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.