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The Photographic Reality of the Battle of Antietam

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The Photographic Reality of the Battle of Antietam The American Civil War has long been one of the most fascinating conflicts in history. The idea of brother fighting brother, one in order to preserve the Union and the other standing up for their rights, has captivated the interests of scholars for nearly 140 years. The direct relation of today's population to those who risked and gave their lives fighting for the intangible ideals that they believed in is a largely influential factor for the ultimate popularity of ceaseless Civil War studies. The literature of the Civil War also provides a way of bringing the battlefield to life. In the absence of modern technology, literature and writings provide vivid details of Civil War life and events in which one must use the imagination to decipher. However, the photography of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and others present to us a new facet of Civil War reality. An article in the New York Times on October 20, 1862 said, "We recognize the battlefield as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door...Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. ...read more.


There is nothing very terrible to us, however, in the list, though our sensations might be different if the newspaper carrier left the names on the battlefield and the bodies at our doors instead." These photographs grew in popularity as Mathew Brady sent them on a tour of the north, informing those during that time of the complete reality of the death and destruction of war. The photographs of the dead at Antietam provide the same reaction today as it did 140 years ago by providing a visual element to the horrors of war as opposed to the literary works that described the events in such detail. The key for altering the perception of an event such as this is for the photograph to stand alone and tell its own story. William Frassanito's Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day thrives on this principle as a way to leave the reader captive to the images as opposed to the words. Frassanito's book provides the reader with one of the original photographs from the dead and decaying and then provides a modern alternate view from the same angle. The original war photography in conjunction with the modern photographs provides a dramatic experience that still allows the mind to use its imagination, but to a different degree than that of any literary work. ...read more.


By examining the photographs of the dead, we tend to forget the politics that condemned them to die. Here, everything is placed into perspective and the finality of war resides. As a result, the overall sentiment of Civil War photography is that each black and white still photograph tells an entire story of life and death aside from the war itself. It produces a unique emotion that is absent from simple works of literature. War is a dangerously easy thing to glorify. Vivid accounts of battles and campaigns frequently make war seem exciting, even attractive as a vicarious adventure. This is especially true for those far removed from the actual sights, smells, and pain of a freshly scarred battlefield. By reducing war to its most fundamental elements of personal human tragedy and suffering and by interpreting this one battle through the photographs, the result is the primal reality that defines war more vividly than any dictionary. With assistance from William Frassanito's study of the Battle of Antietam, it is apparent that the photographs taken by Alexander Gardner provide the most intrusive observation into a time the modern world has difficulty understanding. It is a world of reality and of survival. It is a world of death and destruction. But most importantly, it is a world that, thanks to these photographs, will never be forgotten. ...read more.

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