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Civil War photos help weave complex tapestry of history

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Millions of Americans are fascinated by the Civil War. I confess to being one of these people.

During a few hot and humid weeks in New York City this summer, I had an exciting opportunity to study images from the war at an institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The institute brought together an interdisciplinary group of researchers and teachers from colleges and museums from across the country. One of the scholars is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution.

We studied a wide variety of artists, including Mathew Brady, Thomas Nast and Frank Leslie. They may not be household names except to people who read a lot about the Civil War, but they created some of the lasting images that serve as a record of the era.

Brady and his team of photographers not only took studio portraits, but they also brought their cumbersome equipment and dangerous chemicals to battlefields, documenting the aftermath of combat.

Frank Leslie was an engraver and publisher who pioneered the use of illustrations in newspapers.

Nast, a cartoonist, popularized images of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus.

Images wield tremendous cultural power. I think pictures and fictional works often change more minds than political speeches or editorials. Before the war began, the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and images of abused bodies or slave auctions were powerful weapons in the hands of abolitionists.

Brady, Nast and Leslie did more than create a visual record of the war. They used their craft to change minds and exposed people to political corruption, the suffering of slaves and the brutality of war.

Artists and artisans make conscious decisions about their subject matter. Their work is often shaped by practical or commercial concerns as well as the artist’s own creative mind. Brady’s photographers famously created dramatic scenes by moving bodies and rifles. They even used living soldiers as stand-ins for corpses.

In October 1862, Brady held an exhibition of photographs of soldiers killed in the Battle of Antietam. The images were shocking to Americans. The photographs were jarring and made the war a reality more than casualty lists or reports from the front lines ever could.

Although images from the Civil War are important to our history, they are not icons. Paintings, photographs and illustrations are complex texts of the past.

Scholars examine, interpret, and debate the creation and meanings of these images.

You might consider that the next time you are taking a selfie. It is not just a random photograph. You made conscious decisions on when and where to take it. You created an artifact that historians might be studying in the future.

Aaron Miller, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history and assistant chair of the humanities department at Ivy Tech Columbus.

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