A Portrait of Death: Photography and Death Ritual During the Civil War by Jessica Dauterive

Unidentified soldier of the 26th New York Infantry Regiment with revolver in front of painted backdrop showing camp scene ca. 1861-63 1 photograph : sixth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 9.4 x 8.4 cm (case) Library of Congress

Unidentified soldier of the 26th New York Infantry Regiment with revolver in front of painted backdrop showing camp scene
ca. 1861-63
1 photograph : sixth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 9.4 x 8.4 cm (case)
Library of Congress

The Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs at the Library of Congress houses hundreds of individual portraits like this one, titled “Unidentified soldier of the 26th New York Infantry Regiment with revolver in front of painted backdrop showing camp scene.” When thinking of Civil War images, larger and more provocative shots of dead soldiers and ruined cities often come to mind. However, portraits of unidentified soldiers fill Civil War photography collections, more than any shots of the war itself. These images provide a source for historians to examine social change during wartime. Portraits blurred the line between the battlefield and the home front, providing a coping mechanism for soldiers and civilians to deal with death during the Civil War.

Photography was already a popular medium before the Civil War began. By the 1860s, technological innovations allowed average Americans to participate in the photography industry. The wet plate collodion process of developing images allowed for mass production, and made photographs accessible to a wide range of Americans. The image of this unidentified soldier is a sixth plate ambrotype. Sixth plate refers to the size of the image, which is smaller than a playing card and most common during this period, and ambrotype means that the image was printed on glass, as compared to tintypes that were on thin sheets of iron. A gold frame surrounds the image, another common feature for portraits in the nineteenth century. The frames hinged shut, protecting the image inside. The accessibility and durability of these portraits contributed to the role they would play for soldiers and civilians during the Civil War.

The portrait of this unidentified soldier is a typical example of Civil War-era portraits. Families visited photography studios at home to send soldiers off with portraits of loved ones. For the first time, common soldiers were able to take a lifelike piece of home with them to war. Soldiers could even take the portraits into battle, due to their small size and protective cases, and could gaze at the face of their mothers, wives, or children in their bleakest wartime moments. For those soldiers far away from home, or even those nearby, the gap between army life and civilian life was vast. Photographs helped to narrow the gap, providing soldiers with an image of home.

As soldiers began to head to the fields, many photographers followed. The most famous of these photographers was Matthew Brady. He and his crew traveled with mobile studios, what on-looking soldiers reportedly called “What-Is-It Wagons,” in an effort to document the war. These itinerant, or traveling, photographers developed the modern concept of photojournalism. However, the process of producing a photograph during the nineteenth century made mobility and action shots difficult. The wet plate collodion process required bulky equipment, many chemicals, and a dark space in which to change the plate for each exposure. Also, slow shutter speed did not allow for shots from life. Therefore, most images were “after” shots; images of ruined cities or dead bodies strewn across battlefields. These images brought the war to civilians in a way that could not be documented through words. However, these photographs could only be seen printed in newspapers or displayed in exhibitions. Portraits were also made in the field, and provided a way for civilians to conceptualize the war in a more personal way.

Hundreds of itinerant photographers profited from the market for portraits in army camps. Itinerant photographers were already involved in the photography industry, and continued their operations in a mobile setting during the war. Isaac H Bonsall, a little known photographer, is exceptional because he also formally enlisted in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His obituary, published in the Arkansas City Daily Traveler, identifies Bonsall as the photographer attached to the army of the Cumberland, mostly responsible for photographing maps and other official documents. However, a photograph exhibited in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibit, reveals that Bonsall also ran a mobile photography studio of his own. The image displays a large tent identified as the “Headquarters for Photography,” and shows a soldier outside of the tent, gazing at what seems to be a portrait of himself just taken inside. Bonsall’s obituary claims that he continued to run a photography studio in Kansas after the war, and city directories from Cincinnati, his birthplace, claim the same. Bonsall’s involvement in wartime photography, as well as other itinerant photographers, reveals that soldier’s portraits were certainly in high demand.

Itinerant photographers played a role in bridging the gap between the battlefield and the home front for soldiers. Their mobile studios were often quite similar, at least in process, to the permanent studios found at home. In the image of Bonsall’s tent, an open skylight near the front suggests that soldiers would step inside to pose for the portrait under the light, and then the photographer would develop the photograph in the rear of the tent. Posing for portraits was not a frequent activity for nineteenth century Americans, but did provide a setting more peaceful and familiar than the life of a traveling soldier. Perhaps, for the five to twenty seconds of exposure time, soldiers were able to escape the rough and foreign life of army camps for one that reminded them a little more of home.

The soldiers’ portraits served a similar function of replicating place for the families at home. Soldiers arrived in their uniforms, and props were displayed to signify the soldiers’ role in the army. Some posed with instruments, canteens, or, as in this photo, their weapons. Painted backdrops, like the one of an army camp behind the unidentified soldier, were sometimes included to make the image appear more “realistic.” Otherwise, there was rarely any indication on the image of who the soldier was, where he fought, or even who the photographer was. The personal nature of these portraits did not require such identification, as they were soon sent home to the soldier’s family. The stylized composition of soldiers’ portraits recreated the camp life of a soldier in a romanticized way. The soldiers appeared strong and dignified, and provided a sense of comfort for families at home. Any emotions expressed through soldiers’ letters were masked in these portraits, and provided families with a felt connection to the men in the fields.

Portraits held particular significance for soldiers and families in the event of death. As Drew Gilpin Faust discusses in her article “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying,” death rituals were drastically compromised during the Civil War. Nineteenth century Americans were not prepared for the violent, sudden and vast nature of death during the war. One aspect of a “good death” that was compromised, for both the living and the dying, was the ritual of dying surrounded by loved ones. A Civil War soldier, either Union or Confederate, was far removed from the comforts of home, especially in death. The last few moments of a soldier’s life that ended on the battlefield or in a hospital were not only painful, but lonely. Families were not able to comfort their loved ones, or begin to mourn for them. The Civil War created a setting where there was no peace, even in death.

Photographs seem to have provided a symbolic connection to family at the moment of a soldier’s death. In her article, Faust gives an example from a publication during the war reporting that a soldier was found dead with pictures of his children in his hands. Another such story describes soldiers pulling out family portraits in their final moments and speaking to them, as if their families were standing around them. These instances were witnessed in hospitals, but Michael DeGruccio describes similar instances on the battlefield in his article “Letting the War Slip through Our Hands: Material Culture and the Weakness of Words in the Civil War Era.” He discusses the findings of J. Howard Wert, who scavenged the bloodied battlefields of the Civil War for goods and mementos. Wert finds so many images of loved ones scattered among the remains of the dead that “he had enough images of small children alone to fill a small mahogany box.” DeGruccio notes that there are also records of dead soldiers found on the battlefield with photos of loved ones in their hands. Photographs of family members seem to have provided comfort to the soldiers seeking a “good death” during the Civil War.

The examples from Faust and DeGruccio demonstrate the role photographs played for soldiers, but the phenomenon of battlefield scavenging itself provides another way to view the blurred line between the battlefield and the home front. DeGruccio writes that many different groups gathered in the battlefields to recover relics from the dead, including family members who lived near recent battles. The items found ranged from bullets to valuable medals and coinage to personal letters and photographs. The desire for material tokens of war during this period signifies a need for American civilians to feel close to the soldiers at war. Families waded through dead bodies, partly hoping to find their dead relative, but mostly hoping that he made it through to the next battle. Burial remains an important part of death ritual for the living, but the nature of the Civil War meant families were not afforded the opportunity to properly inter their dead. Instead, families clung to the last remnants of the dead, including those that could be found on the battlefield. Portraits played a similar role, providing families with a surrogate site of mourning.

Inside the home, civilians also expressed the desire to protect the material memory of the dead. In Ruin Nation, Megan Kate Nelson discusses the destructive manifestations of the Civil War. Not only were cities and buildings destroyed, but also psychologies and social structures. In one section of the book, Nelson discusses the destruction of Southern homes by Union soldiers. Although the destruction of shelter was devastating enough, women fought vehemently for the preservation of personal items, particularly photographs. When war renders human lives disposable and death sudden, the material possessions they leave behind become ever more important. Nelson discusses instances when invading troops destroyed personal items out of spite. Women frequently lamented the loss of these irreplaceable items more than for the loss of their homes. Portraits represented not only a site to mourn, but also the last living image of a dead family member.

The Civil War’s implications reached far beyond the battlefields and the politics of war, affecting the social practices of nineteenth century Americans. Photography bridged the emotional gap between soldiers in the battlefields and their families at home. Photographers in permanent and mobile studios created portraits that provided a felt connection between soldiers and families during wartime, and a sense of comfort upon soldiers’ death. DeGruccio implores historians to look more closely at these material remnants of the war. Examining these Civil War portraits provides insight into the humanity of war, and even the humanity of death.

The faces of Civil War soldiers in these portraits are anonymous to us today. Rarely can we distinguish who these soldiers were or where they fought. However, each image tells a story. Look at this unidentified soldier. He was someone’s son; someone’s brother; possibly even someone’s husband or father. Although the pose suggests tranquility, the emotions of war—fear, uncertainty, homesickness, fatigue—were certainly running through his mind. We can’t know if he died on the battlefield, in a hospital, or made it through the bloody conflict. However, his picture still survives and so, too, does his memory. As DeGruccio eloquently insists, these images have not survived for “museum curators or antique collectors but instead for intense immediate psychological and spiritual needs of those who sought them.” The survival of this photo, and thousands of others, signifies the ancestral importance portraits held for nineteenth century Americans.

Primary Sources

Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lilj/; Arkansas City Daily Traveler, September 7, 1909; U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989

Further reading:

For a brief history of photography, see Cornell University’s exhibition site “Dawn’s Early Light,” http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/DawnsEarlyLight/index.html. For a discussion of death rituals in the nineteenth century, see Drew Gilpin Faust’s article “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying,” The Journal of Southern History (2001). On material culture during the war, see Michael DeGruccio’s article “Letting the War Slip through Our Hands: Material Culture and the Weakness of Words in the Civil War Era,” published in Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, 2011). On the destruction of homes during the Civil War, see Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Athens, 2012), chap 2.