The Secret Careers of Civil War Photographs

from: Harrison

When we think about Civil War battlefields, we often rely upon art, memories of our visits to those places, and the scenes that our imaginations conjure from soldiers’ writings.

I here include Civil War photographs in the category of “art” because of course those 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, moreover, “moonlighting” by photographs in other media presents us with mysteries 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 stereoview of 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 stereoview—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 stereoview.  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 stereoview 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 stereoviews did not cease to function in their initial roles.  The images have continued to appear, in various publications and either as full- or partial stereoviews, 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 stereo portrait of the USCT’s even acquired a third career, with the publication of a woodcut in a Union regimental history that appeared two years after Redwood’s picture in Century. Now, Union troops have the spotlight, as they seize the town on December 11, 1862, left, below. (There was at least one further iteration–right, below–it returned 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?  As a partial answer, I suggest that the two stereoviews 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 stereoviews 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.

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

4 thoughts on “The Secret Careers of Civil War Photographs

  1. Noel,
    Excellent examination of “artistic license” in action. Redwood was quite prolific at using other images as reference material. Another of his Fredericksburg illustrations was derived as a “mashup” of the famous A.J. Russell photograph of Second Fredericksburg’s aftermath at the Stone Wall, along with one of the series of April 1866 photographs I have been researching, depicting the more northern section of the wall around the Innis house. That Redwood piece was likewise published in Battles and Leaders within an account by James Longstreet of the December 1862 battle.
    Your point does well to show how compelling imagery can influence, especially apparent in Redwood’s case where he immersed himself in the Victorian era’s “hi-tech” stereo views.
    The other facet of your examination, and the one that actually is disturbing to me, is the “historical license” that is taken on a regular basis by documentary film makers, where images are placed willy-nilly to provide mere illustration to their work. I am sure their argument would be that the general public doesn’t know the difference, but to me there is something wrong with a picture of the dead at Petersburg being interspersed with narration describing the aftermath of First Manassas.
    I think this shows that no matter how far we think we come in understanding something, the further removed the larger audience might be by the sheer virtue of mass communication.
    John Cummings

    • That re-picturing of the Sunken Road and Stone Wall is indeed a great example, John. Here’s a similar one, nicely presented by Ranger Mannie, with the additional “careers” of a wartime photo of the Antietam battlefield including service as a component of a postwar painting of the same place. And the 1860’s issues of Harpers and Leslies obviously give us additional instances of woodcuts based on photos. What struck me about the examples that I discuss, though, is that the Redwood sketch-turned-woodcut and the Henderson painting had undergone the more extreme transformations of being separated geographically as well as chronologically from the photos upon which they were based, as in your concluding lament about the moving of Petersburg to Manassas in Burns’ t.v. series. Noel

  2. Thanks Noel! When we were working with the “full set” of images used in our DVD “Civil War Fredericksburg: Then & Now,” I briefly wondered if there was any relationship between the photo of the African American riflemen and the woodcut. With so much else to do, I dismissed the thought back then. Many thanks to you and D.P. for reviving the notion.

    • Thanks, Scott. Here’s a recent artistic approach testing the limits of the same concept and responding to the Burns t.v. series—an exhibition and film that included alteration of iconic military art like the Prang chromolitho of Mobile Bay and the cyclorama of Waterloo. Noel

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