intended for mass publication during one of the most furious wars of the nineteenth century, yet there’s an absolute lack of factional malice in these pictures. It is, obviously enough, part of what has given them currency so long after many other images have been forgotten. Instead of taking sides, they seem to reach forward into a sort of twentieth century rhetoric that would rail against the waste of war, its pointless and boundless appetite for the young, the brave, the unlucky of all sides and none. Nor, for all the cosmetic touches, are these heroic images. Brady doesn’t make death pretty — he doesn’t even make it look noble. Seeing the light line of hairs along an exposed belly, the gaping pockets, the stained and wrinkled linen — these are the unforgettable details that render death visceral and desperate, rather than brave and heroic. The sheer youth of these boys is painful. So is their disorder. One wants, at the very least, to straighten out those limbs, to comb the sweat-encrusted hair, to make some sort of comforting sense out of those terrible, untidy, agonising heaps of humanity, but Brady excludes that possibility — he won’t let us go beyond the wronged body of a boy who might have been a school-friend, a brother, a long-ago lost love. I suspect at the time this may have been a unifying message, delivered with a terrible lack of compromise, about the basic integrity of a divided nation busy with the work of killing itself. Now, though, it comes across as more than that — universal and timeless. Unfortunately, no amount of familiarity takes the edge off these pictures. It is perfectly possible to look at them in 2004 and to feel tears welling up for young men and women — often from those same towns and villages, for the South still contributes more than its fair share of American soldiers — who are now dying half a world away in the sort of war their great-grandparents could hardly have imagined. The reading may be anachronistic but it is none the less powerful for that. Brady’s photos of the dead are, beyond doubt, to be set amongst the most powerful man-made images ever produced.
But of course there is a lot more to war than death. Brady saw that, too. He was interested, for instance, in making sure his viewers had a clear mental image of local landmarks to match with familiar names — hence the photos of bridges, harbours, major railway depots. He was as interested as anyone in cutting-edge weaponry and whacking great field-guns. Some of the ‘action’ photos — fugitive ex-slaves fording the Rappahanock, a Federal battery preparing for fire, an infantry company resting in the sun, the untidy mass of the shade-seeking wounded outside an improvised field-hospital — are almost unbelievably vivid. They propel us into the midst of scenes that must have formed an important part of the life of those strange times, with immediacy and real force. There are scenes of drill, an NCOs’ al fresco mess, engineers building a road, even cavalry crossing a ford, watched by some curious children. We see senior officers posing stiffly for the cameras, sometimes alongside visiting politicians. Lincoln is here, grave and lapidary as some remorseless figure of legend — as is Sherman, a little blurred above his handsome mount as if to signal the strange irresolution and nerviness that makes him, in some ways, despite all the destruction that followed in his wake, such an attractively human character. Fifteen years after the guns had fallen silent, his suddenly raised voice and anguished words would startle a class at the Michigan Military Academy:
I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.
It is easy, if perhaps anachronistic, to read this sort of sentiment into Brady’s images.
And then, of course, there was the destruction. Just as John Piper discovered an hitherto unknown gravity and authority when confronted with the ruins of a bombed-out London, Brady and his collaborators were able to make a terrible, bleak, resounding poetry out of what the force of Federal firepower (coupled with a tacit Confederate scorched-earth policy) had done to the fabric of the Old South. Whether depicting a single set-piece structure asserting a frail kind of defiance against the background of general devastation, or simply the Dresden-like blackened incoherence of a post-apocalyptic urban landscape, Brady’s photos once again measure out a distinctive course somewhere between pathos and triumphalism — a kind of shell-shocked wonder, really, in the face of man-made catastrophe. Again, sometimes the formal impact of these compositions is almost unnervingly attractive, as in one photo of a burnt-out industrial building in Richmond, 1865. (Well, it is one of the lessons of the tragedies of 11 September 2001 that appalling destruction and formal beauty exist in closer proximity than may seem entirely comfortable.) But his landscape photos can also go right for the heart. There is one rather modest little photo of the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond where the thing that sticks in the throat is the newness, the rawness of those graves — the improvised and provisional nature of the wooden markers, the still-rounded mounds of the unsettled burials. The message, once again, is not one of easy consolation, but it has aged all the better for that. War, he seems to say, is cruel — and civil war, because of what it does to the victors as well as the victims, is perhaps the cruellest of all.
The North, at the end of the war, would celebrate victory — but would quickly get on with forgetting as much as it could, and with letting growth heal the scratches and wounds. For the South, of course, it was harder. The South had lost more than just men and buildings and her agricultural basis and most of her economy — she had failed to defend the point of honour that her bravest sons had died to preserve. Her slaves might have been freed, at least on paper, but her freemen, black and white, were now subject to a rigid, ill-thought-out and in some cases nakedly punitive Reconstruction programme. While the South brooded on the complete collapse of her world, the North got on with the business of becoming a major industrial power — and of course quite a few Americans, from both the North and the South, set out to make a new world somewhere out to the West. Some haunting and magnificent memorials were thrown up here and there, but the Civil War produced virtually no memorable painting or drawing. The only exception to this, Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field (1865) derives its considerable power from a chaste unwillingness to mention the war at all. Later on, writers from both North and South would find in the war a metaphor or catalyst for whatever it was that they wanted to say, and film-makers would scratch tentatively at the accumulated layers of romanticism, resentment and self-righteousness. All of which is a long way of saying that, by the 1960s, the Civil War was not only the behemoth offspring of Lincoln and Davis and Breckinridge and Calhoun, but also the creature of Stephen Crane and Margaret Mitchell, Ambrose Bierce and William Faulkner, Bruce Catton and James McPherson, Shenandoah and The Littlest Rebel and Gone With The Wind. Today this picture has been further enriched not only by a wealth of insightful Afro-American narratives but by slyly revisionist accounts such as, in their various ways, the work of Jeff Hummel and Ang Lee’s unsettling Ride With The Devil. The National Parks Service tends the battlefields; the heritage industry adds its own incidental spin to the sites and artefacts that fall into its ambit; the media eggs on any potential scrapping over the flags, uniforms and memories of anther time. Nearly a century and a half after it ended, the Civil War is still mutating, evolving both in individual consciousnesses and within what is left of a national memory.
Don’t worry, it will rise again one of these days
What moral, then, to take away from this destructive, creative, pivotal war reflected in Mathew Brady’s images?
Obviously, some of our sharper, or at any rate more persistent readers will draw breath at the Actonite liberalism apparently lurking in that last sentence — probably, rightly so, too. Yet the Civil War isn’t just history any more, with or without any commas one might wish to invert in the vicinity of the preceding phrase. As I tried to make clear in the opening lines of this review, for those who grew up in its shadow it has long since become something more than narrative, more than a self-congratulatory game to be played amongst causes and consequences, more than what happened and what we can know about that. It has become the well-head that waters a million personal mythologies, the inflection without which ten million actions or even assumptions are all but unintelligible. And so of course there is a moral to be drawn from it. Yet the moral is, I think, by no means what most observers would assume. It is, I suppose, perhaps best expressed by paraphrasing a line of Faulkner’s, the common currency of which has conferred upon it a banality it by no means deserves. It is the notion that the South, or what is Southern, will not only endure — it will eventually, to the enjoyable consternation or maybe just disbelief of its many detractors, and very much according to its own standards, somehow, despite it all, prevail.
As the only part of America that has ever known immediate and personalised defeat, the South understands the stakes for which all worthwhile games are played. Though famously prone to feuds and affairs of honour, in truth it picks its fights — its real fights — more carefully than some might think. And although the great Southern vice is self-pity (no, neither over-fondness for drink nor excessively florid prose, though these clearly combine all too neatly with the above), it is more than balanced by the great Southern virtue of resilience. Southerners, or most of them anyway, benefit from a realisation, however subconscious, that it is possible to survive more or less anything if you put your mind to it, and furthermore, that to survive anything for long enough, no matter how demoralising or humiliating, amounts to a kind of triumph. This is, I suppose, why Americans assume both that Southerners have long memories, and that they are a bit lazy. But if you live in a world where a century-old conflict seems like yesterday, then where’s the rush?
Look away, Dixieland
The American South in which I grew up — the South of the 1970s — has more or less vanished now. In most ways, this is entirely a cause for celebration. While prejudice still exists there, just as it does in every other part of the United States — and while it is to some extent artificially protected by the sort of well-intentioned political correctness that fosters all-black universities and the regrettable nonsense of affirmative action, it is also true to say that many of its most obvious and offensive expressions have now vanished — casualties of changes in what constitutes good manners, as much as anything else. There are, for instance, no longer signs on the way to the coast advertising the existence of the local Klu Klux Klan and enjoining people of colour to make alternative travel plans. (I paraphrase slightly here.) Although black poverty in the South is still an aching reproach to the wealth elsewhere in America — as is white poverty — the growth of a well-to-do, largely integrated yet historically-conscious black middle class offers great scope for optimism. The unthinking knee-jerk racism of my parents’ generation has been replaced by something which, if not entirely benign or benevolent, is at least more self-conscious and more sensitive. In my experience, people who went to school with people of other races and backgrounds simply can’t believe some of the nonsense people of my parents’ generation believed. They might believe other nonsense, of course, but at least it makes a change.
Further, and more randomly, ensuing decades have complicated the whole issue of race by introducing new people with new and different histories and priorities: not just the Vietnamese and Cuban refugees and the Mexican migrants, either, but also the eastern seaboard diaspora that came South in the 1960s and 70s, all the more insistently once the violence surrounding the Civil Rights Movement had begun to dissipate, in search of sunshine and big green lawns and cheap domestic labour and genteel manners. Out of this, mixed up with a generous helping of economic prosperity, has come a strange new world in which rather self-conscious ‘Old South’ bistros serve up a dollop of organic grits and slivers of rare-breed ham, with a cheeky young pinot grigio taking the place of sweetened ice tea — all that, alongside restaurants offering first-class Vietnamese, Cuban, and New York deli-type cuisine. Regional accents and obscure colloquialisms are collapsing under the insistent assaults of television and film and the internet, just as they are in Britain. Already the television programmes of the 1950s and 60s — Gomer Pyle USMC, for instance, where the North Carolinian character could hardly have been anything but what he was, which was a sort of Candide labouring under the burden of a red-neck drawl — are suffused with an unimaginable exoticism. Can our world really have ever been like that? And while the South has taken a sly sort of revenge on its old Federal foe by offering up for public service some distinctly rum Chief Executives — Woodrow ‘He Kept Us Out Of War’ Wilson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton — it has also, as with the election of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, made its influence felt in some unexpected yet beneficial ways. The unimaginable has happened — good Southerners now not only vote Republican, but actually admit to being Republican, too. As I say, the world in which I grew up no longer exists — or rather, if it does, it exists as a myth as slippery, unreliable and yet seductive as that of the Civil War itself.
’The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past’
Faulkner’s assertion, of course, is not true. It was a rare moment of wishful thinking on his part. The past is, indeed, dead. Battles lost cannot be won, bad decisions made cannot be unmade in a way that erases the harm done by them (although they can be regretted at some considerable leisure), and the harm inflicted by complacency, callousness or ‘realism’ cannot be reversed. The past can be studied, interrogated but not remedied. As much as we might wish otherwise, what is done is done. Auden here, not Faulkner, was right, writing of course of a different Civil War: ‘History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon’. For the victors as much as the vanquished, there is nothing to do but to engage, however tentatively, with the future — while the past dissolves into history, myth or possibly plain oblivion. The unappealing nature of this truth does not, unfortunately, make it any less true.
The Civil War remains perhaps, despite all the brilliant scholarship that continues to be expended on it, more a creature of myth than of history. But whatever that the Civil War myth speaks of, it is really no longer, at least in any meaningful way, a message of defeat. If anything, indeed, it comes close to being a doctrine of election — or like having a special sixth sense that lesser mortals can’t begin to imagine. While a surprising number of Americans yearn for some sort of hyphenated ethnicity in order to enhance their own rather fragile sense of community — here one thinks of ‘Irish Americans’ or ‘Italian Americans’ or ‘Greek Americans’ — the South (for all its understandable fascination with, e.g., its own much-loved ‘Scots-Irish’ heritage) is perhaps the only American place other than Texas, New York City and parts of old Yankee New England to possess such an exclusive, validating sense of its own peculiarity and distinctiveness. Its passionately Bible-focused religious faith, its martial ebullience, its unstoppable literature, its music (from old spirituals and bluegrass to Dixieland jazz and early rock n’ roll — a triumph of multi-cultural conversation if there ever were one), its drama, its visual arts, its sporting successes, its love of old proprieties and their assiduous observance, its natural and mildly ironic patriotism — its whole weird diverse tangled unknowable complexity — these are realities which all its children can only regard with pride and wonder. It is rare to meet a Southerner, whether by birth or conversion, who isn’t genuinely proud to be what he or she is. At the same time, that love of place is all the more real for never being remotely uncritical. ‘I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it’ — Quentin Compson’s desperate protestation in Absolom, Absolom! may well be the truest thing ever written about that alternative universe south of the Mason-Dixon line — its paradoxical anguish being the truest thing about it.
For anyone, then, who is alert to all these things about the South, In The Wake of Battle is as much about hope and pride as it is about violence, destruction and despair. To look at those pictures of a burned and ruined Richmond is also to recall the sleek, prosperous Richmond of my youth, where tobacco money, financial services and light industry had not only raised glass-and-steel sky-scrapers but had also allowed the smartening-up of Monument Avenue and the current immaculate state of the city’s old historic centre. Of course battles still rage over how the South is to come to terms with the past that sometimes threatens to overwhelm it — but what matters is that no one, black or white or both or neither — is in any danger of forgetting that there is a past over which to fight. The same is true of Charleston, Atlanta — a dozen other smaller towns and cities. To compare the comfortable, increasingly peaceful and confident South of our own time with Brady’s images is to realise the sheer amount that the human spirit can endure — and the ability of societies and individuals to bounce back from the worst that modernity can throw at them. It is to learn something about flexibility, about evolution and about persistence. It is to learn something about how not to lose wars, large or small. And this is why In The Wake of Battle is, ultimately, inspiring as well as devastating. Its messages are as real at the individual level as they are at the communal one. In The Wake of Battle is a book to treasure as much for its beauty as for its unblinking accounts of horror. It is, in other words, a book for all of us.
George Sullivan’s In The Wake of Battle: The Civil War Images of Mathew Brady is published by Prestel, 2004, 445 pp, £19.99 softback.