HM - Oct. 2013 - Dangel

Classroom Applications

Bridging the American Civil War and Reconstruction with Photographs
Andrew Dangel
Old Mill Middle School North / IB MYP World School, MD

           When teaching the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period one of the most amazing aspects remains the huge volume of original photographs.  These photographs are frequently used to support the written record of both the Civil War and Reconstruction, but they often refute many of the stereotypes attached to Reconstruction.

The mid-nineteenth century is the first period when the lens of the camera provides us a window into the past.  The onset of the war in April, 1861, caused a veritable explosion of images.  When approaching this subject we face unique challenges, both in the selection of photographs to use, as well as in ensuring our students understand the medium.
            Most of our students have little in the way of a frame of reference for understanding wet-plate photography.  To them even the concept of film is novel, let alone the application of a collodion material to a brass, iron, or (as was typical by the war) glass plate to create one finished photograph.  One of the unique elements of mid- nineteenth century photography is that the image produced was not only the negative, but also the picture.  By the outbreak of war, the use of photographic paper to create copies of this original image created a rage for photography in both North and South; for the first time more than one photograph could be made from a plate. 
There are two elements of this medium that need to be understood to fully appreciate it.  First, mid-nineteenth century cameras lacked shutters and instead used a lens cap.  The exposure time of the glass plate was so lengthy that a quick shutter speed was not technologically necessary.  This left the medium with some challenges: photographic exposures typically took place over a period of five to twenty seconds, depending on the ambient light.  Thus any movement during that time would blur the image, so the subject had to remain still.  This explains why children, animals, flags, and other objects frequently in motion appear as ghostly images. 
Second, and most profound for our interpretation, the silver nitrate collodion material did not register colors the same as a modern black and white photograph would.  Two colors in particular, red and yellow, translate through the wet plate photograph as black or dark gray.  This causes most historical images to give a very drab view of the nineteenth century.  We see the muteness of the images and the dark colors as representing a dreary, monotone world; in reality much of the clothing of the period was bright and colorful. 
            Once we understand the medium, what does the medium tell us?  We now have access to thousands of original Civil War and Reconstruction Era photographs thanks to numerous books and the internet.  Selecting which photographs to use in the classroom presents a particular challenge.  For Northern subjects we are particularly spoiled for choice.  A greater challenge is faced in looking for images of Southern subjects.  The lack of resources in the wartime South and lesser impact of the technology boom in the antebellum period make wartime images of Confederate troops far more rare than in the North.  When this general lack of wartime images intersects with the written record we have the recipe for myth.  This can be both a hindrance as well as an opportunity in the classroom.
            The intent of this lesson is threefold.  First, it will encourage students to activate prior knowledge and text resources to create a historical hypothesis.  Second, it will foster a close examination of primary source materials; a close reading of photographs if you will.  Third, it will garner an interest in further research and questioning, particularly of the post-war South.  If the average student of history is asked to create a word portrait of the Confederate soldiers, she will typically generalize them as young, with worn clothes and without shoes.  After all, is this lack of equipment and resources not a significant reason why the Confederacy lost?  But does the visual record actually support this view?  Photographs of Union soldiers in the field are relatively common.  What similar views do we have of Confederates?  The views of Confederate soldiers in the field we do have come from a controversial source; the dead.
            With the first showing of “The Dead of Antietam” at Matthew Brady’s Photographic Studio in New York, the Northern public was offered one of the first chances for a people to experience the visual trauma of war without actually visiting the battlefield.  The exhibition shattered the romantic notions of war still lingering in late 1862.  As The New York Times famously noted on October 10, 1862, “Mr. BRADY has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”  This created a unique rush for photographs of the carnage of the battlefield, to be sure a difficult task for a photographer following an army on the move.  But it also offered the photographer an advantage.  There was no concern of a dead subject moving and blurring the exposure. 
            There are concerns with using photographs of slain soldiers in the classroom.  The sensitivity of the subject matter cannot be taken lightly.  However, in the scope of the Civil War, it does have the advantage of making the human cost much more concrete.  Historians still debate the true numbers of casualties during the war, but no matter that number chosen the cost defies comprehension.  Often the individual loss is easier to understand. 
Four significant series of photographs of the dead were produced in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War.  It is a benefit for the historian that these spanned 1862-1865.  The first were taken by Alexander Gardner, working for the Brady Studio after the battle of Antietam.  The second series were taken by Gardner, O’Sullivan and Gibson (now working under Gardner, not for Brady) at Gettysburg.  The third series were taken by Timothy O’Sullivan (working independently) after the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.  Finally a set of photographs was taken after the fall of Petersburg by Thomas Roche.  Most textbooks of the Civil War contain images from these series.
            We typically view these series with a sense of morbid curiosity, or to illustrate the cost of the war, but they also offer a unique opportunity.  There is little better way to determine the state of Confederate soldiers in Lee’s Army than to examine the human detritus left on these hallowed grounds.  The very fact that these bodies were left where the Union Army held the field means that most of them still possess the equipment and certainly the uniforms they wore in action.  This conveys a different image of the Confederate soldier than Reconstruction era accounts do.  He is frequently well uniformed and equipped and in possession of well-made shoes.  This leaves us and our students with important questions about where the good old Rebel, clothed in rags, barefoot, with no great military equipment may be found; he was not left on the field of battle.  If the Confederate soldier of the “Lost Cause” was not poorly uniformed and equipped for war, as so many post war images portray, then our students must question other Reconstruction accounts. 
            The images for this lesson all come from the Library of Congress and may be found in various formats online as part of the American Memory’s Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs
Three other resources that are particularly useful may also be found on the web:  
  1. Students work as individuals or small groups to create a description of Confederate Soldiers during the Civil War.  Encourage student to use descriptive and sensory words in their descriptions. 
  2. Have students create a guiding question based on their descriptions of what they would expect to see in photographs of Confederate Soldiers.  An example would be:  “I would expect him to have torn clothes and no shoes.  I would expect him to be a young man.”
  3. Introduce the technique of wet-plate photography.  Use print or internet sources to describe how it worked and what must be borne in mind when interpreting it.
  4. Prepare students for the fact that they will be looking at photographs of dead bodies.  Remind them of the human cost of the Civil War and encourage proper discussions of the images presented.
  5. Have students form groups.  There should be at least four groups; multiples of four will work best but are not strictly necessary.
  6. Introduce students to the “Photograph Analysis Worksheet.”  This is adapted from the Primary Source Worksheets created by the Education Department of the National Archives. 
  7. Each group should receive one year’s set of photographs: 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865.
  8. Give the group time to analyze their images and to complete the analysis.
  9. Ask students to share their reactions.  Press students to provide the evidence for their arguments.  Ask students to predict what this means in terms of Reconstruction and what questions they must ask when interacting with Reconstruction Era sources.
Andrew Dangel has taught primarily 8th Grade US History at Old Mill Middle North, an IB Middle Years Programme World School in Anne Arundel Co., Maryland for nine years.  He has participated in NCHE colloquia in various roles for the last five years, mostly as the on-site coordinator and master teacher.  When not in the classroom he spend his time with his wife and girls, and reenacting the Civil War and WWII.