Thursday, February 7, 2013

Severance: "PORTRAITS OF CONFLICT: A Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil War"

[Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil War by Ben H. Severance (University of Arkansas Press, 2012). Cloth, map, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index.  400 pp. ISBN:9781557289896 $65]

Ben Severance's Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil War is Volume 10 of University of Arkansas Press's award winning series.  After 25 years, the project is still going strong, unwavering in its commitment to quality. In this collection are nearly 240 CDV-style soldier and civilian portraits. The rest comprise photographs of flags, public gatherings, and buildings.

The book is organized by theme, each beginning with a rather extensive narrative introduction. As with the other books in the series, the first chapter covers basic terminology and a brief overview of what is known about the who and where of Alabama photographers. Other chapters summarize, by theater and/or army in roughly chronological order, the prominent campaign and battle contributions of various Alabama units.  The antebellum period, the Civil War home front, and Reconstruction subject matters are also explored in dedicated sections, as is the important blockade running port of Mobile [the last not surprising given that the originator of this project was the late Art Bergeron].

Each oversized page has a photograph and a sourced caption, the latter of varying size, with many quite substantial in length. The limitations of the format in providing a fully representative cross section of Alabama citizenry and soldiers are obvious. In addition to the image itself, enough source material must exist to provide a compelling portrait of the individual, meaning that officers will be overrepresented, as well as middle and upper class civilians. Nevertheless, a large number, maybe even the majority, of featured individuals are rather lesser known persons.

Image and caption, in combination with the chapter introductions mentioned above, do comprise something of a rounded history.  The narrative offers a big picture view of Alabama's Civil War while the text accompanying each photograph offers a great range of more personalized perspectives from both sides. In addition to highlighting Unionist and Confederate Alabamiams, prominent U.S. military leaders from other states, but with deep involvement in the war inside Alabama's borders (General Lovell Rousseau and Admiral David Farragut, for example), are also present.  Black legislators from the Reconstruction period are included, too.

Quality construction materials were used, from cloth binding to the heavy, glossy paper stock expected from the better photographic studies. While weight and size dimensions can be a bit unwieldy for the reader, they do allow details to appear in sufficient size for close study.  As one might expect, image quality is all over the map, with some source photographs remarkably clear while others are faded copies of copies or badly deteriorated from abuse, wear, or poor storage. In the main, it is truly an impressive collection and certainly unique in scale.

Over the years, the series editors have done a fine job of maintaining a consistent quality, wedded to their established format, and Severance's contribution certainly fits well within the tradition. Students of Civil War photography will appreciate this book, as will those with a more specialized interest in Alabama's people and their war.

More CWBA reviews of UAP titles:
* Worthy of the Cause for Which They Fight: The Civil War Diary of Brigadier General Daniel Harris Reynolds, 1861-1865
* The Die Is Cast: Arkansas Goes to War, 1861 (Butler Center)
* Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Missouri in the Civil War
* Army Life: From a Soldier’s Journal
* The Fate of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State
* A Rough Introduction to this Sunny Land (Butler Center)
* Guide to Missouri Confederate Units, 1861-1865
* A Thrilling Narrative
* Confederate Guerrilla
* Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front
* Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Tennessee in the Civil War
* Civil War Arkansas: Beyond Battles and Leaders
* "I Acted From Principle": The Civil War Diary Of Dr. William M. McPheeters, Confederate Surgeon In The Trans-Mississippi
* Autobiography of Samuel S. Hildebrand

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