The Nation in Mourning
During the war, soldiers’ portrait photographs represented the men’s individualized attempts to acknowledge their own service and existence, but by the close of the war the photographs of the deceased soldiers would turn into tools for grieving that would satisfy families’ and friends’ needs to mourn. Subsequently, the photographs would continue to personally memorialize the soldiers. The war’s end in 1865 left an unimaginable amount of devastation that obscured any recognition of triumph for the Union, and compounded the misery of the Confederacy. The dead plagued the minds of families and survivors, and created a nation heaving in mourning.
Americans had never imagined or expected that the Civil War would destroy so many men with such speed and recklessness, leaving the country in a state of shock in the immediate postwar years and in a deep state of grief in the subsequent decades. “‘The dead come back and live with us. I see them now, more than I can number, as I once saw them on earth,’” lamented Oliver Wendell Holmes, revealing that with so many dead, the living could not bear to part with them, nor did they know how. Individuals and the nation attempted to internalize the soldiers’ pain and deaths to retain some degree of connection with the lost soldiers, The Civil War produced a society still split by ideology, but now painfully burdened by death as well.
Death’s proximity to the living changed modes of behavior in order to link past, present, and future, as exhibited in Confederate war widow Anne Marie Stewart Turner’s letter. Upon learning of her husband’s death, Anne Marie Turner wrote to her mother and sister to inform them of James Turner’s passing and to assure them that she bore his loss graciously and with strength. Anne Marie Turner requested, “Let us live for the future, both for this world and the world to come,” with these words suggesting that prevalence of death, and a hope for reunion, shaped life. Due to the enormous number of casualties and a corporeal understanding of the afterlife, the postbellum population saw death as living: death reigned as an active and powerful character that dominated each moment and thought.
Christian perception of the afterlife established the importance of the physical body, while the prevalence of death further reinforced this significance. However, since the nature of total war denied the dead proper burials, and even totally obliterated bodies, grieving Americans required stand-ins for the bodies of their loved ones in order to properly comprehend loss. Thus, in this void the portrait photographs soldiers had sent home served as proxies for the deceased bodies, and the preservation of these images in the immediate aftermath of the war allowed families to memorialize their kin. By doing so, the soldiers survived in a private realm that valued and understood the dead soldiers’ individuality.
In grief, the thousands of portrait photographs became sacred objects that ritualized the process of mourning. Families found the portraits critically important, and the images’ significance surfaces through the mentions of photographs in written correspondences that discuss the death of soldiers. In her letter to her mother and sister, Anne Marie Tuner wrote that she “[had] an excellent ambrotype of [her husband she was] thankful to have,” along with a lock of his hair and “his ring...which he always wore. Portrait photographs took prominence in the process of remembering the dead, and the pictures held as much importance as physical remains.