Yesterday afternoon’s session at the Visual Culture of the Civil War era session was a nice way to ease into the academic side of what we’re all pursuing over the next two weeks.  Our welcome and greetings afforded all participants and presenters who were available the time to explain a bit about who they were, what brought them to this particular NEH summer institute, and perhaps a few comments on what research they hoped to accomplish during our brief stay in New York City.

Our first guest speaker was Alice Fahs, author of The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865.  I had read our assigned material from her book and a few more chapters to get a sense of the approach and to help me think about and conceive of this aspect of studying the war.  While I’ve often utilized visual imagery in my classroom, it was only when teaching American Studies with former colleague Laura Rochette that I truly started to develop an understanding of literature and text as part and parcel of the visual world too.  I think I had some concept of this idea from earlier in life, particularly when thinking about such items as illuminated manuscripts, but portions of our discussion yesterday, along with the readings, helped confirm some of my thoughts on this matter that have developed since 2006.

Some highlights from our conversation included the opening comments from Fahs herself in which she picked up on ideas and expressions that we had raised during the introductions.    Fahs asked us to consider ways in which the civil war fit or did not fit into how people imagined a world before/after war itself – what visual war were people drawing on before they saw the actual war happen?  What visual landscape was available?  How did the real war experience transform that visual landscape? or not?

For her part, Fahs believes it was transformative and part of a crisis of monumental proportions.  The image of both the damaged body and damaged landscape, brought up by many of my fellow institute attendees, is an emerging trend of study in the era, and is perhaps part and parcel of that crisis and people’s reactions to it.

In the months leading up to the war, between roughly December 1860 and July 1861, people developed expectations about what would war would look like.  Sometimes these ideas were informed by other images from earlier conflicts such as the Mexican War.  Fahs reminded us of Louisa May Alcott’s thoughts: “I’ve desired to see a war, and now I have my wish.”  Homer thought war would be fun and was part of a group of artists who created ‘trading cards.’  These cards were part of sets that Homer and other artists created and that informed people’s sense of what war was to some people.  By some accounts, early images record war as a delight, especially when considering life in camp or on the home front before the battles began.

We looked at over 100 images and some poetry to get a sense of how engravings, writing, and photographs changed over time, giving Americans different views of their experience with the war.  Images like Winslow Homer’s, “A Sharp Shooter on Picket Duty” ( changed people’s views, providing a more direct link between the soldier and killing (this idea of making that connection is also discussed by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering).  Discussing Walt Whitman’s poem ” A Sight in Camp” had me looking at an essay by Randal Fuller on the Whitman piece – this article could help participants see how to visualize the dead in a different way.

We closed discussion with some good in depth examination of Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field – a complex image that moves beyond war, yet contains elements of violence ( , as well as looking at images of African Americans as soldiers or ‘contraband’ in art and – seeing how some of the pieces combined stereotyping with social commentary (

We’re using a hashtag of all things for this discussion, which certainly would have confused our 19th century forebears, but it is #cwviscult and you can all follow along on various social media platforms should you so desire.  Today we’ll be examining photography of both the war and home front at the New-York Historical Society.


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