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THE PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORD
AS HISTORY

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By GEORGE HAVEN PUTNAM

Lincoln at AntietamTo one examining the unique series of photographs which were secured, during the campaigns of our great Civil War, by the pluck and persistence of Brady and Gardner, and the negatives of which have, almost miraculously, been preserved through the vicissitudes of time, comes, however, the feeling that these battles and marchings were the events not of one hundred and fifty years back, but of yesterday, if not, indeed, things of today. These vivid pictures bring past history into the present tense; the observer sees our citizen soldiers as they camped, as they marched, and as they fought, and comes to know how they lived and how they died. There are revealed to the eye through these lifelike photographs, as if through a vitascope, the successive scenes of the great life-and-death drama of the nation's struggle for existence, a struggle which was fought out through four eventful years, and in which were sacrificed of the best of manhood of the country, North and South, eight hundred thousand lives.

Recollections of a Civil War Soldier

In September, 1862, I landed in New York from the Bremen steamer Hansa, which was then making its first trans-atlantic trip. I had left my German university for the purpose of enlisting in the Union army, and, with the belief that the war could hardly be prolonged for many further months, I had secured leave of absence from my university only for the college year. I have today a vivid recollection of the impression made upon the young student by the war atmosphere in which he found his home city. In coming up from the steamship pier, I found myself on Broadway near the office of the Herald, at that time at the corner of Ann Street. The bulletin board was surrounded by a crowd of anxious citizens, whose excitement was so tense that it expressed itself not in utterance but in silence. With some difficulty, I made my way near enough to the building to get a glimpse of the announcement on the board. The heading was, "A battle is now going on in Maryland; it is hoped that General McClellan will drive Lee's army back into the Potomac."

I recall today the curious impressiveness of the present tense, of the report of a battle that was actually "going on." To one who reads such an announcement, all things seem to be possible, and as I stood surrounded by men whose pulses were throbbing with the keenest of emotions, I felt with them as if we could almost hear the sound of the cannon on the Potomac. The contrast was the stronger to one coming from the quiet lecture-rooms of a distant university to the streets of a great city excited with twelve months of war, and with the ever-present doubt as to what the hours of each day might bring forth. The fight that was then "going on" is known in history as the battle of Antietam. History tells us that Lee's army was not pushed into the Potomac. There were two causes that prevented this resultóGeorge B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee. McClellan was a skilled engineer and he knew how to organize troops, but he never pushed an enemy's army before him with the energy of a man who meant to win and who had faith that he could win. It was his habit to feel that he had made a brilliant success when, having come into touch with the foe, he had succeeded in withdrawing his own army without undue loss; and it is fair to say that when the enemy was Robert E. Lee, such a successful withdrawal might almost be considered as a triumph.

Antietam

Photograph of the Battle of Antietam

A fresh and vivid impression of the scene of the bloody struggle at Antietam Creek is given in one of the photographs in this great war series. The plucky photographer has succeeded in securing, from the very edge of the battlefield, a view of the movements of the troops that are on the charge; and when, on the further edge of the fields, we actually see the smoke of the long lines of rifles by which that charge is to be repulsed, we feel as if the battle were again "going on" before our eyes, and we find ourselves again infused with mingled dread and expectation as to the result.

In looking at the photographs, the Union veteran recalls the fierce charge of Burnside's men for the possession of the bridge and the sturdy resistance made by the regiments of Longstreet. He will grieve with the Army of the Potomac and with the country at the untimely death of the old hero, General Mansfield; he will recall the graphic description given by the poet Holmes of the weary week's search through the battlefield and the environs for the "body" of his son, the young captain, who lived to become one of the scholarly members of the national Supreme Court; and he may share the disappointment not only of the army, but of the citizens back of the army, that, notwithstanding his advantages of position, McClellan should have permitted the Confederate army to withdraw without molestation, carrying with it its trains, its artillery, and even its captured prisoners.

Lincoln and McClellan

General McClellan and President Lincoln at Antietam

Another photograph in the series, which is an example of special enterprise on the part of Mr. Brady, presents Lincoln and McClellan in consultation some time after this bloody and indecisive battle. The pose and the features of the two men are admirably characteristic. Two weeks have elapsed since Lee's withdrawal across the river, but the Army of the Potomac, while rested and fully resupplied, has been held by its young commander in an inexplicable inaction. Lincoln's persistent demand for an advance and his reiterated inquiries as to the grounds for the delay have met with no response. The President finally comes to the camp for a personal word with the commander in the field. How the photographer secured the opportunity of being present at such an interview one does not know, but that he was there is unmistakable.

These vivid photographs which constitute the great historic series bring again into the present tense, for the memories of the veterans, all of the dramatic scenes of the years of war; and even to those who are not veterans, those who have grown up in years of peace and to whom the campaigns are but historic pages or dim stories, even to them must come, in looking at these pictures of campaigns, these vivid episodes of life and death, a clearer realization than could be secured in any other way of what the four years' struggle meant for their ancestors.

The fine views of Fort Stevens and Fort Lincoln recall the several periods in which, to the continuing anxieties of the people's leader, was added immediate apprehension as to the safety of the national capital. On the 19th of April, 1861, the Massachusetts Sixth, on its way to the protection of Washington, had been attacked in Baltimore, and connections between  Washington and the North were cut off. A few hundred troops represented all the forces that the nation had for the moment been able to place in position for the protection of the capital.
I have stood, as thousands of visitors have stood, in Lincoln's old study, the windows of which overlook the Potomac; and I have had recalled to mind the vision of his tall figure and sad face as he stood looking across the river where the picket lines of the Virginia troops could be traced by the smoke, and dreading from morning to morning the approach of these troops over the Long Bridge. There must have come to Lincoln during these anxious days the dread that he was to be the last President of the United States, and that the torch, representing the life of the nation, that had been transmitted to him by the faltering hands of his predecessor was to expire while he was still responsible for the continuity of the flame.

And it was not only in 1861 that the capital was imperiled. The anxiety of the President (never for himself, but only for his country and his responsibilities) was to be renewed in June, 1863, when Lee was in Maryland, and in July, 1864, at the time of Early's raid. It was during Early's hurried attack that Lincoln, visiting Fort Stevens, came into direct sight of the fighting by which Early's men were finally repulsed. For the President, the war must indeed at this time have been something in the present tense, something which meant dreaded possibilities always impending.

The month of July, 1863, marked the turning point of the great contest. If the Federal lines had been broken at Gettysburg, Lee would have been able, in placing his army across the highways to Baltimore and to Philadelphia, to isolate Washington from the North. The Army of the Potomac would, of course, have been reconstituted, and Lee would finally have been driven across the Potomac as he was actually compelled to retire after the decision of the battle. But such a check to the efforts of the North, after two years of war for the maintenance of the nation, would in all probability have secured success for the efforts of the Confederate sympathizers in Europe and have brought about recognition and intervention on the part of France and of England. Such an intervention would have meant the triumph of the Confederacy and the breaking up of the great Republic. The value for the cause of the success of Meade in repelling, with heavy loss, the final assaults of Lee was further emphasized by a great triumph in the West. On the very day on which Lee's discomfited army was making its way back to the Potomac, the troops of General Grant were placing the Stars and Stripes over the well-defended works of Vicksburg.

Battle of Little Round Top

Photograph of the Battle of Little Round Top

A beautiful little picture recalls the sharp fight that was made, on July 2, 1863, for the possession of Little Round Top. It was the foresight of General Warren that recognized the essential importance of this position for the maintenance of the Union line. After the repulse of Sickles's Third Corps in the Peach Orchard, Longstreet's men were actually on their way to take possession of the rocky hill from which the left and rear of the Union line could have been enfiladed. No Union force was for the moment available for the defense, but Warren, with two or three aides, raised some flags over the rocks, and the leader of Longstreet's advance, getting an impression that the position was occupied, delayed a brief spell for reinforcements.

This momentary respite gave Warren time to bring to the defense of the hill troops from the nearest command that was available, a division of the Fifth Corps. A few minutes later, came the first attack, followed by a series of fierce onsets that continued through the long summer afternoon. With some advantages of position, and with the realization that the control of the hill was absolutely essential for the maintenance of the line, the Federals held their own; but when darkness fell, the rocks of Devil's Den and the slopes of the hill were thickly strewn with dead, the bodies of the Blue and the Gray lying closely intermingled. A beautiful statue of Warren now stands on Little Round Top at the point where, almost single-handed, he placed his flag when there were no guns behind it. The general is looking out gravely over the slope and toward the opposite crest, where have been placed, in grim contrast to the smiling fields of the quiet farm behind, the Confederate field-guns that mark the position of Longstreet's lines.

The First Ironclads

LafayetteThe editors have fortunately been able to include with the great Brady series of army photographs a private collection, probably unique, of more than four hundred views of the gunboats on the rivers of the West. Each of these vessels represents a history of its own. One wishes for the imagination of a Homer which could present with due effectiveness a new "catalogue of the ships."

Admiral Farragut, while accepting the armored vessels as possessing certain advantages and as apparently a necessity of "modern warfare," had the impatience of the old-fashioned sailor against any such attempt at protection. He preferred for himself the old type of wooden frigate of which his flag-ship, the famous Hartford, was the representative. "Why," said he, "if a shell strikes the side of the Hartford it goes clean through. Unless somebody happens to be directly in the path, there is no damage, excepting a couple of easily plugged holes. But when a shell makes its way into one of those 'damned tea-kettles,' it can't get out again. It sputters round inside doing all kinds of mischief." It must be borne in mind, apart from the natural exaggeration of such an utterance, that Farragut was speaking in the time of slow-velocity missiles. His phrase "damned tea-kettles" came, however, to be the general descriptive term for the ironclads, applied not only by the men in the ranks but by the naval men themselves.

There were assured advantages given by the armor in time of action against most of the fire that was possible with the weapons of the day, but for the midsummer climate of Louisiana, the tea-kettles "were most abominable abiding places. During the day, the iron of the decks would get so hot that the hand could barely rest upon it. At night, sleep was impossible. The decks were kept wetted down, and the men lay on them, getting, toward the morning hours when the hulls had cooled down, such sleep as could be secured.

The progress of the armored transports making their way up the Red River under fire from the shore was an interesting feature of that campaign. The steepness of the banks on the Red River gave peculiar advantages for such fire, as it was frequently the case that the guns of the boats could not be elevated so as to reach the foe's position. It was difficult to protect the man at the wheel from such plunging fire, but bales of cotton were often placed around the upper works which were sufficient to keep off at least musketry fire. This improvised armor proved, however, not only insufficient but a peril when the enterprising Confederate gunners succeeded in discharging from their field-pieces red-hot shot. It happened more than once (I recall witnessing one such incident) that the cotton was brought into flames by such shot and it became necessary to run the vessel ashore.

Red River Dam

Red River Dam

A photograph in the series which presents a picturesque view of the famous Red River dam recalls some active spring days in Louisiana. The photograph gives an excellently accurate view of a portion of the dam, through the building of which Admiral Porter's river fleet of eleven " turtles " was brought safely over the rapids at Alexandria, and the army of General Banks, repulsed and disappointed but by no means demoralized, was able to make its way back to the Mississippi with a very much lessened opposition. Through a sudden fall of the river, the "turtles" had been held above the rapids at Alexandria. Without the aid of Porter's guns to protect the flank of the army retreating along the river road, it would have been necessary to overcome by frontal attacks a series of breastworks by which this road was blocked.

The energetic Confederate leader, General Taylor, had managed to cut off all connections with the Mississippi, and, while we were feeding in the town of Alexandria the women and children whose men folks were fighting us from outside, we had rations sufficient for only about three weeks. The problem was, within the time at our disposal and with the material available (in a country in which there was no stone), to increase the depth of water on the rapids by about twenty-two inches. The plan submitted by the clever engineer officer, Lieut.-Colonel Bailey, of the Fourth Wisconsin, was eagerly accepted by General Banks. Under Bailey's directions, five wing-dams were constructed, of which the shortest pair, with the widest aperture for the water, was up-stream, while the longest pair, with the narrowest passage for the water, was placed at the point on the rapids where the increased depth was required. The water was thrown, as it were, into a funnel, and not only was the depth secured, but the rush downward helped to carry the vessels in safety across the rocks of the rapids. As I look at the photograph, I recall the fatiguing labor of "house-breaking," when the troops were put to work, in details on alternate days, in pulling down the sugar-mills and in breaking up the iron-work and the bricks.

On the further side of the river, a territory claimed by the sharpshooters of our opponents, men selected from the Western regiments, protected more or less by our skirmish line, are applying their axes to the shaping of the logs for the crates from which the dams were constructed. The wood-chopping is being done under a scattered but active fire, but while hastened somewhat in speed, it loses none of its precision.

I recall the tall form of the big six-footer, Colonel Bailey, leading the way into the water where the men had to work in the swift current at the adjustment of the crates, and calling out, "Come along, boys; it's only up to your waists."

As in duty bound, I marched after the colonel into the river, calling upon my command to follow; but the water which had not gone very much above the waist of the tall colonel, caught the small adjutant somewhere above the nostrils, with the result that he was taken down over the rapids. He came up, with no particular damage, in the pool beyond, but in reporting for the second time, wet but still ready for service, he took the liberty of saying to the Wisconsin six-footer, "Colonel, that was hardly fair for us little fellows."

After the hot work of tearing down the sugar-mills, the service in the cool water, although itself arduous enough, was refreshing. The dams were completed within the necessary time, and the vessels were brought safely through the rapids into the deep water below.

The saving of the fleet was one of the most dramatic incidents of the war, and the method of operation, as well as the whole effect of the river scene, are admirably indicated in the cleverly taken photographs.

Defense of Atlanta

A view of Fort McAllister recalls a closing incident of Sherman's dramatic march from Atlanta to the sea. The veterans had for weeks been tramping, with an occasional interval of fighting, but with very little opportunity for what the boys called a square meal. By the time the advance had reached the line of the coast, the commissary wagons were practically empty. The soldiers had for days been dependent upon the scattered supplies that could be picked up by the foraging parties, and the foragers, working in a country that had been already exhausted by the demands of the retreating Confederates, gave hardly enough return, in the form of corn on the cob or an occasional razor-backed hog, to offset the "wear and tear of the shoe-leather."

The men in the division of General Hazen, which was the first command to reach the Savannah River, could see down the river the smoke of the Yankee gunboats and of the trans-ports which were bringing from New York, under appointment made months back by General Sherman, the much-needed supplies. But between the boys and the food lay the grim earthworks of Fort McAllister. Before there could be any eating, it was necessary to do a little more fighting. The question came from the commander to General Hazen, " Can your boys take those works? " and the answer was in substance, "Ain't we jest obleeged to take them?"

The assault was made under the immediate inspection of General Sherman, who realized the importance of getting at once into connection with the fleet, and the general was properly appreciative of the energy with which the task was executed. "See my Bummers," said Old Sherman with most illigant emotion. "Ain't their heads as horizontal as the bosom of the ocean"

The raising of Old Glory over the fort was the signal for the steaming up-stream of the supply ships, and that evening witnessed for the advance division a glorious banquet, with real beef and soft bread.

And even this climax was capped when, on the 22d of December, General Sherman was able to report to President Lincoln that he had secured for him, or for the nation, a Christmas present in the shape of the city of Savannah.

Robert E. LeeThe preponderance of capable military leaders was an important factor in giving to the Southern armies the measure of success secured by these armies during the first two years; but even during this earlier period, military capacity developed also on the side of the North, and by the middle of the war the balance of leadership ability may be considered as fairly equal. It may frankly be admitted, however, that no commander of the North had placed upon him so stupendous a burden as that which was carried by Lee, as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, through the weary and bloody campaigns of three years. For the last year of that period, Lee was fighting with no forces in reserve and with constantly diminishing resources. With great engineering skill, with ingenuity in utilizing every possible natural advantage for defense, with initiative and enterprise in turning defense at most unexpected moments into attack, with a sublime patience and persistence and with the devotion and magnificent fighting capacity of the men behind him, Lee accomplished with his Army of Northern Virginia a larger task in proportion to the resources at his command than has, I believe, ever been accomplished in modern warfare. The higher we place the ability of the Southern commander and the fighting capacity of the men behind him, the larger, of course, becomes the task of the leaders and armies of the North through whose service the final campaigns were won and the cause of nationality was maintained.

In going to England in the years immediately succeeding the war, I used to meet with some sharp criticism from army men and from others interested in army operations, as to the time that had been taken by the men of the North to overcome their opponents and to establish their control over the territory in rebellion. Such phrases would be used as: "You had twenty-two millions against nine millions. You must have been able to put two muskets into the field against every one of your opponents. It was absurd that you should have allowed yourselves to be successfully withstood for four years and that you should finally have crushed your plucky and skilful opponents only through the brute force of numbers." I recall the difference of judgment given after the British campaigns of South Africa as to the difficulties of an invading army.

The large armies that were opposed to the plucky and persistent Boers and the people at home came to have a better understanding of the nature and extent of the task of securing control over a wild and well-defended territory, the invaders of which were fighting many miles from their base and with lines of communication that were easily cut. By the constant cutting and harassing of the lines of communication, and a clever disposition of lightly equipped and active marching troops who were often able to crush in detail outlying or separated troops of the invaders, a force of some forty thousand Boers found it possible to keep two hundred thousand well-equipped British troops at bay for nearly two years. The Englishman now understands that when an army originally comprising a hundred thousand men has to come into action at a point some hundred of miles distant from its base, it is not a hundred thousand muskets that are available, but seventy thousand or sixty thousand. The other thousands have been used up on the march or have been left to guard the lines of communication. Without constantly renewed supplies an army is merely a helpless mass of men.

It is probable, in fact, that the history of modern warfare gives no example of so complex, extensive, and difficult a military undertaking as that which was finally brought to a successful close by the armies of the North, armies which were contending against some of the best fighting material and the ablest military leadership that the world has known.

Lincoln at Antietam

Lincoln at Antietam

Atlanta Defenses

Defense of Atlanta

Washington Defenses

Washington Defenses

New York Infantry

New York Infantry

Little Round Top

Little Round Top

Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville

Dutch Gap

Dutch Gap

Pickett's Charge

Pickett's Charge

General Reynolds' Death at Gettysburg

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam

Grant's Staff

General Grant's Staff

Joseph Bailey

Joseph Bailey

Fog of War

Fog of War

Red River Expedition

Red River Campaign

Robert E. Lee and his Son

Robert E. Lee and His Son

 

 

 

 

 

 

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