Gibbes exhibit offers real picture of war

Brian Hicks
Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2013
It’s easy to romanticize the Civil War, especially around here.

Some people consider Our Late Unpleasantness a gallant time, tragic to be sure, but an era when brother fought against brother for lofty notions about honor and home.

There were, of course, other, nefarious reasons behind the war — but that isn’t why the men in the field were fighting. The politics of the day mattered little to them; they simply answered the call of their country.

And they paid for it dearly.

If you visit the Gibbes Museum of Art’s “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibition — and you really should — you may come away with a different view of this country’s defining moment.

In one photo, a woman holds a photo of a soldier, a subtle sadness in her eyes. Is it her husband? Her son? Will he come back? She doesn’t know, and neither do we.

Then there are the photos of the injured soldiers, some of them missing part of their hands or an entire leg, or with gaping wounds in their heads.

And then there is the image of a young Confederate soldier, his twisted, lifeless body lying on the battlefield at Antietam.

These images tell the sad, unvarnished truth: There is nothing glorious about war.

Early photojournalism

This exhibit — some 240 tin types, amber types, carte-de-visites and glass negatives — was organized by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is on display at the Gibbes through Jan. 5.

The Met gathered these photos from several sources, including private collections, for a look at the war that is personal and epic. Charleston is one of only three cities to host this exhibit.

Pam Wall, curator of exhibitions at the Gibbes, was struck by the emotional impact of the portraits in the collection. There are, to be sure, photos of famous figures from the war — Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, even Gen. George Custer — but it is the family portraits of rank-and-file soldiers, young and old, that make the conflict come alive.

In one photo, two brothers from Georgia pose together in their Confederate uniforms — uniforms not yet stained from battle.

Other photographs are simply documentary. A man named Alma A. Pelot lugged his camera gear to Fort Sumter just days after the first battle of the Civil War and captured images that show a place unlike the national monument that exists today.

This was before Sumter was reduced to rubble, when it was still a three-story fort. Those photos alone are worth the price of admission to the museum, which is $9 for adults and $5 for children 6-12 years old.

“This is really the advent of photojournalism,” Wall says. “We are looking at a history of photography. It’s remarkable this many photos were taken. Photography was barely 20 years old.”

And, as the exhibition shows, the war was the first historical event to be recorded on film.

Never forget

There are disturbing images in this collection.

A series of photos show the execution of the Lincoln conspirators, up to the moment they were hanged.

The most gruesome series of photos were shot by a doctor named Reed Brockway Bontecou to document the traumatic injuries soldiers suffered on the battlefield.

Surgeons were going into the field unprepared for the horrors they would witness, so Bontecou documented what he saw for other physicians. Today, his photos offer different insights into the war.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wall and a panel of surgeons and historians will discuss these photos, and on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the state Hunley Commission, will talk about the images in the gallery at 2:30 p.m. Go to for more information about these talks.

Those are two good chances to take in the exhibition and appreciate its relevance.

A century and a half later, the war continues to fascinate many people, and with good reason.

The Gibbes exhibition goes a long way toward making sure we never forget that horrible period in our history.

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