About the Header Image

Before I get to the serious work of discussing the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and the Civil War, I thought that in this inaugural post I would say something about the header image.

I thought long and hard about what I would do on this blog and whether or not I had the time to do it. It took me very little time, however, to choose a header image for this blog.

This photograph is perhaps not as well know as some of the others that Alexander Gardner took after the Battle of Antietam (e.g. the Confederate dead along the Hagerstown Pike or in the Bloody Lane). According to William A. Frassanito’s pioneering work, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloody Day (1978), this image was taken on the northern end of the battlefield, just 60 yards across the Hagerstown Pike from the southwestern corner of Miller’s Cornfield. The view looks north-northwest toward the North Woods.

In this photograph, a Union burial party pauses as it inters dead Northern soldiers. In his analysis of this photo, Frassanito comments:

It is probably because of the presence of a the burial detail that Gardner produced only one negative of this group of bodies. Glass-plate negatives of the Civil War period were not sensitive enough to stop motion, and all movement produced a noticeable blur on the finished plate. The burial party was willing to halt its activities for one exposure, but they probably would not have tolerated successive interruptions (p. 146).

It is worth noting in this context that Frassanito believes this photograph was taken on September 19, 1862, two days after the battle, and no doubt the bodies had begun to ripen a bit. Indeed, one can tell from the image that they had already started bloating substantially. So the burial detail was probably in a hurry to complete its work.

“Ok, but why this photo?” you may ask.

The composition and the lighting of this image intrigue me. More than half of the photograph is consumed by the sky. The North Woods also take up a substantial portion of the image. The burial party only occupies a small part of the photograph, something that seems to diminish the group’s significance. At the same time the lighting looks dim. The forest in the distance appears to be slightly obscured by mist. Was it cloudy or humid that day? Was the glass negative underexposed? Whatever the case, the image is a bit on the dark side.

There is also the attitude of the soldiers in the burial party.

Many of them wear grim expressions, but their postures are casual, and they look for all the world like a department of public works crew watching a steamroller smooth out a newly laid pavement.

And finally, there are the poor dead.

They are twisted, bloated, and mutilated. Some of the bodies are so badly damaged that they are covered by blankets. They are human wreckage.

To my mind (and I understand if others don’t see it), there are several incongruities in this image. On the one hand, there is something awful, special, and portentous here. A small portion of the 3,700 men slaughtered near Sharpsburg are being buried. Collected from where they fell, their broken bodies lie in a sad row. The lighting literally suggests a darkness has descended across the land. And yet, on the other hand, the composition appears to minimize the significance of the event. The burial detail and its task seem unimportant when measured against the size of the sky. Moreover, the stances of the burial party do not suggest reverence. Rather, they look like they are performing a mundane and unpleasant task. Death here, then, is important due to its significance and yet unimportant because it is commonplace.

This image puts me in mind of Snowden’s “secret” in Catch-22. In what is the climactic scene of the novel (sorry, here comes a spoiler), Yossarian realizes in the most awful way that Snowden is not merely suffering from a wound “as large as a football” on his outer thigh. In addition, “a chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his [Snowden’s] other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out.” As a result of this wound, “Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.” It is at this moment that Yossarian makes a discovery.

[He] gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

It’s a prosaic truth but no less awful for being prosaic and true. And for me, this photo captures the awful and prosaic truth of death during the Civil War.