[Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War edited by J. Matthew Gallman and Gary W. Gallagher (University of Georgia Press, 2015). Hardcover, photos, notes, reading list, index. 258 pp. ISBN:978-0-8203-4810-0 $32.95]
Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War is another fitting entry in Georgia's UnCivil Wars series, which has carved out a bit of a niche for itself publishing titles off the worn paths of Civil War publishing. The big idea is that contributing editors Matthew Gallman and Gary Gallagher would invite another 25 other historians to join them in selecting a photograph and writing an essay about it. The cliche that a picture is worth a thousand (or more) words certainly applies here and it's clear that photographic images have long possessed the ability to inspire budding Civil War scholars in ways unavailable to young minds discovering for the first time earlier conflicts like the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
All contributors were offered complete creative freedom in writing their accompanying essays. This could have been a mess for the editors but it turned out well in this case. Format is elective, either formal or informal and with or without scholarly notes. Many chose to explicitly personalize their essays by writing in first person and nearly all fell back on their training and included chapter notes.
The convention for essay collections large in number is to divide them into sections and that's done here, with dutiful grouping into five parts (Leaders, Soldiers, Civilians, Victims, and Places). These categories suggest the full range of images and there's no need to go into specific examples here. The book's subtitle refers to "iconic photographs" but there are some fairly obscure ones in there, too, although one supposes that most readers that have been Civil War enthusiasts for a long period of time will have seen then all before at some point.
As one might expect given the amount of free reign involved, the essays vary widely in style and approach. The images are very often deconstructed in a detailed manner, either literally or along thematic lines. Some authors delve more deeply into historical background information than others and many use the power of the photograph to explore grander social, military, political, racial, class, and gender themes of interest to today's scholars. Some wander off into quite tangential territory. Most make an attempt to identify and profile the photographer. The degree of speculation involved also varies. Facial expressions and their underlying meaning are frequently interpreted with (undue?) confidence because it's probably more fun that way but others more cautiously assess the human gazes reflected in the images.
(at right) of a heavy column of Confederate soldiers tramping through a Frederick, Maryland street during the Maryland Campaign in September 1862.
It's difficult to imagine a Civil War enthusiast of today who lacks a deep curiosity in the photographic legacy of the conflict and Lens of War is highly worthy of recommendation to history students of all levels. The editors do mention that their book isn't intended to be read
mechanically from cover to cover. Reviewers unfortunately don't really
have that luxury but this one would agree with the editors that the
volume is probably best experienced in short bites during casual
revisits. Upon finishing this photographic study, the question surely arises in the mind of every reader as to which particular image he or she would choose if fortunate enough to have been asked to participate in the project*.
* - Readers, feel free to offer your own choice in the comments section. Mine (which, by the way, found its way into the book as T. Michael Parrish's selection) is the disturbing photograph (below) of Confederate dead from the Battle of Corinth, arguably the most evocative image of the scale of death involved in Civil War battles and the physical indignities suffered by the corpses of those killed in action. Curiously, Parrish points to Colonel William P. Rogers (at far left in the picture) as one of only two positively identified bodies of the slain in all of Civil War photography, the other being Confederate cavalry general Turner Ashby. There's also a well known grisly death photo of Missouri guerrilla William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson but perhaps Parrish does not consider him a "soldier" in the strictest sense.
More CWBA reviews of UGP titles:
* Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War
* Crossroads of Conflict: A Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia
* The Autobiography of Henry Merrell: Industrial Missionary to the South