Photography and War

Just as the Civil War modernized the economy, it modernized culture, even if its effects took time to manifest themselves. (One of the great novels resulting from the war, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was not published until 1884.) It eroded Victorian habits of feeling and sentimentality. As Edmund Wilson argued, the war chastened American language, making it sharper, more concise, more pungent. The war stripped away illusions. This scourging was accelerated by a flourishing new medium: photography.

Photography complemented—and competed with—old discursive methods of verbal description by bringing a visceral immediacy to an audience avid for images. Photographic images became the connective tissue binding the home front to the combat zone. And in a society anxious about its very survival, portraits of statesmen and generals provided reassuring testimony of steadfast character; Lincoln used photography to assert his leadership over a fractious polity. When Mathew Brady exhibited “The Dead of Antietam” in the fall of 1862, the horror and pity of war disoriented Americans. Sensation was replacing rationality in the public’s mind.

In the writings from The Atlantic and photographs from the National Portrait Gallery in the pages that follow, one can see a people grappling to make sense of life in the cauldron of war. And one can see, in hesitant and undeveloped ways, the emergence of the modern United States of America.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

Video

What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In