The Drive towards Reconciliation
“Our dead,” Whitman proudly stated in his poem “Million Dead” in Specimen Days & Collect. “Or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me).” The war had tested men’s endurance, stolen their youths, and claimed many of their lives. Photographs served to properly memorialize soldiers, and their families would earnestly celebrate the individual contribution of their sons, brothers, and fathers. However, this individualization rested on the fact that the families recognized the divisions between North and South in their memorialization. Each soldier represented his respective reason for entering the war, as well as represented a member of his respective army.
In death, families could still acknowledge each soldier’s loyalty to the Confederacy or Union; however, the subsequent decades would repurpose the photographs and transform the dead into the collective Dead that Whitman lamented. American historical narrative would force the idea of a brotherhood between North and South, where Northern and Southern casualties coalesced into a peaceful fraternity and in which use of the soldiers’ portraits would reinforce the myth of Reconciliation.
The concept of Reconciliation arose as part of an effort to repair the divided United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. Politicians, writers, and theorists began, as Benedict Anderson notes, “to oblige ...Americans to remember/forget the hostilities of 1861-65 as a great ‘civil’ war between ‘brothers’ rather than between – as they briefly were – two sovereign nation states.” Professor David W. Blight succinctly reveals that the Reconciliationist notion stated that the “moral equivalent of war exalts soldier and sacrifice, but disembodied from the causes and consequences of the war.” Thus, the soldier became romanticized—his identity stripped and repurposed to fill a particular story of the war.
Thus, in the years long after the close of the war, collection and amassment characterized the treatment of soldier memory and experience, and the treatment would be seen in the use of portrait photographs as well. In the immediate after-war years, the images existed on the precipice of public and private realms; however, as they entered the public realm completely, approximately 50 years after the war, forces outside the family began to curate the pictures. As revealed by Patricia Holland, through this “act of collection and handling, a sense of historical movement [was] produced. The principles of selection and arrangement [were] exercised to tell a story of progress or decline, to construct a sense of period and to hint at major historical shifts.”
Though photographic realism suggests truth, the story ultimately revealed by a photograph depends on the method in which the photograph is displayed, curated, and packaged to an audience. For this reason, the portrait photographs, once displaced from the private realm of the family album or mantle, became opaque in meaning. This fogginess, subsequently, lent itself to fostering the grand idea of soldier as sacrificial lamb, forgetting the soldier’s conscious decision to bear arms against his “brother” and christen him a belligerent. The Reconciliationist notion, then, easily forgot that the South chose to engage the North because, as philosopher Walter Benjamin reveals, “‘To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was”’” (Ranke), instead, “‘It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’” The soldier’s body became a grand idea rather than a sign of his individuality because politicians feared acknowledging a divided nation.
In 1913, approximately 50 years to the date of Jeremiah Gage’s death, a man named Joseph Holt wrote an article about Gettysburg, and sent two letters to Gage’s sister Mrs. V.G. Armistead. The contents of the letter would attempt to honor Gage, but they would also sentimentalize him and reconstruct his identity to suit a Reconciliationist narrative of the war. Holt spoke of Gage’s literal body, writing, “His body is buried where he dated his letter—“On the Battlefield”—and, I trust, will ever re-maine [sic]: for the field of Gettysburg is his monument.” Holt alluded to Gage’s actual physicality, but Holt was ultimately more interested in refashioning Gage into a representation of ideas. Holt began, “The story of [Gage’s] departure will live in the cherished memories of the Southern people,” but he concluded by proclaiming that Gage would serve, “as a part of the common heritage of the magnanimity and valor of American manhood in even balance. He needs no tablature in marble, brass, or bronze.”
Holt described the same Jeremiah Gage who chose to write as his final words that he was “true to [his] country and that [his] greatest regret at dying [was] that [the Confederacy] was not free.” Recognizing the power of last words, one understands that Jeremiah Gage’s loyalty lay with the South. For him, the Union represented otherness, demonstrating the stark divisions that rested at the center of Civil War tensions.
Jeremiah Gage’s letter presents the un-romanticized bitterness of the Civil War, and his portrait photograph serves as a testament to the deeply divided nature of the war and time period. Additionally, the veracity of the photograph lies in part with the medium’s accurate portrayal of Gage’s body—though his body would be lost to the battlefield, the photograph retains his memory. In his letter, Holt has disregarded Gage’s view of the enemy, and subsequently forsaken Gage’s memory. Gage ultimately becomes a pawn of Reconciliation, and dissolves into a ghostly brother who, in the manner that he comes to be presented, never existed.