November 17, 2012, 12:27 AM
In March and April 1862, a handful of photographers, some employed by Mathew Brady, set out from Washington to record the scenes surrounding the Army of the Potomac and to view the destruction left in Northern Virginia in the wake of the Confederate retreat to Richmond.
One of their first photographs, from March 1862, was entitled “Ruins at Manassas Junction.” In his 1866 “Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War,” one of the photographers, Alexander Gardner, wrote that the junction was “one wide area of desolation, but a small portion of which can be represented in a single photograph.”
The desolation captured by the photograph drove home a new reality about the war: above all, that it would be fought, and possibly won or lost, on the railroads, and that the new railroads could be destroyed as easily as they had been built. One of the reasons the Battle of Bull Run (known as the Battle of Manassas in the South) took place where it did was the presence of a railroad junction nearby. Small towns like Manassas and Corinth, Miss., where little other than railroad lines met, had assumed an importance out of proportion to their history and population.
The majority of Americans, however, would never see the photograph: rather, they saw an engraved interpretation of it, originally published in Harper’s Weekly on Sept. 13, 1862, from a sketch drawn by Alfred R. Waud. Actually, it wasn’t an exact copy, and what was left out was instructive. Obvious in the photograph, but missing from the engraving, were several former slaves and black railroad workers.
These men, probably former slaves who worked on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, weren’t incidental: early in the war, black railroad workers, both free Northern blacks and Southern slaves, played a critical role in building and maintaining the rail networks. At the same time, the strategic importance of the railroads meant that these black workers would help determine the success of the Union Army, even as the railroads helped determine their future as free men. Why, then, were they left out?
It wasn’t an isolated instance. Photographers and sketch artists often set up their equipment in the same location and captured the same perspective, but they produced views with subtle, sometimes significant differences. Any review of the thousands of photographs taken during the war, especially those on the railroads, reveals the unmistakable and unambiguous presence of black workers and participants in and around the Union Army.
Yet engraved images produced for Harper’s Weekly and other illustrated newspapers rarely featured these participants in the war. While photographers rarely highlighted the presence and contributions of African-American workers, the camera, unlike the sketch, couldn’t help but record them. The tension between sketch and photograph wasn’t just technological or aesthetic. The camera recorded a truth about the war — the role of African-American laborers — that older media had excluded. (Please see our stacked gallery of 1862 photographs and engravings to compare subject, technique style and perspective.)
The pattern was set in the decade before the war, when sketch artists and photographers were drawn to the railroad as a subject. For the most part, artists for the popular new illustrated journals, like Harper’s New Monthly, produced engravings that romanticized the railroad. They drafted almost no images of the workers who graded the tracks, blasted the tunnels or maintained the roads; instead, sketch artists often portrayed a single locomotive in an otherwise pastoral, preindustrial landscape.
In contrast, photographers, using the collodion wet-plate process, a new technology just emerging in the 1850s, also turned to the railroads, their bridges and their engineering feats as the first panoramas they tried to record. In 1858 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad organized an “artists’ excursion,” in which photographers and artists competed as “brother artists.” The Virginian David Hunter Strother, also known as Porte Crayon, who would later serve as a topographical engineer in the Union Army, considered the photographers on board to be the first practitioners of a new utilitarian art, a means of documenting that might supplant portrait painting and engraving. “Brother, give us your hand, though it be spotted with chemicals,” Strother offered in a sort of compromise. “Is not the common love of the beautiful the true bond of union between us?”
Photographers in the Civil War, however, began depicting the railroad workers, especially black freedmen, with an unflinching gaze. The romantic ideal portrayed by the sketch artists and engravers before the war quickly crumbled after the “Ruins at Manassas Junction” appeared, and an alternative emerged, based in the new medium of photography, that laid bare the conflict, tension and destructiveness that accompanied the railroads and exposed the Confederate railroads and their relationship to slavery in the South.
Over the course of the war, photographers took thousands of pictures, and of these, most were focused on railroads and their bridges, tunnels, depots and workers. In fact, the vast majority of images we have of railroad workers in the 19th century come from photographs in the Civil War.
The most prolific of these photographers was Andrew Joseph Russell, who served in the Union Army after late 1862 as the chief photographer for the United States Military Railroads. Born in New Hampshire and raised in New York, Russell established himself as a landscape and portrait painter in the early 1850s. When the Civil War broke out, Russell created a huge panorama of battles based on engravings of Matthew Brady’s photographs titled “Panorama of the War for the Union.” The work made its way in early 1862 through towns in upstate New York as a touring exhibition. Then, in the fall of 1862, as the railroads’ chief photographer, Russell spent considerable time in Alexandria, Va., and produced a series of photographs of black railroad workers (now available online through the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division).
Meanwhile, in the summer of 1862 three other photographers — Gardner, James Gibson and George Barnard — traveled with the Army of the Potomac, photographing the army in the field and the widening zone of destruction around it. Railroads figured prominently in these images: their bridges, tracks, engines and depots were once symbols of the modern progress of the nation but had now assumed a darker, more complex position: at once a tool of destruction and literally the lifeline of the Union.
Famously, after the Battle of Antietam, Mathew Brady showcased a series of photographs in his New York studio, taken at the battlefield by his assistant Gardner. The photos showed for all to see the gory truth of the Civil War, that men died horrible deaths, that their bodies were so numerous that they were left in the open for days. This was a dramatic moment, indicating a new and modern form of representation and an alteration in the mode of experiencing events in the world.
But most of the photographs taken during the Civil War were not shown in public, and most did not feature the battlefield dead. Instead, like Russell’s images, documenting the vast operations of the Military Railroads, they were records of the war’s specific technologies and techniques, panoramas of its scale and scope. And they featured the labor of Union soldiers and African-Americans in scene after scene. Russell’s photos, many of which were published in 1863 by the railroad engineer Herman Haupt in “Photographs Illustrative of Operations in Construction and Transportation,” outlined in detail the building of military railroad bridges, as well as their destruction and reconstruction (though Russell’s captions rarely recognized the presence of African-American workers).
The historian Alan Trachtenberg has argued that photography provided a major “element in the war’s modernity, in what made that event such a profound watershed in the transformation of America into a modern nation-state.” While the sketch artists and engravers, like Alfred R. Waud, Theodore R. Davis and Edwin Forbes, had the freedom to draw troops in action (and photographers did not), they produced a highly idealized view of the war, featuring heroic Union soldiers in action, soldiers rebuilding railroad bridges and lone sentries guarding tracks. It almost goes without saying that their subjects were white.
The photographers, on the other hand, rendered visible what had been ignored in other contexts, even if the captions elided the work of former slaves or the illustrated newspapers erased their presence entirely. Andrew J. Russell’s photographs portrayed black labor everywhere. And in 1862, Russell, Gardner and other photographers captured and recorded a war that was quickly changing, one that was becoming more destructive, more and more centered on the geography of the newly constructed railroads, and more and more a war of emancipation.