Saturday, October 20, 2012

October 20, 1862

October 20, 1862:  The New York Times reviews the exhibition of the photographs of Mathew Brady’s studio in New York---most of them taken by Alexander Gardner.  This sombering and sober review, often quoted in our time, offers an eloquent response to photography being used in a major way to bring war to the public.  Civilians’ view of War has been forever changed: 

The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement. There would be a gathering up of skirts and a careful picking of way; conversation would be less lively, and the general air of pedestrians more subdued. As it is, the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type. The roll we read is being called over in Eternity, and pale, trembling lips are answering to it. Shadowy fingers point from the page to a field where even imagination is loth to follow. Each of these little names that the printer struck off so lightly last night, whistling over his work, and that we speak with a clip of the tongue, represents a bleeding, mangled corpse. It is a thunderbolt that will crash into some brain -- a dull, dead, remorseless weight that will full upon some heart, straining it to breaking. There is nothing very terrible to us, however, in in the list, though our sensations might be different if the newspaper carrier left the names on the battle-field and the bodies at our doors instead.

We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. The crape on the bell-pull tells there is death in the house, and in the close carriage that rolls away with muffled wheels you know there rides a woman to whom the world is very dark now. . . . It attracts your attention, but does not enlist your sympathy. . . .  
Dead Confederate artillermen at Antietam

Mr. BRADY has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard, "The Dead of Antietam." Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action. Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes. It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But so it is.

These poor subjects could not give the sun sittings, and they are taken as they fell, their poor hands clutching the grass around them in spasms of Pain, or reaching out for a help which none gave. Union, soldier and Confederate, side by side, here they lie, the red light of battle faded from their eyes but are set as when they met in the last fierce change which located their souls and sent them grappling with each other and battling to the very grass of Heaven. The ground whereon they lie is torn by shot and shell, the grass is trampled down by the tramp of their feet, and little revulets that and scarcely be of blood trickling along the earth like tears over a mother’s face. . . .

These is one side of the picture that the sun did not catch, one phase that has escaped photographic skill it is the background of widows and orphans, torn from the bosom of their natural protectors by the red  ruthless hand of Battle, and thrown upon the brotherhood of God. Homes have been made desolate, and the light of life in thousands of hearts has been extinguished forever. All of this desolation imagination must paint -- broken hearts cannot be photographed.

These pictures have a terrible distinctness. By the aid of the magnifying glass, the very features of the slain may be distinguished. We would scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the gaping trenches. For these trenches have a terror for a woman's hear, that goes far to outweigh all the others that hover over the battle-field. . . .
Confederate dead at the Bloody Lane at Antietam

---On this date, Pres. Lincoln re-establishes a Provisional Court for the region of Louisiana, and appoints Charles A. Peabody of New York as judge.  Union civil authority has now been restored.

---Two large skirmishes occur this day in the state of Missouri between Union cavalry (a Missouri regiment in once case, and Illinois in the other) and Confederate mounted raiders.  The Federal forces prevail in both engagements.

---Alexander Biddle, of the 121st Pennsylvania Infantry, writes home to his wife with suggestions for a care package she might send to him:

A few spermaceti candles, the little silver watch repaired, any late newspaper, a fine toothed comb a small box of dried ginger, some ginger nuts bread, another large flask with some good brandy in it and anything else you think of. Say two pair of colored flannel drawers, my measure round the waist is 36 inches, length of drawers 3 ft 3 inches. It is very difficult for me to say what I want but every now and then I think of some of our little home comforts which would be very acceptable Above all dearest I want your photograph. I like to have it by me – you cannot conceive how I long to see you and how tiresome and lonely it is to think how long it may be before I get a chance of being with you. . . .

He continues with a description of the Antietam battlefield as he and another officer rode over it:

I rode this morning with the Colonel to return the call of General Ricketts and found him and Johnny Williams, James Biddle, and their surgeon and Ben Richards – Ben Richards rode with us over the Antietam battle field and we saw the ground over which Ricketts division advanced/ He lost one in every three of his men as the reports show. I saw wheels broken 30 or 40 dead horses, quantities of cartridge box tins. Old haversacks, trees scored shattered and perforated by ,shot and in two instances large trees cut down. One tree had been twice nearly cut in half. A meeting house with 25 or 30 shot holes through it. Many unexploded shells still on the ground We passed over the part which Ricketts marched over and then went towards our Camp. We all very undecided about our movements soldiers in the field know but little beyond what they are engaged in.
Dunker Church on the
Antietam battlefield

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