The Civil War as Total War
The reading of Civil War portrait photographs begins with understanding the type of warfare represented by the Civil War. The Civil War may be classified as a “total war,” where total war represents an evolution in the manner in which war up to that point in time had been historically waged. At its core, total war describes a form of conflict that depends on a high intensity and broad extension of violence due to the unrestricted use of weapons and resources. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, European nation-states engaged in warfare known as “cabinet warfare,” or the German “Kabinettskriege,” which epitomized a form of warfare with limited economic and social inputs and in which civilians played a minimal role. Warfare took place in lines, only on battlefields, and between trained professionals. For this reason, brutality seemed sanitized. Rather than a movement of the masses, war served as the scripted and theatrical endeavor of kings.
During the Civil War, distinctions between civilians and combatants dissolved, for strikes against civilians became legitimate and necessary tools for extracting victory. Importantly, the distinction of total war also meant that soldiers played a more crucial role in guiding the course of the conflict: the violence intensified and home front and battlefield merged because the soldiers were ultimately citizens who had taken up arms in order to defend their respective nations.
Jeremiah Gage, a young Mississippi man who served for the 11th Mississippi, Co. A, deeply identified with the Confederacy, and in a deathbed letter to his mother, entreated her to “Remember that [he was] true to [his] country and that [his] greatest regret at dying [was] that [the Confederacy] was not free.” Thus, Gage demonstrates that the Civil War departed ideologically from previous wars, for it was total war in which citizen-soldiers took part, rather than professional fighters.
Though the American Civil War was not the first war to be photographed, it was the first conflict in history in which soldiers could obtain individualized portraits of themselves, thus, channeling the democratic nature of participation in the war. Photographs democratized the process of the portrait, allowing for the first time in history a poor farmer from North Carolina or a former slave from Pennsylvania to have his likeness taken in the same way as the plantation owner and industry titan. Thus, the cheap, reproducible photographs presented significant allure for common soldiers.
The soldiers in the American Civil War, however, emphasized their military impact through their photographic portraits. The pictures recorded the shadows of their scruff and the sheen of their skin, for “the private soldier [had] just as good a likeness as the General,” as noted in an article in the 1860s from The London Times. Indeed, Confederate soldier Eli Landers from Georgia exemplified how portrait photographs could highlight a soldier’s contribution. In a letter to his mother Landers sent along with his portrait, Landers asked that she “Remember that [his photograph] is [of] a son of yours who is in the noble cause of his country and who [would] willingly stay with it till death if needed.”