Grief and the Portrait Photograph
Indeed, portraits stood as the primary method to memorialize the dead individually, as demonstrated by the Samuel Graybill carte-de-visite. Samuel Graybill, Levi S. Graybill's brother, died in Nashville, Tennessee on June 16th “of wounds received at Dallas, May 24 1864,” according to the inscription made by Levi Graybill on the back of Samuel’s photographic portrait. Levi continued his description by writing a eulogy for his fallen kin in order to relieve some of the pain their parents would feel upon hearing of their son’s death.
“Mourn not dear parents,” scrawled Levi. “Your child is at rest.” He warned their parents, “No more will his sweet smile [illegible] your troubled hearts,” but assured them that their son “sleeps undisturbed.” Levi concluded his tribute by stating that Samuel “is but one of the many thousand whose bodies lie mouldering between the Potomac’s blue waters and the Gulf.” For Levi and his parents, the photograph represented a substitute for Samuel’s deceased body. By virtue of the clarity and realism of Samuel’s image in the portrait, Levi and his parents determined that the portrait was the closest apparition of Samuel they could imagine. The photograph served as a trace of the person left behind, confirming the prior existence of the dead while simultaneously extending the presence of his form.
The portrait photographs served as the most appropriate method for recognizing the dead soldiers and for exalting the men’s individuality in the wake of the Civil War, for the photographic medium testified to the life of a subject. In this sense, photographs could not be removed from the subject they presented, and therefore the portraits became a bank of reference, serving as indices for identification, surveillance, and especially remembrance. By writing directly on the back of his brother's photographic portrait, Levi Graybill demonstrated the profound relationship between image, death, and remembrance: in the demise of a soldier’s body the photograph became not simply a relic but his replacement.
Levi Graybill’s decision to eulogize his cousin and write down the particulars of his death on the back of Samuel’s portrait represents a common practice. In Levi Graybill’s regiment, the 22nd United States Colored Infantry, many of the men’s portraits display descriptions of their deaths written on the reverse of the pictures. The boyish Dutton was “Killed May 7th 1864 at Wilson’s Landing Va.,” while Emery Fisher, a thick haired and mustachioed man was “Killed in action June 15 1864.” The inscriptions recording the soldiers’ deaths and names remind the viewer of Whitman’s fragments of paper; however, the portraits are far more personal and thoughtful. They become the combined product of the soldiers’ consciousness and external attention afforded by family and friends after the men’s deaths, and ultimately the pictures possess the capacity to fully record the men.
Due to the photographs, the men’s identities would ultimately surface because the body was inseparable from a man’s soul and thoughts. Subsequently, a relationship formed between photographic subjects and viewers, one in which, as Margaret Olin reveals, “the ‘realism’ of the work [persuaded] the reader-beholders of the reality of the people.” In postbellum America, the photographs served as religious icons, allowing families to interact with their dead through bodies preserved on thick paper. The families would touch, kiss, and display the photographs, in this manner essentially conferring life to the photographs.
The portraits in the immediate postbellum era existed in an almost exclusively private realm; yet they would slowly enter the public consciousness as families transitioned from mourning their dead privately to presenting their identities to the public. The soldiers lasting identities, then, remained solely in the hands of their families and depended on the treatment their families planned to give the photographs. Subsequently, each family recognized their soldier or soldiers as individuals whose deaths, beliefs, and backgrounds clearly defined the cause and course of the war.
Jeremiah Gage’s portrait demonstrates the popular treatment of portrait photographs in an environment still reeling from the death and devastation of the Civil War. In 1874, 11 years after Gage’s death at Gettysburg, his sister Louisa Caroline Gage received a letter from Gage’s friend and former classmate James L. Goodloe inquiring her to send him a photograph of Gage. Goodlooe had last seen Gage in 1861 when the photograph was taken, and considered Gage “a man who made the life of his friend sweet.” To Goodloe, the instance of Gage’s dead “was calamity,” causing Goodloe to lament in a poem, “I am thinking, my friend, that never more Shall I look in your loving face.” In Goodloe’s mind, the face of Jeremiah Gage had receded and darkened, rubbed out by death on the battlefield. Louisa Gage succeeded in sending Goodloe a copy of Jeremiah’s photograph, causing Goodloe to exclaim, “I despaired of ever getting his picture and am consequently more grateful than you could imagine.”The photograph would aid Goodloe to create a “...perfect remembrance of [Gage’s] features” that would “[keep Jeremiah Gage] before [Goodloe] continually.”
Gage, Graybill, and Turner demonstrate that in postwar society, the photographs existed in a private realm in which family and close friends revered the individual and properly recognized his identity. At this moment, mention of the body meant the actual physical form of the soldier and an awareness of his unique character, rather than a nebulous concept of Body. The families cared for the features, cared for the forms of the men by saving their photographs, respecting that the soldiers had purposefully preserved their bodies through photography. In these family photographs, as noted by Patricia Holland, “Major disruptions may be lived through, but personal relations dominate the images. Political change is embedded, rarely visible on the surface.”
Years later, however, the intangible notion of a soldier’s Body would be thrown into the task of making the nation whole. The portrait photographs of Civil War soldiers would undergo a similar outside reading decades later as the country manipulated the individuality of the soldiers in order to preserve the political body of the nation.