As part of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, there will be a new column on this blog called “Civil War Journal” which has been borrowed from a History Channel series of the early 90’s that is no longer running, though some re-runs are still broadcast early in the morning.
As part of this semester, I am taking an Art Appreciation course which will basically cover the entire history of art, from presumably the first cave paintings to contemporary artists of today. Photographs are one medium that will be covered and it got me thinking about just how important a role they played during the American Civil War, and some could even argue that the war between the states gave birth to American photography, as the up-and-coming technology finally had a purpose. Before that, shots were only taken of politicians or anyone wealthy enough to sit for a photograph. Few shots of nature sprung up, but never more so than once the fall of 1862 came around, and the Civil War was reaching the height of its destruction. Matthew Brady took some of the very first pictures in history of dead soldiers on a battlefield, when he arrived in Antietam days after both armies lost a combined total of 22,000 men in just one day (ten hours) of fighting.
As important as those shots were, I have chosen to focus on something different in this article—the next four years will provide ample opportunity to explore all aspects of the war that divided the nation. Instead, I would like to examine only two pictures taken by Matthew Brady of President Abraham Lincoln, one in 1860 and then one more in 1865. In just those five years, Lincoln underwent a transformation even worse than what modern-day presidents go through in regards to their physical features changing due to the stress.
Below is a picture taken in 1860, before Lincoln was even elected, and shortly after a debate in February of that year. This one photograph helped to sell Lincoln to the United States, because as you can see, Lincoln looks nothing like a politician. He isn’t particularly good-looking, but there’s no arrogance about him, and he seems rather homely or folksy. But along with all that stands a rather tall man who is no doubt proud of his accomplishments, and someone who is very earnest and honest looking (“Honest Abe” ring a bell?). His hand perched on a book gives away his lawyer profession, but without even speaking a word, we can tell that justice is in his eyes. Lastly, there is still some youthfulness still left in this 51-year-old.
Now comes one of the most famous pictures of Lincoln, which chances are you have seen, but maybe never really looked at closely. On its own, it really isn’t that startling, but when compare with a shot taken just five years earlier, it truly is amazing, even saddening. In the picture below, taken on April 10, 1865, just four days before his assassination and days after the Union finally triumphed over the Confederacy with Robert E. Lee surrendering at Appomattox, Brady was asked to take one more photograph of the victorious president, and despite all the rigors of the presidency have had on him, we can see a look of victory in his face hidden in the wrinkles that formed over time and the graying of his hair. Here, Lincoln is sitting, some sagging in his once strong and broad shoulders, and once again looking directly into the lens of the camera, but there is no earnest look this time, just one of peace. One could say he looks defeated, which could be true because of his health, but if you look closely, you can see a little smile in his mouth, and it is almost as if he knows that his time is up. He looks at the camera as if to say, “I have done my job. It is time for me to go.” Lincoln had ended slavery, and even though he did not set out to do that when the war began, it clearly became prioritized and one of the goals of his presidency. He had saved the Union and ended the scourge of bondage, and now it was time for him to leave this earth.
One could argue that John Wilkes Booth did not assassinate Lincoln, he simply put him out of his misery. Having to deal with the death of two young children, and his wife, Mary Todd, who was never stable mentally after that, took quite a toll on him. That and the fact that he constantly waited for any bit of news about the war, sometimes waiting at the telegraph office all night to hear casualty reports of battle. As I have said earlier, I never was a fan of his politics as president, but as a man, there may not be a more fascinating American than Abraham Lincoln, and these two pictures are just a small part of the legacy he has left us.
As a side note, if you haven’t seen the Geico “Honest Abe” Lincoln commercial, click here to check it out, it is rather well done.