Image as Identity and Memory
As newspapers responded to the public’s desire for news of the war, other types of publishers and artists also reacted to the demand for war-related images, both during and after the war. From unique works of fine art, like paintings, to affordable, mass-produced artworks, like prints, virtually everyone in the United States possessed art in one form or another that related to the war. After the war, these images and objects acted as memorials that helped keep the thrill of victories, the disaster of defeats, and the memory of lost loved ones alive in the hearts and minds of Americans.
Much of this art was aimed at the general public in the North. The publisher Currier and Ives specialized in making affordable, “frameable,” prints for display in homes or businesses. During the war era, the company produced lithographs of important figures, such as the 1861 Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President of the United States.
Currier and Ives also made prints about pivotal events in the war, such as the 1861 Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor. Most of these were hand-colored, and sold for between twenty cents and three dollars, depending on their size. This modest price made these images available to most Americans.
Sculpture of Civil War subjects was also mass-produced and sold to middle-class audiences at affordable prices. Artist and businessman John Rogers created several small-scale statues with Civil War themes that were very popular as household decorations. One of his well-known pieces, The Council of War, was first available in 1868, but was still being manufactured as late as 1895, suggesting that people still wanted to display art about the war long after it ended.
The new medium of photography made it possible for almost anyone to own an accurate, affordable portrait. A photographic portrait was much less expensive than a painted portrait; however, photographs were not yet something average citizens could create because the equipment needed to produce them was costly and difficult to use. Instead, professional photographers created images for customers. Portraits of civilians, like the Portraits of Mrs. John A. Logan and Dollie Logan, were carried into battle by soldiers wanting to remember their loved ones. Images of soldiers were also made as keepsakes for family members or friends at home.
Photographs of public figures were popular as well. Celebrated photographer Alexander Gardner, for instance, mass-produced and sold cartes-de-visite of famous politicians and generals. He also displayed portraits in his Washington, D.C., studio and gallery and sold his war scenes as individual prints and stereo views. Shortly after the war ended, Gardner published his Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, a two-volume collection of battlefield and camp scenes, recorded by him and other photographers. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter is one of the photographs included. The book was labor-intensive and expensive to produce (one hundred original photographs were pasted in each set), so only a small number were created. For the few who could afford them, however, these albums served as realistic and sometimes shocking reminders of the war.
Artists also responded to the devastating conflict with symbolic paintings of nature. In particular, several landscape painters produced peaceful and scenic images of the nation’s countryside and coastal and wilderness areas. Paintings such as Albert Bierstadt’s Mountain Brook, made in 1863, may have offered viewers a much-needed feeling of tranquility and refuge as the war dragged on.
Some of these landscape painters responded to the conflict more directly. Following the bombing of Fort Sumter, for example, patriotic “flag mania” swept through the Union and inspired Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 Our Banner in the Sky.
While art about the Civil War was widely available (and in demand) for personal use in the home, people also yearned for public memorials. After the war ended, both Northern and Southern communities raised funds to commission statues that memorialized the heroic deeds and sacrifices of their Civil War soldiers. Today we can visit these sculptures in parks, town squares, and other civic spaces throughout the country. The 1923 monument to General Philip Henry Sheridan, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, is one such example.