When we think about Civil War battlefields, we often rely, in varying combinations, upon nineteenth-century photographs and other forms of art (including paintings and prints from later centuries as well), memories of our visits to those places, and the scenes that our imaginations conjure from soldiers’ writings. I here include photographs in the category of “art” because Civil War photographs were composed consciously to one degree or another. At the dramatic end of the spectrum of examples, consider the images made by the photographer who moved a Confederate soldier’s corpse in Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, or by the photographer who several months later posed living men as dead men in the same area. Yet beyond this type of subjectivity, some photographs have undergone physical transformations after their original creation and thereby assumed multiple careers. In the case of iconic pictures of the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg and its aftermath, “moonlighting” in other media by photographs in turn presents a mystery of artistic selection.
Allen C. Redwood (1844-1922) created the original drawing upon which engravers for Century magazine made this woodcut of Confederate Sharpshooters, Fredericksburg:
After 1886, when the picture made the first in a series of nationally published appearances, it achieved a high profile in Americans’ mental re-creations of the December 1862 battle, particularly of the bombardment and river assault-crossing on December 11. In late 1862 and early 1863, Redwood had spent considerable time in the Fredericksburg area with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, first on detail to the commissary department of the 55th Virginia Infantry, and then as its Regimental Sergeant-Major.
Meanwhile, David English Henderson (1832-1887) created this oil painting of The Return to Fredericksburg After the Battle:
Although Henderson’s painting evidently predated the publication of Redwood’s drawing-turned-woodcut, the painting would require far more time to find a lodgment in the popular imagination. Yet it, too, now enjoys “classic” status following national visibility, in publications that include Howard Holzer and Mark E. Neely, Jr.’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Civil War in Art (1993), George C. Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (2002), and Time-Life Books’ Voices of the Civil War: Fredericksburg (1997). Henderson offers, vividly, a civilian perspective on what happened inside Fredericksburg homes like those behind Redwood’s defiant soldiers on the town’s riverbank. Henderson had also served with the Army of Northern Virginia in late 1862 and early 1863, as a topographical engineer.
To a great extent, however, we are actually looking at a stereo view of African American Union soldiers (United States Colored Troops, or “USCT’s”) posing near the James River in 1864 or 1865, when we look at the woodcut of Confederate soldiers on the Rappahannock River in 1862. I have found no written acknowledgement by Redwood of his consulting the stereo view—one of its halves appears below—but its influence over the drawing and subsequent woodcut is unmistakable:
When we look at Henderson’s painting of a Fredericksburg interior sometime after the December 1862 battle, we are likewise looking to a considerable extent at a stereo view. The image lurking within the painting, which you will note in this stereo-half flattens the walls and assigns a different background beyond the window, depicts the interior of a Petersburg home in 1865, following the Army of Northern Virginia’s abandonment of that city. Here again, I have seen no written attribution by the artist, but the shared elements speak for themselves:
In the Redwood engraving, we find African Americans playing a key role—unintentional, ironic, and belated—in the creation of a powerful symbol of Confederate military prowess at Fredericksburg in 1862: the outnumbered Southern sharpshooters’ long delay of the Union Right Grand Division’s river crossing.
More broadly, the “moonlighting” of the stereo view of the USCT’s highlights an aspect relevant also to the image that plays an essential role in the Henderson painting. Photographs can ingratiate themselves into multiple careers. The two stereo views did not cease to function in their initial roles. The images have continued to appear, in various publications and either as full- or partial stereo views, under their original, correct identities as late-war scenes of places near the James and Appomattox Rivers. Yet transformed partially into other artistic media, the two have also served as representations of mid-war scenes on and near the Rappahannock.
The stereoscopic portrait of the USCT’s acquired a third career, with the publication, in a Union regimental history that appeared two years after the woodcut in Century, of a woodcut representing the Federals’ eventual dislodging of the Southern sharpshooters on December 11, 1862 (left, below). There was at least one further, fourth iteration (right, below), which bears the “feel” of graphic art closer to the 1900’s than the 1880’s and returns the Confederates to their position beside the Rappahannock:
Why did Redwood and Henderson choose scenes of southern Virginia as the frameworks for illustrations of events in north-central Virginia? By way of at least a partial answer, I suggest that the two stereo views recommended themselves over, say, wartime sketches, postwar sketching visits, or wartime images in other photographic formats largely because of the stereo aspect. This would have offered the artists, assuming they had access to stereo-viewing equipment, three-dimensional models of Civil War scenes. They might therefore have gained a viable alternative to traveling physically to postwar Fredericksburg or some other battle-scarred town, in order to rekindle their own memories of wartime Fredericksburg, or to seeking models in wartime illustrations that possessed only two dimensions.
The mystery of motivation and selection aside, Civil War stereo views can function compellingly and prominently not only as photographs but also as other graphic media portraying markedly different scenes. Shifting focus from the nineteenth-century uses discussed above to uses of the late twentieth-century—and defining television as a distinct medium—consider the many places and concepts that filmmaker Ken Burns illustrated with Civil War images that had appeared originally in a variety of photographic formats. As many of those images did not actually begin life in the 1860’s portraying the specific subjects Burns assigned them for his soon-to-be-famous programs, we find more evidence that the secret careers of photographs of the conflict will never cease to proliferate and engage our imaginations anew.
Special thanks to D. P. Newton, Director of the White Oak Museum and a longtime friend and mentor, who sparked my thinking on this subject by sharing his discovery of Redwood’s use of the stereo view of the USCT’s.
The Henderson painting now resides in the collection of Gettysburg National Military Park.
Noel G. Harrison