What moves in the faces of these men? Do they feel courage or stoicism, fear or anticipation? Is the Union soldier with his fingers upon the strings of a banjo impatient with the photographer, busy about his trade, or is he lost in thought for the recipient of the image for which he now sits? Is the bearded Confederate soldier dressed in a shell jacket grateful for the diversion from battle afforded by this moment, or is he grateful for the opportunity to prove his worth as a man on the battlefield? The artillery corporal who sits tall and with his jaw firmly set, is he focused upon some small and insignificant detail of recent memory, or is he simply nowhere, lost in peaceful oblivion as he looks, unseeing, down the barrel of a camera lens?
The possibilities seem infinite, the individuality of each man’s face reflecting the particularity of his experience. At the same time there is this feeling that they all share something, a common insight writ upon their faces, one borne of the place and time in which they find themselves, a place and time understood to be historic even as it occurred.
We don’t know what each of these men thought or felt the moment his picture was made, but it is clear that a Civil War soldier sat for his photographic portrait so he could leave to his relations a piece of himself. The photograph gave substance to the man for the long months during which he was absent and his fate uncertain. While a photograph is no substitute for flesh, bone and blood, as an object bearing weight and displaying a faithful likeness it was understood to be an acceptable surrogate. It had, moreover, been made in the very presence of the man and thus carried with it a wisp of his being. Perhaps only a person’s clothing, conforming to his shape and still bearing his scent, could be more suggestive. Yet as clothing could not do, the photograph placed the absent loved-one in the here and now at a single glimpse: there could be no mistake, no question as to who was represented, for the photograph made him both present and whole. Only when the soldier failed to return home from the war did the illusion break down. Death changes the meaning of a photograph.
So long as the solider moved among the living, meaning was not sought in his expression but in the photograph itself. The integrity of the man was what mattered and for this reason the ambrotype, tintype or carte-de-visite served as a talisman to keep him whole. But imagine news of the Union soldier—the one who played the banjo for his comrades—imagine news arriving from Antietam or Gettysburg that he had succumbed to his wounds and was summarily buried alongside compatriots in a grave marked or unmarked, no one knew for sure.
Or imagine no word is received and the war has now ended and still the person you loved as a son or husband, a brother or father has vanished but for the delicate object you hold in your hand. Look again into his face and perhaps there you will find something previously overlooked, a detail of expression with which to conjure his particularity. Look closely and preserve as much of the individual as can be saved from oblivion—not just the likeness but the thought, feeling and disposition that animated his very being. Under such close scrutiny the whole man breaks down into his many parts, physical and moral, even as he returns your look with steady persistence from the confines of a velvet-lined Union case.
Time further changes the meaning of a photograph. Looking upon these faces now, after they and all who loved them have been dead as many as one-hundred-fifty-years, we no longer see the surrogate of an absent man, or a memorial to one lost in battle. Each photograph has become something else again: a document.
Today the portraits of soldiers speak of war as historical fact. They show the men who sacrificed if not their lives then surely their innocence; they show what these men wore and how they trimmed their beards and even that they made music with the aid of a banjo. In these particulars the images document the war and yet, confronted by portraits—traditionally a depiction of character—the question persists: What do the faces show? Can we find in the photograph of a solider evidence of what it meant for him to live and die at the behest of the military and in the name of principles not yet certain? Can war reside in the faces of men not now warring?
I am not sure that we can discern the effects of war on a soldier from his portrait. Apart from one or two exceptions, such as the Union solider holding a pistol carbine and sabre, their faces are all unexpectedly serene, as if the photographs had not been made during a time of deadly conflict but one of daily peace. And who’s to say that the young man flanked by weapons wasn’t always plagued with a nervous expression, that this was not simply how he looked. Soldiers with limbs amputated are another possible exception to this problem of what a photograph can show, for the amputee undoubtedly presents his trauma to the camera. Yet here again the face is calm, the missing limb hardly missed. Something else, something other than an arm or leg, appears absent from the amputee’s photograph.
The real war will never get in the books.
Walt Whitman’s words apply equally to the portraits of soldiers as to history, poetry and literature: the real war will never get in the photographs. What is this “real war” that eludes representation? It was for Whitman the many unspeakable acts that soldiers witness on and around the battlefield, whether large or small, public or private, and whether faced as actors or victims—countless minor scenes and interiors, he called them, which made up a seething hell. “War is Hell,” concurred William Tecumseh Sherman, one of its greatest practitioners.
The aim of war, largely the privilege of men, is to conquer or destroy other men and it is difficult to see how anything but hell could come of this proposition. It is also difficult to see how men could engage in war without adopting a code of masculinity that subordinates emotion and privileges action—a code prevalent in American society long before the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter. Men were to be heroic, impervious to the terror of armed confrontation, or they were not men at all. This same code worked against representation, drawing a curtain around the hellish particulars of violence, and so leaves us with scores of inscrutable faces rendered mutely upon paper, glass and tin.
The secret, interior history of war that is absent from the portraits of soldiers may perhaps be found in images of those whom the soldier left behind—the women and children who were exempt from and also thought to benefit from the masculine code of honour.
Judging by his photograph, the nervous young soldier posing with his weapons was just a boy, perhaps no more than twelve or fourteen, his youth betraying the emotion that in turn betrays his youth. The girl in mourning who holds a photograph in her lap appears full of feeling, perhaps for the man depicted in the photograph, the father or brother whom she mourns. The Confederate woman seated beside her surgeon husband, their infant child supported between them in the crook of his arm, holds in her wide eyes and pursed lips a look of fierce determination, one made fiercer still by the almost convivial expression upon her husband’s face. It is as if she and not her husband were the one facing hell.
Hell was visited upon the South, where most of the fighting occurred and where society was ill-prepared for the contingencies of war. The absence of able-bodied men brought many hardships upon Southern women and children. There were farms and businesses to run, yet the women had been raised to believe they were by their very nature unsuitable for such responsibility. The wives and daughters of soldiers were also without protection, no small concern when civility was fast crumbling under the impact of war. There was also rampant disease, shortages of everything from cloth to food, and the widespread destruction of property, including homes, livestock and roads. More difficult to bear than insecurity and want, however, was news that the head of a household had died, for this meant the war had no real end. In the absence of able-bodied men, women felt themselves keenly to be women and children felt themselves keenly to be children, which is to say they were vulnerable and without power.
The faces of women and children are not passive, they are not bland masks worn to conceal the real effects of war; nor do they display courage, the one feeling freely permitted a soldier. Instead, they appear stricken, afflicted or overwhelmed as if by disease, misfortune or sorrow. The women and children photographed during the Civil War look as if they are enduring hardship before our very eyes. Precisely what each is experiencing, what kind of trauma they face and what it takes from or inflicts upon them, is impossible to know, but the images suggest that for them there is no diversion or distraction from war. Terror is not confined to the battlefield but is everywhere and ongoing, the trauma happening still.
African American men also experienced the war differently, even those who fought or found shelter near the fighting, as their change of status surely indicates: from slaves to contraband to soldiers and finally to freemen. There is little to distinguish between the trauma of slavery and the trauma of war: violence lay at the root of both with uncertainty and privation common conditions. For African Americans, one experience shaded into the other. And while codes of masculinity had always existed for enslaved and free black men, they were hardly sufficient to justify joining the army. Black soldiers were brave and proud to serve their nation, but they did so for reasons very different from their white counterparts: freedom, not heroism, was the nobler cause. The details of how the young African American man in a cap came to be a soldier are lost to us, but his expression says something of the likely distance between his story and that of the Confederate surgeon photographed with his wife and child.
The soldier wearing a cap does not appear stone-faced and without feeling like many of the white soldiers who were photographed; nor does he seem distraught, as the women and children appear to be. This man appears stricken, but not by fear or shock. He is, rather, stricken by honour, courage and pride, all of which were hard won on the streets and cotton fields of the nation, as well as on the battlefields. His injuries and losses were no less traumatic than those sustained by white Americans, whether from the North or the South, but his gains amounted to so much more.
It bears repeating that photographs are misleading, that they suggest more than they are able to tell. Without a written statement from the surgeon’s wife, it is impossible to know what she felt the moment her portrait was made. She appears fierce in the face of death but this is an interpretation. There are also many exceptions. Not every white soldier is passive, as the Union solider holding a pistol carbine and sabre attests. Not every woman and child appears in the grip of emotional distress; not every African American is animated with nobility.
There are exceptions for every rule, but perhaps the rule here is not that soldiers were universally courageous in the face of war (and the wartime photographer) and that women and children were not. Perhaps the rule is that we have a need to understand what these people experienced. We seek in historic photographs some evidence of an era’s impact, of the way in which people made sense of horrific events and of how this understanding changed them. If nothing else, the hint of feeling detectable in some of these photographs—whether or not it is actually there—this feeling satisfies a need to get at the secret, interior history of war that Whitman declared will never get in the books.
The dead, beloved, continue to speak in the leaves. These words from Robert Schultz’s poem “Gettysburg” lay bare the project of War Memoranda. Working with portraits of Civil War and Vietnam War soldiers, the wartime writings of Walt Whitman, and with objects, both found and made, acquired on trips to southern battlegrounds, the poet Schultz and photographer Binh Danh have reconfigured the documents of war to create a new kind of memorial, one that speaks of war as personal tragedy.
War memorials are too often mute, naming the dead with fitting solemnity but neglecting to say anything of what the dead know. The cenotaph, the column, the mounted soldier—such monuments stand for the soldierly virtues of courage and sacrifice but say little of how courage differs between men and what exactly each has sacrificed. Perhaps of all our national monuments, only the Vietnam War Memorial gives the civilian a shiver of understanding. We wade on in, Schultz writes of the Memorial, as if we were not on the Mall in Washington but in the swamps of southeast Asia, a place where men and women hold each other, mortal, drowning. Faced with Maya Lin’s austere granite gash, particular deaths rush out. It is impossible not to be moved under such an assault, not to feel in some small but significant way involved. So it is with War Memoranda.
The dead speak in the leaves. Fragile, bearing tears and holes, they are also alive, as each vein and blemish attests; or they once were. Now, severed from the tree and shrub, but not yet dried and ground to mulch, they find purpose as photographs. Seeing a leafprint, Danh’s invention, for the first time gives a shock. It is unexpected and at the same time perfectly natural: it is as if the faces of men had registered spontaneously upon these crisped, fallen leaves; it is a kind of miracle.
But then an air of the miraculous has always surrounded photography. Honoré de Balzac believed that a portrait required the sitter to surrender a layer of his physical being, for how else could a man’s likeness be transferred to a metal plate? Photography was also used by canny entrepreneurs to record the appearance of ghosts, satisfying for many a desire to see the dead again, a desire that was particularly strong both during and immediately following the Civil War. And what are we looking at here if not ghosts, apparitions that have returned to find their voice in fallen leaves?
Meaning flourishes in the leafprint, returning to the original document a portion of what time had taken from it. The Confederate solider wearing a kerchief is one of those stoic young men who reveals little of himself for the camera, and while no iteration of this photograph could penetrate his thoughts, the leafprint bearing his image has much to say. There is the fragility of the leaf and also its teardrop shape (or is it an inverted heart?) but more suggestive are the tiny holes that call to mind the many piercing wounds of buckshot. The leafprint shows us what the soldier faced in battle and also what he inflicted upon his enemies; it makes us feel the necessity of courage and the inevitability of fear. A natural product of the leaf’s vulnerability, the holes tell of the soldier’s own mortality. Numerous leafprints have been stricken in this way, including the portrait of the Confederate surgeon with his wife and child: one hole penetrates each figure, as if they had been the victims of a skilled sharpshooter.
Each leaf has been shaped by violence. There are holes but also tears suggesting cuts and other disfigurements. Perhaps the most arresting object in War Memoranda is the leafprint titled, “Cracked Heart,” in which the portrait of an unidentified Confederate soldier is centred perfectly upon a xanthosoma leaf, his bare, handsome face situated near the apex. At the broad end, where the stalk would have been, the leaf is split to a point coinciding perfectly with the soldier’s heart. Radiating from this point are pale lines—a tracery of veins but also a visualization of pain. The leafprint tempts us to imagine the life and death of this soldier, to speculate whether he died of a chest wound, suffered a broken heart, or perhaps regretted the war itself. Each possibility bestows a layer of being upon the man portrayed.
The leafprint makes visible—makes palpable—something not evident in the original photograph but which is nevertheless a part of its history. Those made from leaves collected at battlegrounds and other historic sites have about them a still greater resonance. The catalpa leaf bearing the image of a Union soldier is from a tree that grows outside Chatham Manor in Falmouth, Virginia. When Whitman visited Chatham Manor in December, 1862, which was then being used as a hospital, he saw how pieces of men were discarded and left to the trees. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, he wrote, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.—a full load for a one-horse cart. The flesh and blood of soldiers nourished that tree, the catalpa that even now bears leaves each spring in accordance with the laws of nature. One of those leaves has been marked with the image of a Union soldier, and perhaps also carries within its cells a small amount of the man’s body, some protein or other substance surrendered under the surgeon’s knife and taken up from the root like sap.
Little is known about the men, women and children who witnessed the war, and many of them have been altogether forgotten. In 1875, ten years after the war’s end, Whitman reflected upon the unknown dead, buried by the thousands in fields across the upper South, each grave indistinguishable from its neighbour. “They make indeed the true Memoranda of War,” he wrote, “mute, subtle, immortal.” Using the portraits of soldiers and others whose identities are similarly beyond knowing, but whose faces come to us by virtue of photography’s miracle, Danh and Schultz have created a monument that is subtle and immortal but no longer mute. The dead have rushed upon us and with urgency they bid us to look again and to listen closely. They have stories to tell, stories of countless minor scenes and interiors, and they wish above all for these stories to be heard.
War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Renewal, an exhibition of work by Binh Danh and Robert Schultz, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York, August 21–October 16, 2016.
All images by Binh Danh and Robert Schultz.