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Civil War photos gave carnage a wide view, but also aided the grieving

Dead Confederate soldiers in the "slaughter pen" ar the foot of the Little Round Top at Gettysburg.
Photo courtesy
Library of Congress

Photos of the carnage from Gettysburg and other Civil War battles shocked many who saw them, but also provided a way to manage grief and trauma, says communication professor Cara Finnegan. At left, dead Confederate soldiers in the "slaughter pen" at the foot of Little Round Top at Gettysburg.

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6/19/2013 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Anyone with a passing interest in the Civil War has seen the photos of the battlefield dead. There are the rows and fields full of corpses from battles such as Antietam and Gettysburg (which will mark its sesquicentennial July 1-3). There are the faces and the expressions.

Cara Finnegan video
VIEW VIDEO | Communication professor Cara Finnegan, who is working on a book about ways in which people encountered and interpreted photography in its earlier decades, comments on how photography was useful during the Civil War, and Gettysburg, in particular. | Video produced by Anne Lukeman

We do not see pictures like these today of Americans killed in action.

Now consider that in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, photography was still early in its development, barely two decades old. Most people had seen few photographs, and many of those they had seen were portraits.

“The capacity of photography to represent the real carnage of war was very new and very shocking to people,” says University of Illinois communication professor Cara Finnegan, working on a book about ways in which people encountered and interpreted photography in its earlier decades.

The means for reproducing and distributing photos were still limited, Finnegan said. The process for copying an image onto card stock had only recently been developed. Newspapers and magazines were still decades from having the technology to print photos on their pages.

So even though the Civil War would be the first war for which photographic images were widely sold and circulated in public, very few people saw the actual photographs of the battlefield dead, Finnegan said.

Still, those photos had power, she said, in part because of reporters’ vivid accounts of their experience viewing them, those accounts often accompanied by engravings made from them, Finnegan said.

One writer at the time, looking into these small but distinct photos with a magnifying glass, describes the scenes as “perfectly horrible,” showing “what tortures the poor victims must have passed before they were relieved from their sufferings.”

Another describes the photos as a reasonable substitute for having “a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement,” which he hoped would shake those who seemed not to care about the war’s victims. He imagines the grief of those left behind. He imagines the possibility of a mother viewing a photo and seeing her dead son.

In a sense, through the combination of engravings and vivid description, “people are being taught how to see a photograph, as if they could actually see it,” Finnegan said. It also demonstrates how we often see what we want or need to see in photographs, and how imagination plays a part in how we interpret them, she said.

(Another chapter in Finnegan’s upcoming book looks at how people, decades later, would make confident judgments about Abraham Lincoln’s character based on what they believed they saw in portraits of him.)

“The photographs from the battlefields don’t just bring dead bodies into view – they bring the whole idea of war itself,” Finnegan said. “They take an event that seems far away and bring it closer to home, allowing – or perhaps forcing – people to acknowledge the losses of war.”

The detail in the photographs, whether seen or imagined, also “particularized war,” Finnegan said. “The real faces and places, the fact that you could recognize someone in the picture, forced you to think about life and death itself and to imagine the particular losses of so many brothers, sons, husbands, etc.”

The new medium of photography played a role, too, in helping soldiers and their families deal with long and sometimes permanent absence, Finnegan said. The same photographers who produced photos from the battlefields spent much of their time between battles in camp, making portraits of soldiers that they could then send home.

And for the first time in a major war, many soldiers were now carrying portraits of family, Finnegan said. In some cases, those portraits helped to identify them after they were killed.

“Photography becomes a way to manage the grief and trauma of the Civil War,” Finnegan said.

Editor's note: To reach Cara Finnegan, call 217-333-1855; email
Finnegan will be unavailable between June 22 and July 6.

Finnegan’s book, tentatively titled “Reading Photography’s Viewers,” is under contract with the University of Illinois Press.

A wide collection of Civil War photos are maintained by the Library of Congress, and available through this link:

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