On April 12, 1861, at 4:30 am, Confederate forces attacked the US military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. At the time, Fort Sumter was under construction and the Union troops inside were short of provisions. While this date is used as the beginning of the war, the events had already been set in motion by the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in November 1860 and by the secession of seven states from the United States to the Confederate States of America.
FORT SUMTER SHOWING THE EFFECTS OF THE BOMBARDMENT BY THE ARTILLERY OF THE ARMY
& NAVY OF THE UNITED STATES WHILE OCCUPIED BY THE REBELS FROM APRIL 1861 TO FEBRUARY 1865, ca. 1865, Albumen print
FORT SUMTER SHOWING THE EFFECTS OF THE BOMBARDMENT BY THE ARTILLERY OF THE ARMY & NAVY OF THE UNITED STATES WHILE OCCUPIED BY THE REBELS FROM APRIL 1861 TO FEBRUARY 1865, ca. 1865, Albumen print
The tale of the American Civil War has been told thousands of times. Historians,
both academic and amateur, have delved into the past to understand just how
the Confederate States of America decided to secede from the Union to form an
independent country, and how, in response, the Union eventually quashed their
attempts. Our current exhibition considers photography and its relationship to the War Between the States.
The George Eastman House collection holds over 1,100 photographs related to
the civil war, a modest number in relation to national standards. The strengths of this collection are some unique items, including a series of photographs found in a United States Postal Service dead letter office, several portraits of Confederate officers aboard the C.S.S. Alabama, and an album assembled to commemorate the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. In addition, items such as Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War provide extensive holdings of war-related scenes and landscapes.
It is estimated that over 620,000 soldiers died during the American Civil War
along with countless civilians. This remains the highest number of deaths for
American soldiers in any war. Photography played an important role in bringing this sobering reality to the public as, for the first time in history, photographers
showed the dead that remained on battlefields, and publishers had the ability to
reproduce these images in quantity. In addition, images showing the destruction
of cities, new American heroes, and arsenals of troops filled the pages of popular
journals such as Harper’s Weekly and Humphrey’s Journal.
Photography was still in the early stages of its invention. Therefore, many photographers were new to their craft and as the war raged on, photographic supplies were sometimes expensive and hard to come by. In addition, the existing processes could not capture the chaos of battle, with the cannons flaring and men fighting in combat.
Now at the sesquicentennial of these events, the stillness of what remains in these photographed scenes resonates in American minds. Destruction, struggle, and loneliness are evoked by the haunting, empty scenes, but we may also perceive an impression of valor in a young face, a sense of patriotism for a chosen side, a feeling of dignity in the face of death.
Jamie M. Allen is an Assistant Curator in the Department of Photographs at George Eastman House. She is a graduate of The University of Arizona, Tucson (2000) and holds a MA in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University (2006).