Some of the most haunting visual images of the Civil War are the photographs made by Mathew Brady's assistants. Photography was invented in 1839 and became a portable technology only a few years before the Civil War began in 1861. The Civil War was, then, the first photographed war. But photography was not yet portable enough to be carried onto battlefields during actual battles. Photographers needed to laboriously set up their unwieldy equipment and to use a horse and carriage to drag a darkroom with them because the photographic plates needed to be processed immediately.

These practical necessities led to a photographic record of the Civil War that emphasized preparations for and aftereffects of battles, instead of the actual battles themselves. There are no photographs of Civil War battles, but there are many photos of soldiers and officers before battles, of dead corpses on the fields after battles, and of wounded soldiers in hospitals. The state of photographic technology at the time of the Civil War thus determined how we would remember this war, because only certain kinds of images would be carried through our history as visual traces of the war.

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson both saw the Brady photographs (or engravings of them) and wrote poetry that also captured the sobering aftereffects of butchery that took place on the battlefields. It is worth considering whether their war poetry was influenced by the Brady photographs. Read the following poems by Whitman and Dickinson in juxtaposition to two well-known Brady photos of the Civil War dead. How do the poems and the photographs illuminate each other?


Look Down Fair Moon 
Walt Whitman

Look down fair moon and 
     bathe this scene, 
Pour softly down night's 
     nimbus floods on
     swollen, purple, 

On the dead on their
with arms
     toss'd wide, 

Pour down your unstinted 
     nimbus sacred moon. 



Emily Dickinson

My Portion is Defeat--today--
A paler luck than Victory--
Less Paeans-fewer Bells--
The Drums don't follow Me--
    with tunes--
Defeat--a somewhat slower--
More arduous than Balls--

'Tis populous with Bone and
And Men too straight to stoop
And piles of solid Moan-- 
And Chips of Blank--in Boyish
And scraps of Prayer--
And Death's surprise,
Stamped visible--in Stone--

There's somewhat prouder,
     over there--
The Trumpets tell it to the Air--
How different Victory
To Him who has it--and the One
Who to have had it, would
     have been
Contenteder--to die--

(c. 1862)



Tis populous with Bone and
And Men too straight to stoop again, 
And piles of solid Moan-- 
And Chips of Blank--in Boyish Eyes-- 
And scraps of Prayer-- 
And Death's surprise, 
Stamped visible--in Stone--