Lincoln’s Death, New Nation: April 1865 to 1877
What is the most important of all Civil War photographs?
Everyone, of course, will have their own favorites, but the one that tells us the most about the time has no generals or politicians. This is the photograph of a Civil War soldier and, we suspect, his family.
The soldier stands dead center, facing the camera. Bearded and ruggedly handsome, he looks to be in his late twenties. Immediately to his right is a woman in the midst of doing laundry or cooking: it is difficult to say which. She faces the camera with what can only be called a determined expression: here is a woman who has seen much of the worst that life has to offer. Two children (we cannot automatically assume that they belong to the soldier and woman) are in front of the soldier and to his left. The boy, who looks about five years old, holds a dog which looks rather afraid. The girl, who looks about six or seven, holds a doll that is stunningly lifelike. Behind the soldier and the woman sit or stand about six other men, all wearing caps, which suggests they belong to the Union cause.
The photograph, overall, is indicative both of the trials of the soldier life and the fortitude of humans under stress. One wonders what the two children will be like as adults, and one marvels at the power of the photograph to illumine a situation.