The Changing Face of Battle: Corinth

What did the experience f battle look like during the American Civil War? This is something most of us are interested in comprehending. One often hears of this or that portrayal of Civil War combat as “realistic,” although I don’t know how anyone really knows what constitutes “realistic” except in their imagination.

We all know that the first images of battle circulated after a clash surveyed the aftermath of combat. Usually these photographs examined battlefields in the East, but Corinth offers an exception, as these two images demonstrate:

The second photograph of Confederate dead offers a vivid reminder of the carnage of battle … but not the experience itself.

Engravers soon sought to fill that we see here:

The Currier and Ives prints immediately cleaned up the battlefield a bit, but they were still somewhat crude. Nevertheless, they were the best one could do on short notice.

Later Corinth received the Kurz and Allison treatment:

I am always of two minds about these images. Everyone is dressed so well in regulation garb in most of these images; the dead fall ever so neatly; generals are always prominently displayed. And yet publisher after publisher uses these images for book jackets (although Timothy Smith’s recent study of the battle features the color Currier and Ives print).

Painters took their turn as well:

I particularly like the Confederate standing with his arms folded as the Yankees pour forth. The painting celebrates the 5th Minnesota.

Note how the images of combat moved quickly to idealize the experience for the consumption of those at home. One wonders what veterans made of some of these images.

6 thoughts on “The Changing Face of Battle: Corinth

  1. Noma October 4, 2012 / 10:55 am

    Well, here’s one veteran’s take on battle pictures:

    “I never saw a war picture was pleasant I tried to enjoy some of those in Versailles but they were disgusting…”

    — Ulysses S. Grant

    Around the World with General Grant – p. 443

  2. Lyle Smith October 5, 2012 / 1:32 pm

    Is it possible that the first photograph shown is the first photograph ever taken of the victims of a war crime, if we were to consider some people’s contemporary reading of international law?

    I think it’s believed the man next to the horse, center-right, is Colonel Rogers. He and apparently the men around him were trying to surrender when they were shot down. He had supposedly tied a white handkerchief to a ramrod or something and was waving it around when a Union regiment came up close, saw Rogers on his horse, and opened fire on him and the men standing around him.

    Obviously there was confusion and it’s likely the Union regiment didn’t have a clear look because of smoke, and they were advancing to engage Rogers and his men. I don’t think it was a war crime at all by the standards of the day. It was just one of those things. Rogers didn’t have the time to clearly communicate his intention to surrender before being seen in the midst of a battle and shot down.

    Even under the way war is conducted today, I’d argue this isn’t a war crime because of the complexity of the moment of when Rogers and the others were shot, but I think there would be some people who would call it a war crime.

    • John Foskett October 6, 2012 / 8:46 am

      I think that you’re correct and I don’t think that it’s even a close call. If I recall correctly, Rogers was mounted in the midst of an assault against Battery Robinett and had apparently tied a white handkerchief to a ramrod. There’s no record I’m aware of establishing that the troops around him had thrown down their arms and the fight was still going on. It would be an utter distortion to characterize what happened in the midst of that confusion as a “war crime” – then or now.

  3. Joan Stack October 8, 2012 / 8:41 pm

    I enjoyed this survey of images of the Battle of Corinth. However, I think asking the question “which image is most realistic?” leads to a wild goose chase! A more intriguing question is how do these images reflect the attitudes of the period in which they were made?.

    I have been doing some work on Civil War battle pictures, and I think it is important to be aware of the essential artificiality of any visual representation of a battle. In order to make battle scenes comprehensible, artists must instill order into inherently confusing and disorderly subjects. Below is a brief discussion of how artists artificially organize battle pictures from a recent presentation:

    “Since the lived experience of war is disorganized, artists create order in their battlefield compositions to clarify martial action. On the most elementary level, the story-telling components of the pictures obey the artificial conventions of Western art. Light elements in the background (often clouds or smoke) draw the eye to important action and make important figures stand out. Centermost and uppermost elements attract the eye, and images “read” like Western texts, from left to right. Rightward movement appears more forceful, progressing forward, while leftward movement seems more challenging and difficult. Artists often insert flags to identify the protagonists and antagonists in the scenes. They emphasize characteristic aspects of uniforms and weaponry to better elucidate the action. Panoramic landscapes portray the scope and scale of battles, and site-specific aspects of topography are enlarged and emphasized. Views from “behind the lines” of battle encourage viewer identification and imply partisan sympathies, while intimate scenes promote audience engagement with particular sides or persons in military conflicts.”

    If one wants an “authentic” Civil War image, the contemporary pictures in the illustrated newspapers are certainly the most reflective of the period. Although they do not represent “accurate” images of battles (an impossible task!), they usually don’t include anachronisms, and more importantly, they give today’s viewers some idea how the general public of the 1860s might have imagined the battles.

    The later images reflect the politics, tastes, interests, and bias of their respective makers and audiences. Our imaginative reconstruction of history changes with the social and political “master narratives” of the times. Clearly the artist who pictured the steadfast, crossed-armed Confederate, together with the patriotic charge of Minnosota Union troops had a modern, likely reconcilliationist’s agenda in which both sides are displayed as noble. During the war, its unlikely an artist would have produced such an image!

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