Friday, May 18, 2012

`And Piles of Solid Moan'

Almost half a century ago when our family visited the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time, my brother and I searched unsuccessfully for a scene captured in this photograph by one of Mathew Brady’s associates, Alexander Gardner. It shows a dead Confederate soldier and a rifle leaning against a pile of lichen-covered stones in Devil’s Den, a boulder-strewn hill between Little Round Top and Big Round Top on the battlefield. I think we saw the picture in National Geographic and half-expected to see the same pile of stones and the rifle, if not the dead Rebel, but we never found them. Our naïveté says something about the indelible image of the war left by Brady, Gardner and other Civil War photographers.

Brady may have been born one hundred-ninety years ago today, on May 18, 1822, in Warren County, N.Y., near Lake George. The evidence is inconclusive. He also may have been born the following year, on another date. Brady learned his trade in Saratoga Springs, opened his photography studio in New York City in 1844, and eventually photographed 18 of the 19 American presidents from John Quincy Adams to William McKinley. He gave us our lasting image of the Civil War and of mid-nineteenth-century America. He photographed Lincoln many times; Grant, McClellan, Burnside and most senior Union officers; Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson; Clara Barton, Stephen A. Douglas, the great engineer Joseph Henry, the actor Edwin Booth, the midget Gen. Tom Thumb, William Cullen Bryant, Jenny Lind, Thomas Cole, Thaddeus Stevens, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Walt Whitman, among thousands of others.   

In 1861, his eyesight failing, Brady dispatched Gardner and twenty-two other photographers, each with a travelling darkroom, to document the war. Late in 1862, Gardner left Brady’s studio to work independently. He arrived at Gettysburg with two other former Brady photographers, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and James F. Gibson, on July 5, 1863, two days after the conclusion of the battle when the fields were still covered with corpses, mostly Confederate. The men took about 60 negatives, many of them notably grisly. By the time Brady arrived a week later, most of the bodies had been removed.

One of the most vivid eyewitness chroniclers of the Battle of Gettysburg was Lt. Frank Aretas Haskell, the aide-de-camp to Union Brig. Gen. John Gibbon. In a letter to his brother, eventually published as The Battle of Gettysburg by the Wisconsin History Commission in 1908, Haskell describes scenes comparable to those photographed by Gardner and the others:

“Oh, sorrowful was the sight to see so many wounded! The whole neighborhood in rear of the field became one vast hospital of miles in extent. Some could walk to the hospitals ; such as could not were taken upon stretchers from the places where they fell to selected points and thence the ambulance bore them, a miserable load, to their destination…Every conceivable wound that iron and lead can make, blunt or sharp, bullet, ball and shell, piercing, bruising, tearing, was there. Some have undergone the surgeon's work; some, like men at a ticket office, await impatiently their turn to have an arm or a leg cut off. Some walk about with an arm in a sling; some sit idly upon the ground; some lie at full length upon a little straw, or a blanket, with their brawny, now blood-stained, limbs bare, and you may see where the Minié bullet has struck or the shell has torn.”

Haskell was killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia on June 3, 1864. Emily Dickinson never wrote a poem with a direct topical reference to the war but sometime in 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg she wrote one beginning “My Portion is Defeat—today—,” including this stanza:

“`Tis populous with Bone and stain—
And Men too straight to stoop again—,
And Piles of solid Moan—
And Chips of Blank—in Boyish Eyes—
And scraps of Prayer—
And Death's surprise,
Stamped visible—in Stone— ”

[Go here and here to see more photographs by Brady, Gardner and their associates.]

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