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Civil War and Its Aftermath

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 5, 1863, July 5, 1863

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 5, 1863, July 5, 1863, albumen print, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2006.133.111

How do we remember the Civil War?

Whose stories are told in the art and memorials from and about the time period?

In a time when the nation was divided over the issue of slavery, artists helped to shape people’s understandings of the conflict that overtook the nation. Some artists depicted the political figures and events that drove and reflected the conflict. Other artists were on the battlefield itself, bringing the emotional toll of war home in immediate ways.

Mathew Brady, a prominent photographer of the era, photographed Lincoln after he won the Republican nomination for president, and his image was published on the cover of the widely popular magazine Harper’s Weekly. A printed reproduction of it (a lithograph) was sold by the thousands by the printmakers Currier and Ives and featured on campaign material. Brady believed his image had a significant influence on Lincoln’s winning the election.

Artist Winslow Homer, who had been chosen to illustrate President Lincoln’s inaugural address for Harper’s Weekly in 1861, later traveled with Union soldiers to the battlefields, studying camp life and translating those experiences through his painting. His focus on the common soldier humanized the conflict and made its effects that much more tangible.

Photographers saw an opportunity in the war and traveled to the front with all their supplies in order to capture views that would be virtually guaranteed to find a large market in both the public and the press. The Civil War was the first American war to be documented by photography, and the images produced by the major photography studios were the public’s first exposure to seeing dead soldiers, making clear the cost of war. Some viewers considered them unmediated and the only true records of the war that could be relied upon. The artists, however, chose their subjects and carefully composed their photographs, likely altering scenes from their original state to make a more powerful photo.

In the years following the end of the war, artists’ depictions reflected both a new order in which all men were to be free and equal, and resistance to that new order. Our present-day understandings of the Civil War are often driven by the memorialization of the people, places, and events of the period, and they present to us an opportunity to ask questions: Whose stories are being told? What are the ongoing impacts of a large-scale resistance to the emancipation and equal treatment of black Americans?