Online Exhibits@Yale

Collection and Memory

Papers Relating to New York Civil War Regiments (1863-67)

Collection began with the tendency to number the dead, an act that seemed to provide identity but ultimately produced erasure and created a new form of historical memory. Walt Whitman, through his efforts to record the names of the dead and dying on slips of paper, became the greatest perpetrator of collection and numbering. 

Papers Relating to New York Civil War Regiments (1863-67)

Whitman attempted to individually preserve and recognize the men, however, Whitman ultimately ended up with a literal pile of names and facts that lose their individuality when forced into an undefined and unregulated mass. The sloppiness of the torn pieces of paper suggests the irrelevance of the individual soldiers: the scraps only become meaningful when there are hundreds of them. Similarly, collection would define the treatment of Civil War portrait photographs

Deaths became lumped into the poetic “Dead,” and the perceived need for Reconciliation further romanticized the soldiers’ deaths. The soldiers became lumped together even though they took careful measures to maintain their identities in the face of probable and anonymous death. Thus, history determined the mass of soldiers to be more significant than the individual and resorted to collecting them; the collective became more palatable and would define American collective memory. 

Collection began with the tendency to number the dead, an act that seemed to provide identity but ultimately produced erasure and created a new form of historical memory. Whitman especially attempted to count the men, and exhibited in his poetry and prose an obsession with numbers and the scale of death. He wrote, “Everywhere in the many soldier Cemeteries of the Nation, (there are now, I believe, over seventy of them)—as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositories of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles,” suggesting his preoccupation with the quantity of dead men and his subsequent inability to recognize the soldiers individually.

Yet, historian Drew Gilpin Faust reveals, “numbers undermined the individuality that was tied closely to equality’s purposes and to the democratic imperatives of the war. Naming individualized the dead; counting aggregated them; the two impulses served opposite yet coexisting needs, marking the paradox inherent in coming to terms with Civil War death.”

Walt Whitman, then, through his efforts to record the names of the dead and dying on slips of paper becomes the greatest perpetrator of collection and numbering. He attempted to individually preserve and recognize the men, however, Whitman ultimately ended up with a literal pile of names and facts that lost their individuality when forced into an undefined and unregulated mass. The sloppiness of the torn pieces of paper suggests the irrelevance of the individual soldiers: the scraps only become meaningful when there are hundreds of them.

Similarly, collection would define the treatment of Civil War portrait photographs. Although the soldiers tried to preserve themselves through the creation of portrait photographs, the ultimate use and presentation of the photographs would deny individuality and further support Reconciliationist rhetoric.  

During the war and in the immediate postwar era, the photographs embodied the individualism of private memories, but through their entry into the greater public consciousness, they took a new significance as the methods to display the photographs changed. Instead of the individualized recognition of each photograph, which depended on identification of each individual and the nature of his contribution, the photographs only possessed significance when acknowledged as an element of a collective.

Thus, the only importance Civil War portraits carried 50 years after the conflict, and continue to carry to this day, is that there are a lot of them: they only merit viewing when many hundreds are displayed together. 

Many of the faces remain unknown today, however, in the curation of these portraits, the challenge posed by being unable to identify each of the soldiers individually matters little. All that counts is that there exist many of these pictures and that they be shown together. Often, such a display purports to demonstrate the sheer size of the Civil War and the scale of death; yet, the collection and grouping of the portrait photographs into hoards also suggests a Reconciliationist narrative. In the hoards, allegiances begin to lose their distinction as the visages of Southerners and Northerners physically sit next to one another. The amassing dilutes the war’s actual animosity, allowing the men--so physically similar in their features--to be easily seen as brothers. In this manner, curation feeds the public consciousness.

The anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote, “any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly.” In the case of Civil War portrait photography, bundling has created silences, whereby the curatorial fixation on collecting and displaying vast quantities of the photographs reinforces Reconciliation. Deconstructing the bundles, then, reveals the partisanship of the Civil War combatants, and demonstrates that each soldier’s body was obscured in favor of the Body.

The Library of Congress’ Liljenquist Collection represents a spectacular example of Civil War portrait accumulation and presentation. The collection began as a hobby for Mr. Tom Liljenquist and his sons, and became a family project that involved bidding for portraits on eBay. The Liljenquist family gathered a great number of photographs, and due to the sheer size of their collection, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy of induction into its famous halls. The fact that an ordinary man and his sons could successfully purchase the portraits, and could find them on common and accessible web platforms speaks to the contemporary ubiquity of the photographs and the un-remarkableness of singular portraits. Ultimately, only a critical mass is worthy of display in a national museum.

However, the nature of accumulation brings together the Civil War combatants in a peace that is found far too easily. By gathering and adding numbers, curators attempt to concretize the intangibility of Civil War death and remembrance; yet, by doing so they continue a rushed and foggy response to memorialize. Like Whitman’s scraps of paper, the curatorial work obscures the individuals it claims to illuminate.

In describing the art of Christian Boltanski, Martin Golding writes, “[the photos] once belonged to an ordinary texture of domestic life of which snapshots were a natural record, and that familiar circle which gave them identity is wholly absent. They are unmistakable, but at the same time they are nowhere: they have no place.”

Though Golding describes a 20th century artist’s work, one can apply Golding’s description to the presentation of Civil War portrait photographs. Like Jeremiah Gage 50 years after his death, the soldiers and their portraits exited the intimate sphere of their families and friends and entered a national dialogue that was ultimately uninterested in presenting individuals. Jeremiah Gage then, has no place in the fantasy that Holt and the government created. In the end, the Jeremiah Gage that Holt described never existed—his body cannot lie in the National Cemetery. 

Collection and Memory