In galleries, libraries, and old family albums across the United States today, thousands of portrait photographs of American Civil War soldiers lie scattered. In black and white, the pictures have preserved some of the men’s boyish determination, some their good looks, and others their aristocratic elegance. Though the portrait photographs are ubiquitous, there exists little scholarship on the photographs’ significance, and, indeed, many of the men in the pictures remain unidentified. Thus, this web exhibit analyzes the purpose of these photographs and how their presentation and use colors American Civil War memory.
Civil War portrait photography highlights a shift in military history, as soldiers were able to self-memorialize in a total war that depended on the contribution of citizen-soldiers. The photographs appropriately captured the men’s allegiances and awareness of their mortality, preserving soldiers’ bodies on paper during a time of great devastation and death. In an immediate postwar environment characterized by mourning, the photos retained the men’s individualism through the treatment the pictures received from family members, and consequently the images kept intact the true identities that were the ultimate cause of the war. Ultimately, however, approximately 50 years after the end of the war to today, the curation and use of these photographs has emphasized collection and amassment—a technique that reinforces the concept of Reconciliation. Critical emphasis on collection and display of many photographs, then, obscures the identities and partisanships of the men, which their families upheld in the immediate postwar period.
The title of this exhibit, “Our Mothers’ Sons,” suggests brotherhood, but indirectly. We purport to recognize the Civil War soldier; we say we can envision his face because we have the photographic record he left behind him. However, we obscure the individuality of the soldiers, their unique loyalties and divisions because we tend to see them as a mass. Their pictures become hoarded in our minds, and the face of the Union could just as easily serve to represent the Confederacy. This collection will attempt to extricate the individuals from the mass and analyze the dissemination of memory through image, ultimately challenging the reader to view Civil War portrait photographs with a new perspective.