Civil War Photography

Civil War Soldiers Were Real People

In honor of Memorial Day, here are some of my favorite photographs from the Civil War. Predictably, they’re all Union soldiers (I can’t bring myself to honor Confederates today) and the commonality here is that they’re soldiers in the face of almost certain death — brutal death — and yet there’s a jaunty swagger about them. These aren’t scowling marble statues of equestrian superheroes — these are real men and boys in arguably the most harrowing circumstances imaginable.

Click each on to enlarge. It’s worth it to see the faces.

Log hut company kitchen, 1864.

Log hut company kitchen, 1864.

Winter quarters; soldiers in front of their wooden hut, "Pine Cottage."

Winter quarters; soldiers in front of their wooden hut, “Pine Cottage.”

Soldiers at rest after drill, Petersburg, Va., 1864.

Soldiers at rest after drill, Petersburg, Va., 1864.

Wounded Native American sharpshooters on Marye's Heights after 2nd Battle of Fredericksburg, May 1864.

Wounded Native American sharpshooters on Marye’s Heights after 2nd Battle of Fredericksburg, May 1864.

Possibly my favorite Civil War photo:

Soldiers in the trenches before battle, Petersburg, Va., 1865. (Though this is disputed. Could be Fredericksburg, Spring 1863.)

Soldiers in the trenches before battle, Petersburg, Va., 1865. (Though this location is disputed. Could be Fredericksburg, Spring 1863.)

Today’s holiday originated as a commemoration of the Americans who were killed in the Civil War. On average one out of every five of the men shown above never made it home alive.

(Photos courtesy of The National Archives and the Library of Congress.)

  • eljefejeff

    excellent photos. Thanks Bob

    • nicole


  • muselet

    I don’t like Ernest Hemingway. (As ever, yes this is relevant, and as ever, it’ll take a few moments to get to the point.)

    So we’re clear, I’m not talking about his telegraphic prose style, with adverbs banished and adjectives rare. As a literary stylist, he was brilliant.

    What Hemingway wrote about is what bothers me. In Hemingway’s writing, facing death was What Men Must Do, preferably in war but if one wasn’t convenient then by running the bulls in Pamplona or going big game hunting or drinking their livers to stone and starting bar fights; at the very least, would-be Real Men could face death by proxy by attending bullfights. Not engaging in such antics marked a man as soft and contemptible.

    Hemingway didn’t realize, couldn’t have realized, that he was part of the last generation fully to buy into the notion of war and death as a necessary rite of passage.

    End of lit crit, but the underlying attitude—you’re not fully a Man until you willingly face death—was an old one even before Hemingway glorified it (to be fair, he wasn’t the first or the last writer to do so) and in somewhat attenuated form still persists today. It was certainly prevalent in the middle of the 19th century, and that’s what I see on the faces of those young soldiers: they’re going far from home, they will stare death in the face and they will come home Men, or if they die then they will die as Men.

    And in an age when most people lived their lives within a day’s travel of their place of birth, going off to war was an adventure for young men, undertaken for what they had been told was a noble cause (as had, of course, the young men they would fight).

    Those “scowling marble statues of equestrian superheroes” were erected to distract, to draw the mind’s eye away from the killed and the lamed and the madded, away from the reality that precious few of those young men on their noble adventure returned home hale and whole.

    The young adventurers in these photographs didn’t realize, or perhaps didn’t mind, that one in five of them would die—people were closer to death in those days.

    I don’t have any grand conclusion to this, except this

    Civil War Soldiers Were Real People

    is something we should bear in mind every time we look at a photograph of the Civil War or a monument to the Civil War dead.

    (Apologies for the rambling. This is what happens when I try to get philosophical without a couple of drinks in me.)


    • reginahny

      Thanks for rambling alopecia. I got where you were going and so appreciate your intelligent and thoughtful contributions to Bob’s blog.
      The idea that “people were closer to death” in those days is so true — I’ve heard it from my WW2 relatives, from my Veitnam / Korea relatives and even from my husband regarding the slums in Venezuela. I don’t want to live in a world where there are places where “life is cheap. I won’t accept that.

      • muselet

        Thank you for the kind words. I was hoping I’d made some kind of sense.

        Death wasn’t less of an abstraction in the 19th century. If you didn’t live in a city—and most people didn’t—any meat you ate came from something you or someone close to you killed, you probably didn’t have the services of a professional undertaker so you’d have had to prepare the bodies of your dead relatives for burial, and people died young of all manner of (to us) stupid and avoidable causes. I honestly think we and our 19th-century ancestors would find each other utterly alien.


  • JozefAL

    (I can’t bring myself to honor Confederates today)

    Yeah, because that would be so horrible, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Confederate soldiers were little more than the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan–people being USED by a government trying to “prove” something with little to no regard for the soldiers.

    Furthermore, most of the Union soldiers weren’t really that eager to “free the slaves”–a concept which, incidentally, was completely alien to the soldiers; they’d been told they were fighting to “preserve the Union,” a Union which maintained a right to own slaves.

    Not honoring Confederate soldiers (who, by and large, never owned a single slave as they were too poor to own much property at all) is entirely your choice, but it’s also incredibly mean-spirited and hardly what one would expect of a “progressive.” In fact, wasn’t that part of the “progressive” argument against the Iraq War, when our commitment to the soldiers was being questioned as un-American? That we could actually support the troops without supporting the War itself? You’re doing what the right-wing has always accused the left/liberals/progressives of doing all the time–by not supporting the war, we didn’t support the troops fighting it. Your final “thought” about the holiday shows how mean-spirited your decision is. The holiday did originate to honor ALL Americans killed in the War (both Union AND Confederate) and that average of “one out of every five” not making it home alive includes Confederate soldiers.

    I’m disappointed in you, Bob. I thought you were better than that. (The LEAST you could’ve done was to refrain from the “can’t bring myself” line.)

    • Bob Cesca

      Lost Cause nonsense. Confederates were traitors.

      • LeShan Jones

        Exactly, the south was allowed to define the Civil War for nearly a hundred years after they lost. In that time we get all sorts of BS reasons for the war except the actual reason that was stated by all of the southern states when the seceded.

        I can and do feel for the poor dumb Confederate soldier who went along with the moneyed interests of the day getting them to fight and die for slavery, but as a black man I don’t fool myself in thinking there was anything remotely noble about them or their “lost cause”.

    • nicole

      “they’d been told they were fighting to “preserve the Union,” a Union which maintained a right to own slave”

      Yeah, and if the South had not declared themselves as independent of the rest of the country (which made them TRAITORS), the war would not have been fought at all.

      You’re entitled to your opinion, but the fact remains that the South seceded ONLY in order to protect their human property, and damned if I don’t agree with Bob, Confederates made their choice, we have no obligation to honor traitors who died fighting to preserve the unconscionable practice of enslaving other human beings. .

    • eljefejeff

      In the south, 150 years later, there are still apologists who don’t recognize they were 100% in the wrong….and not just a few lunatics on the fringe….until recently, most statehouses flew the confederate flag. In many(or most) areas, they still refer to it as the War of Northern Aggression and claim it was a matter of states rights or tariffs. This is why I can’t honor them. When they own up to their disgraceful mistake, disown their flag and fully accept minorities as equals, then I promise to honor their fallen soldiers.

    • trgahan

      I repeat myself…just because we could look at the historic record and see that some Union soldiers were racist and Lincoln did not initially intend to free the slaves DOES NOT mean the Union’s cause was somehow tainted or that the Confederate cause was somehow more noble.

      Hell, most soldiers on BOTH sides joined up for the adventure and to get away from the monotony of daily 19th century life. We should all be taken aback at the idea that running off to kill your fellow countryman was a “fun diversion.” Of course, those that survived the first battles quickly realized the realities of war.