The sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s end brings renewed interest and scholarship to a seminal point in American History. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum highlights that interest with a new exhibition examining the war’s impact on the District and its residents. How the Civil War Changed Washington (on view through November 15, 2015) is unique for two reasons. It consciously skips over generals, battlefields and the tides of war to focus on the city’s residents, both free and enslaved, examining how battles in faraway states impacted local lives. More subtly, the exhibition also highlights the profound ways in which the nascent art of photography influences our modern perceptions of history and the literal geography around us.
Without photography, there would be no exhibition notes Museum Curator Alcione Amos. After three years of painstaking research, Amos has unearthed a treasure trove of images that focus the lens on local Washingtonians. While many images came from the Library of Congress, other photos have come straight from the descendants of those photographed. Roughly divided into nine overlapping vignettes, the exhibition focuses on the decade of the 1860’s, opening the story on the eve of war and concluding with the societal changes that begin in the years following the ceasefire.
The exhibition begins with acts of fiction. An oversized reproduction of Balloon View of Washington (1861) greets visitors entering the gallery. The print, likely a drawing or engraving, features a capitol under-construction on the left of the image before giving way to a rough street grid of miniscule buildings that ends on the banks of the Potomac and an obelisk whose construction has just ground to a halt. An introductory text informs us that the 1860 census counted over 75,000 inhabitants in Washington County and neighboring Georgetown, considered a separate entity until 1871, but Balloon View of Washington “paints” a more rural picture, focusing the eye more on the woodlands at the base of Capitol Hill and undeveloped land to the north. Amos points out that such a vantage point – high over the city with a miniscule capital below it – was highly unlikely; the image more likely reflects the artist’s romanticized view of 1860’s DC than an accurate historic rendering.
Furthering that notion of romanticism is another soon-encountered image titled Negro Life at the South (1859) by Eastman Johnson. This image, a painting reproduction, presents a courtyard amidst two dwellings where African-American slaves are seen seemingly relaxing and conversing while a gentleman in the foreground plays a banjo. Like Balloon View, the painting presents an almost bucolic setting, capturing the artist’s aspirational views of the moment in its soft umber bricks and dappled sunlight within the tree branches. The image engenders feelings of contentment that overshadow the wall text which discusses the slaves’ inferior, segregated housing.
Amos could have built an entire exhibition solely around these types of images. Indeed, in the 1860s, artist renderings provided the primary method to record historical moments for posterity and source materials of this type are plentiful. However, during this period, a new medium entered the public consciousness, moving from rare novelty to commonplace—the photograph.
By 1860, while certainly not widely available, the technology behind producing photographic images became common enough that budding entrepreneurs could make a living utilizing this new art form. Amos notes that photographers such as Mathew Brady and his protégé Alexander Gardner, who settled in Washington after the war, would have been active in the area, likely spurring others to set up tripods of their own.
As the exhibition continues chronologically, curious interactions between photographs and other forms of visual history arise. Amos notes that during the civil war era, photographic documentation of everyday life within city is rare; photographers were interested primarily in documenting forts, military hospitals and other strategic sites whose images might provide greater remuneration. Many of the images within the exhibition dating from this time period have some tie-in to the military. Even within this limited context, the photographs provide a stark contrast to the artist-rendered illustrations.
Take for instance the illustration Mount Pleasant General Hospital, (1862) paired with a photograph titled Patients on Ward K, Armory Square General Hospital, August 1865. The former image features a modest aerial view of the hospital with what are likely military tents arrayed in fields surrounding the building. Diminutive men walking amongst the tents provide scale, indicating that, as in Balloon View of Washington, the artist is somehow high in the air. The space around the tents is orderly and seemingly free of the chaos of war. A pleasant drawing to view, we begin to forget this was likely an overcrowded hospital where one’s fate was uncertain the moment you were carried through the front door. In contrast, Patients on Ward K… forces us to acknowledge the uncertainty of death. The photographic image focuses our attention on two rows of cots and the men praying for renewed health. Interestingly, the men, those able anyway, sit frozen at attention, a byproduct of the fact that at this time images took several minutes to coalesce on the photographer’s glass plate. Even in their exaggerated solemnity, the solders invoke a range of sensations, adding context to our understanding of hospital life. Paintings and drawings show us scenes from an artist’s point of view; in contrast, the photographic lens can capture moments as they happen and with greater objectivity.
The photos in the gallery expand this more nuanced dialogue between viewer and subject. One of the most fascinating exhibition vignettes discusses the plight of so-called “contrabands” or escaped slaves who managed to pass through Union lines and find a degree of freedom while at the same time deemed “war loot” by Union troops. Group of Contrabands at Allen’s Farm House Near Williamsburg Road, Yorktown, Virginia, 1862 highlights this uncomfortable dynamic through subtle body language and positioning of the soldiers vis-à-vis the handymen and washerwomen. Where the soldiers are relaxed, the newly freed slaves appear slightly wary, not yet certain where their status as free-yet-property will end up taking them. Still, glimmerings of change are on the horizon as the figure in Unidentified Civil War Contraband ca. 1862-1865 seems to embody. The full-body portrait of a man in ragged clothing at first engenders sympathy, but then notice his hands in calm repose, his face turned up in dignity and his eyes full of life. To this point life may have been unfair, but his demeanor suggests things just might look up.
The exhibition dwells on the period’s everyday people – the contrabands, the itinerants, the lowly army privates. These individuals would swell the District’s by over 75%, according to the exhibition, during the course of the 1860s. The closing section of the exhibition discusses new neighborhoods these citizens created, often located outside L’Enfant’s plan. Early Residents of Freedman’s Village 1860S and Housing Available to Freedmen in Washington, Post –Civil War (see cover) capture the living conditions of former slaves in stark repose to Eastman Johnson’s painting earlier in the exhibition. Yet despite the sometimes squalid conditions, there is sense of dignity in the air, and we are reminded that photography humanizes even as it shows reality in stark relief.
Today photography is as ubiquitous as the cellphones in our hands. Its contexts and uses are just as varied – no longer is it always an art form intent on documenting real moments in history (even if that was not always the case. Historians now believe that Gardner may have staged one of his most famous battlefield photos). How the Civil War Changed Washington reminds us that as the nation struggled and subsequently began to heal, photography had a vital role in our understanding of that process. While the exhibition is rooted in social history, its reliance on photographic images provides insight into a unique facet of art history easily overlooked.
How the Civil War Changed Washington is on view through November 15, 2015 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum. For more information, visit the museum’s website at anacostia.si.edu