|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?