Friday, January 12, 2024

Tracing 'A Long Arc': These 9 Civil War-era photographs in an Atlanta exhibit drive home identity, race and trauma across the South, US

A young Union artilleryman (High Museum of Art, more information below)
I have been remiss in making a timely post about my visit to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to see its incredible exhibit, “A Long Arc: Photography and the American South since 1845.”

The show, which concludes its Atlanta run on Sunday (Jan. 14), has nearly 200 black and white and color photographs. They are presented chronologically, taking the visitor through a series of rooms.

As the introductory panel says, “A Long Arc” demonstrates “how Southern photography has shaped American concepts of race, place, and history.” I am no art critic, so I offer a New York Times essay, this article and this one for deeper looks.

While I was struck during my October visit by compelling images from the past 100 years (some seen here), I am concentrating this post on the first gallery, related to slavery, secession and the Civil War. (Picket photo below)

As the High states, photography was in its relative infancy on the eve of the war.

“Portrait photography in the antebellum South was most distinctive for how it projected and channeled racial and social identity at a moment of intense debate over slavery. It was not unusual for Southern slaveholders to commission photographs of their children with enslaved members of their households, a means of reinforcing social hierarchies. Yet, significantly, the medium also offered free Black Americans a means to declare their presence and self-possession in a society that did not regard them as citizens.”

Wartime studios provided portraits soldiers could send home. Photographs of battlefield carnage and the destruction of Southern cities viewed the land as “the repository of memory, history, and trauma,” says the High, which amassed most of the collection.

I am sorry that I am writing this just before the Atlanta exhibit ends (life got in the way). But if you can't get there in the next couple days, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., will be hosting "Long Arc" from March 2 to July 31.


Several images of such markets were taken during the war, often after Federal forces had taken a Rebel city, such as Alexandria, Va., shown here. The photographer was A.J. Russell, a member of the 141st New York. When he took the photo, the building had been converted into a prison holding Confederates.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, between 1830 and 1836, Alexandria – across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. – was the seat of the slave trade. Hundreds of slaves were held in this building.

A New York Times essay on the High Museum exhibit said this about the “Slave Pen” label for photograph: “Think about the cold fact of that label for a moment. The places where enslaved people were imprisoned before being sold weren’t called jails. They were called pens. Built to contain livestock.”

Andrew Joseph Russell (American, 1830-1902), Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia, 1863, albumen silver print from glass negative, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Lucinda Weil Bunnen Fund and the Donald and Marilyn Keough Family, 2021.266. 


In 1860-61, patriotic fervor (both pro- and anti-secession) was at its height, according to the Creative Cockades website. Women, in particular, wore dresses or other garments festooned with cockades, or they might wear a sash, such as this Southern woman. The reality of a bloody war had not yet set in and many thought the coming conflict would be minimal.

In South Carolina, civilian men and women, and even companies of soldiers, wore palmetto emblems during the Civil War, according to Hinman Auctions.

“Southern cockades were generally all blue, all red, or red and white,” according to Creative Cockades. “Once again, center emblems include stars, military buttons and pictures, but additionally Southern products such as palmetto fronds, pine burs, corn or cotton were used.

Unidentified photographer, woman wearing secession sash,  ca. 1860, ambrotype, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Lucinda Weil Bunnen Fund and the Donald and Marilyn Keough Family, 2021.279. 


This image really caught my attention: What was their relationship exactly? What became of them later in life?

The New York Times said this of such photographs: “Even before photographs of battle fortifications and mass graves and prison camps and cities in ruin brought home in detail the enormous scale and human cost of the Civil War, images of the realities of enslaved people in the South inspired widespread moral outrage and aided the abolitionist movement. Southern politicians had been lying about both the benevolence of enslavers and the ‘three-fifths’ nature of Black humanity since the founding of this country, but the real truth about slavery began to come clear to most people outside the South only when first photographs of enslaved people ermerged.”

Whitehurst Studios, Mary Zulette Waterhouse, Richmond, Va., Age about Two, with Unidentified Enslaved Child, 1850s, hand-tinted sixth plate daguerreotype in hinged enclosure, 3 1/2 x 3 inches, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, museum purchase, 2012.21


This photograph by John Reekie (1832-1885) can lead viewers to gasp at its content and composition. It was included in a sketch book produced by legendary Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner. The relatively unknown Reekie captured African-American soldiers in April 1865 digging up the remains of Union troops who died nearly a year before at Cold Harbor, Va.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art says this of the photograph: “Reekie’s atypical low vantage point and tight composition ensure that the foreground soldier’s head is precisely the same size as the bleached white skulls and that the head of one of the workers rests in the sky above the distant tree line. It is a macabre and chilling portrait -- literally a study of black and white -- that is as memorable as any made during the war.

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1865, published 1866, albumen silver print, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Lucinda Weil Bunnen Fund and the Donald and Marilyn Keough Family, 2021.267


Isaac H. Bonsall (1833–1909), according to the High Museum, was one of many enterprising photographers who took advantage of the public’s rising interest in photography, especially studio portraits, during the onset of the Civil War.

“These photographs allowed sitters to strengthen bonds with their loved ones, reinvent themselves, and construct personal histories,” the museum says. “In 1862, the New York Tribune published an observer’s account of the onslaught of traveling portrait studios among the army: “A camp is hardly pitched before one of the omnipresent artists in collodion and amber … pitches his canvas gallery and unpacks his chemicals.”

Bonsall’s Photo Gallery, Chattanooga, TN, 1865, albumen silver print, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Lucinda Weil Bunnen Fund and the Donald Marilyn Keough Family, 2021.269.


The men of 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Light Artillery, Battery A, are shown on drill circa 1864. Organized in Nashville in 1864 and dispatched until 1866, the unit accompanied the infantry and cavalry troops into battle with horse-drawn cannons.

Though many batteries were relegated to everyday garrison duty, Battery A fought in the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, where these photographs chronicling the loading and firing of the gun may have been taken, the High Museum says.

Unidentified photographer, albumen silver print, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Lucinda Weil Bunnen Fund and the Donald and Marilyn Keough Family, 2021.275.


More than 25.000 black artillerymen, many of whom were freedmen from Confederate states, served in the Union Army. Artillerymen were required to handle hundreds of pounds of supplies, such as the gun, its limber, a traveling forge and caissons to store the ammunition, according to the High Museum.

Unidentified photographer, Young biracial artilleryman, undated, ambrotype, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Lucinda Weil Bunnen Fund and the Donald and Marilyn Keough Family, 2021.280. 


George N. Barnard (1819-1902) arrived in Atlanta shortly after the Confederates abandoned the city. He was intent on taking photographs of its defenses, including this image of what is now part of the Georgia Tech campus.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art says “this view is one of the most frequently cited and reproduced of all Barnard’s war photographs. The subject is an abandoned Confederate fort with rows of chevaux-de-frise running through the landscape.”

Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta, Ga., No. 1, 1864, printed 1866, albumen silver print, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Mrs. Everett N. McDonnell, 75.23.

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