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Reviewed by:
  • Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War ed. by J. Matthew Gallman and Gary W. Gallagher
  • Timothy Sweet (bio)
Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War. Edited by J. Matthew Gallman and Gary W. Gallagher. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015. Pp. 256. Cloth, $32.95.)

For this project, the editors invited historians to reflect on a single Civil War photograph. Twenty-eight images and reflections are collected here, [End Page 449] in a nine-by-nine-inch format that allows for excellent reproduction of even the larger-format photographs. These are grouped into five categories by subject: leaders, soldiers, civilians, victims, and places.

To some extent, the kind of reflection lines up with the kind of subject. Portraits, as we might expect, elicit considerations of photography’s capacity to reveal character. For Harold Holzer, a particular photograph of Lincoln taken by Alexander Gardner on November 11, 1863, shows the president at the height of his powers more clearly than several others taken earlier that November. Holzer argues that it was the sculptor Sarah Ames who persuaded Lincoln to enter the studio one more time so that she could obtain photographic models for her proposed bust, and that this context more fully brought out Lincoln’s character. In the pairing of Grant and Lee, Joan Waugh finds that Grant’s face at Cold Harbor in 1864 displays his confidence in the ultimate Union victory, even if the photograph was likely staged, while Ethan Rafuse sees in a little-known field photograph of Lee from the fall of 1864 a weariness that better-known studio photographs missed. By contrast, Kathryn Meier explains the uncharacteristic “sternness” of Stonewall Jackson’s Chancellorsville portrait, according to his wife’s memoir, as a momentary response to a strong wind (55). The Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson, a self-acknowledged “stone-cold killer,” “looks to be a gentle soul” in a prison photograph, in Daniel Sutherland’s view (98–99). In an interesting take on the convention that portraiture reveals essence, Aaron Sheehan-Dean selects an image of five Union soldiers sitting with their backs to the camera, looking out over their camp. Their humble pose, Sheehan-Dean argues, humanizes them while the fact that we do not see their faces dehumanizes them: “This was a tension that every enlisted man struggled against” (72).

Other kinds of responses cut across categories, however. A few historians identify photographs as synecdoches for some larger aspect of the war, as for example when Gallagher reads Jeb Stuart’s “romantic” 1862 portrait as an explanatory emblem of “Confederate military failure” (38). None accomplishes this kind of reflection more brilliantly than Stephen Berry, who finds “the whole of the war in a single tableau” staged by George Barnard in a deserted Atlanta street in 1864 (216). The tableau depicts an African American in military uniform (likely a cook or a teamster, since the United States Colored Troops did not operate in Atlanta) who is sitting and reading a book, gun by his side, leaning his back against a building that bears the sign “Auction & Negro Sales.” Berry goes on to connect the iconography of book and gun to postwar history, invoking Richard Wright, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. [End Page 450]

Other scholars find occasions to review a particular, sometimes neglected theme of Civil War history. Reflecting on Alexander Gardner’s remarkable photograph from Antietam of a dead horse who remained in a graceful, lifelike pose, James Robertson Jr. reminds us of the importance of horses during the war. From an image of a soldier posing beside a woman, three children, and a dog, Caroline E. Janney reviews the largely forgotten history of family life in camp. Susan Eva O’Donovan finds “two images inside one” in Timothy O’Sullivan’s 1862 photograph of five African Americans fording the Rappahannock River with their ox-drawn wagon in the presence of Union troops (145). The two races do not look at each other or even acknowledge each other’s presence (except for the teenage boy, who seems to eye the soldiers warily). This apartness, O’Donovan argues, indicates slaves’ agency in taking their...


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pp. 449-452
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