A Helluva Lot Easier When They’re Dead: Picturing the Civil War in Comic, Collage, and Corpse

April 27, 2015

    MIDWAY THROUGH the new graphic novel Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War, authors Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman interrupt their sparsely sketched and lightly colored drawings with a monochrome photograph of a rebel corpse. The story begins as Alexander Gardner, the Civil War’s second-most-famous photographer, steps gingerly over the corpses at Gettysburg and orders his assistants to lug a freshly dead Reb to a more picturesque outcropping of rocks. They adjust his limbs, tilt back his head, and wait as Gardner takes one of his many renowned war photos.

    “Now watch close, you might learn something,” one assistant whispers to the other.

    “I already learnt what I need,” the other responds. “That this is a helluva lot easier when they’re dead.”

    The irony in this dark comedy is exponential. The supposedly realistic photo is staged, as it actually was on the day after the battle. But perhaps the picture must be staged to depict war’s carnage. And perhaps such a picture only comes into focus when bodies stop living. Most ironic is that these very images — the first to depict the war to the public with graphic and almost self-evident realism — would make the war less sensible.

    The three very different books reviewed here share a common concern: how we picture our dead. The many images of the alpine body count in America’s Civil War are particularly hard to reconcile with our need to see that war as more moral than most. To understand this problem, the three books use divergent tactics: in Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War, Fetter-Vorm and Kelman attempt the untried feat of grasping the war in a graphic novel; in Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War, historians reflect upon war photos in personal essays; and in Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History, Richard Wightman Fox examines how Americans created and contested varied narratives about Lincoln’s murdered body to make sense of their own past and present. The result is three of the most creative books on the Civil War for 2015, the sesquicentennial of its final year; a year in which such books seem especially necessary.

    Battle Lines is not the first graphic novel about the Civil War (see Cleburne, Rose and Isabel, and even Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel), but it is one of the most ambitious. Rather than following a single wartime plot, Battle Lines spans from Congress’s 1808 ban on the importation of slaves to the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Readers get concise and useful overviews of seminal moments in the war via newspaper pages that precede each chapter. But the authors smartly forgo comprehensiveness by grounding this bold historical spread in episodic chapters that riff off of a mundane object: opera glasses tell the story of a New York Times columnist who covers Bull Run, a brick the story of a woman left behind on a starving plantation, and an inkwell the story of a Union prisoner of war. This framework helps balance a useful breadth with striking depth. As we can see from its epilogue, which suggests further reading, the book is impressively researched.

    Artist and writer Fetter-Vorm made his bold debut in 2012 with Trinity: A Graphic History of the Atomic Bomb, a deft telling of the Manhattan Project with ingenious illustrations of its cosmic forces; and Kelman, a historian at Penn State, won the 2014 Bancroft Prize for A Misplaced Massacre, an exploration of the legacy of the Sand Creek slaughter. We might expect two such devastation-seasoned writers to entertain a grisly realism in their depiction of the war. Published on the 150th anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s dissolution of the Confederate government, Battle Lines feels like Appomattox, the war’s brutality front and center in each story. One chapter watches a prisoner of war starve while another buries the Massachusetts 54th black regiment in a common grave to be washed out by the tide. The red of many bloody battle scenes is one of the novel’s few bright colors, and its penultimate chapter literally shows a fraying rope, a symbol of postbellum Southern chaos, retwining itself into the certitudes of a noose for a lynching.

    But something must counter the horror, even if hope seems too strong a word. Will, perhaps, as Battle Lines ultimately meditates upon the meaning we make by drawing shaky lines in the sands of war. It meditates on moral lines, but aesthetic ones too, in which characters create politically potent meaning out of the everyday by taking a photo, writing a diary, or throwing a brick. The medium itself seems to invite readers to do the same. Photos of the war, mediated as comics, seem to batter viewers with immediacy, while the pencilings, inkings, and colorings of Battle Lines draw attention to the medium itself. When Fetter-Vorm and Kelman bring these two media together by placing a real-yet-staged photo of a corpse at this book’s core, only to surround it with sketches, a transformation occurs. The photo’s realness is challenged, but not as mere jouissance among simulacra, nor to unveil Gardner’s impudent posing of a corpse. Gardner was no battlefield opportunist. According to his eulogist, the Scottish photographer’s desire “to convince the understanding, arouse the conscience, and affect the heart” ranged uneasily alongside his belief in “the weakness of poor human nature.” Most certainly Gardner saw in Gettysburg a similar clash between moral earnestness and human finitude. But he managed to make something out of the explosion. Battle Lines does too, and urges readers to do likewise.


    Woe remains in Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War, a collection of 27 essays by historians, each essay reflecting on a war photo of their own choosing. Edited by J. Matthew Gallman and Gary W. Gallagher, Lens of War is the latest in the University of Georgia’s “UnCivil Wars” series, whose titles include studies of the war’s environmental toll, its material destruction, its cowardice and profiteering, and even its amputated limbs. Many of the photos in Lens of War retain this focus on atrocity. There’s a heartbreaking portrait of a dead horse slumped as if in sleep, a landscape of ruined Charleston engulfing four black children, and the infamous shot of the dead Gettysburg soldier with the haunting face bloated into bug eyes and fish mouth.

    As in Battle Lines, violence prompts meaning-making. Some of the essays rightly emphasize the political importance of this new medium’s almost self-evident realism. Who will deny that a photo of a corpse strikes the average viewer more immediately than a painted or written image? Others just as rightly note the constructed nature of many photos. The long exposure time of early cameras, after all, required subjects to remain still. If you wanted the candid, the real, the alive, you risked blurry pictures. Then again, sometimes it is the staged images that feel the most real. Historian Stephen Berry, for instance, chooses a photo of an abandoned Atlanta main street after Sherman’s march. At its center, a black soldier has set aside his rifle to do something denied to slaves: he reads a book, and he does it while resting against a storefront that reads “AUCTION & NEGRO SALES.” It’s produced, but it’s perfect.

    Photographers make meaning, but so too do those who view the photographs, fear them, meditate upon them, even are awakened by them for centuries to come. Like Battle Lines, Lens of War is refreshingly episodic and individualized, with the best essays being deeply personal, Montaignean explorations of why the war still matters to individuals today. One contributor, Kathryn Shively Meier, remarks of discovering a photo of Stonewall Jackson in the book of her grandfather, who “chose to quietly drink away his World War II traumas.” What has a picture of Stonewall — Meier calls him “weird,” like Melville’s riddlesome vision of John Brown in “The Portent” — to do with a World War II vet? The author never explains, but readers feel haunted throughout the essay by their inability to read the mute and distant soldiers who refuse to tell their tales, frozen whether by a photo or trauma. When Meier later notes that “Civil War images beguile, insinuating a connection with the subject that is falsely intimate, presumptuous, and often utterly convincing,” one wonders if we ought to carry this insight with us in our own interactions with trauma. By inexplicably pairing Stonewall with her grandfather, Meier seems to urge her readers to draw their own parallels, odd though they may seem, to connect to this static photo. Superb readings like Meier’s are often complemented by the tidbits that only nosy historians rooting through archives can dig up, but again, historical facts must ultimately filter through our individual hermeneutics. Stonewall is frowning in his portrait, staring Calvinistically ahead to his fate, no? No. A gust of wind blew into his face the moment the picture was taken, Meier tells us. But was the wind chance, fate, or providence? That we must decide.

    The best essays of the collection likewise weave this personal reflection with acute analysis. Literary scholar Stephen Cushman gives a poetic reading of the infamously bloated Gettysburg soldier as he reflects upon seeing the photo at six years old, his first sight of a corpse; his boot from Edenic ignorance. Cushman ends his graceful reflection noting that, compared to Gardner’s other photos, this image of the Gettysburg corpse is entirely unmanipulated, a stark portrait of decomposition as it is. “This is the endpoint, the omega, mostly unspoken and unseen,” Cushman remarks, and among the flood of words written on the war, “one picture can haunt them all.” Again we’re left speechless, prompted by death and prompting meaning-making.

    Berry, Meier, and Cushman’s contributions are a few of the many remarkable essays in the collection. The book can and should be read in spurts and out of order, a primer rather than a full study on Civil War photography (of which there are a few). Peer-reviewed fruits drop along the way too; readers learn a good deal about the importance of photographer Alexander Gardner and his more famous boss Mathew Brady, about early photography’s technology and political uses, and about why famous photos became famous. Above all, Lens of War teaches readers how to view photos with keen historical eyes, warding off the temptation to fix them as unmediated, static, or ahistorical — in a word, dead.


    Had photography not been popularized when awkward-looking Abe Lincoln died, would we think of him differently? Had his face — “like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful,” as Whitman mused — been polished into pleasantness by illustrators and painters, would he be as beloved as he is today? That the Great Emancipator’s moral legacy (and that of the war itself) might be shaped in good part by his lanky body and odd face is a strange thought — but a very clever question posed by historian Richard Wightman Fox in Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History.

    Lincoln’s looks were politicized as soon as he campaigned for Congress, either as a bludgeon against a homely hick or as a pedestal under a plain-looking prairie boy made great. This much is well known today, and unsurprising, even if the nastiness of antebellum insults isn’t. Instead, Fox’s story begins as Lincoln’s physical body dies. The assassination itself seemed foreshadowed by Lincoln’s own view that his body — not just his legislation, his speeches, his mind — was representative of an organic American body politic, leading him to shirk bodyguards and mingle with his constituents to a degree that constantly worried Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Troops and citizens only loved him the more for it.

    After Lincoln’s death, the book tells a supremely interesting history of how America struggled to represent his body after it was done representing them. Fox gives a wonderful account of the funeral train that allowed thousands to see the body, the outpouring of Lincoln knickknacks worn on breasts and arms in respect, and the struggle for new embalming technologies to keep the body fresh over two weeks worth of travel. Against their iconoclasm, proper Protestants found themselves mailing to their mothers shards of Lincoln’s skull as relics, arguing over how best to sculpt him into a memorial, poring over Carl Sandburg’s behemoth hagiography for their “Lincoln Cult,” and filming multiple versions of the president from Birth of a Nation (1915) to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012).

    In a democratic body politic, the attempt to fill body-shaped voids with words and images was sure to be cacophonous. “Something about [Lincoln] seemed to defy accurate representation,” Fox notes, but “the repeated failures only confirmed his transcendent greatness and reinvigorated the artistic quest.” But after the war and still today, not all agree on Lincoln’s greatness. Fox also gives fair readings to critics like Gore Vidal, whose 1984 Lincoln: A Novel snipes at Lincoln by fixating on his possible encounter with syphilis. Peeved by Carl Sandburg’s sentimental and immensely popular hagiography of Lincoln, the iconoclast Vidal perceived the importance of desecrating the president’s holy body if one was to smash this idol. And though Fox’s admiration for Lincoln becomes clear early, he makes equally clear his impatience with mollifying Lincoln’s legacy via a sharp reading of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.

    Fox bears Lincoln’s body into the present via three uncanny incarnations: Barack Obama, frequently paralleled to Lincoln politically and even physically; a Disneyland robot, which historian Eric Foner momentarily convinced the amusement park to retire for a new animatronic president with a fuller vision of America; and Daniel Day-Lewis, as molded by Steven Spielberg’s direction and Tony Kushner’s screenplay. His point is simple, and true for Battle Lines and Lens of War too: Lincoln and the war remain with us today, contested and alive as we try in our varied ways to plug their bodily sacrifices into our present trials and our own body-shaped voids.

    Fox also devotes two full chapters to African-American representations of Lincoln, noting the centrality of their voices in any story of the war. African Americans often described Lincoln as their Moses, but before and during the war they risked bodily injury by simply possessing a picture of Lincoln. After his death, many were wary of participating in the various funeral processions for fear of retribution. Fox also notes how the president’s bodily sacrifice was especially Christlike to blacks; through it, they could join the American body politic, and because of it, they were far less quick than white peers to comment on Lincoln’s odd looks. With the fall of Reconstruction and the rise of lynchings, African Americans only held on to Lincoln the more fiercely as a symbol of a promise yet unfulfilled.

    After Ferguson, invocations of the Civil Rights Movement abounded, but the Civil War also emerged as a necessary site of meaning-making among thousands of activists, bloggers, journalists, and academics. NAACP marchers were met with Confederate flags in Rosebud, Missouri, while online, a social media fight erupted between the Ku Klux Klan and the group Anonymous. NYU historian Martha Hodes’s op-ed for the LA Times, “How Abraham Lincoln said that black lives matter,” was shared by hundreds of sites and liked by 1.6 million viewers, and Ta-Nehisi Coates dove into his own immensely popular commentary having honed his skills with a spate of articles on the Civil War, Spielberg’s Lincoln, and, of course, reparations for slavery.

    We’re often not quite sure how to talk about the Civil War, with its body count and its moral urgency uneasily riding side by side. But that hasn’t stopped us yet. And for precisely those reasons, as the contingency of black bodies once more seems to threaten the American body politic itself, the war feels fiercely alive today. Creative scholars and artists like those mentioned here will keep that vitality glowing by fanning their pictures and words into the voids.


    Kenyon Gradert is a doctoral candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis.


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