This cruel war
New Mexico played a small but crucial role during the Civil War, when Union soldiers defeated Confederate troops at Glorieta Pass. The New Mexico History Museum commemorates the state’s part in the war in the exhibition Fading Memories: Echoes of the Civil War, which tells its story through old photographs, music, and memorabilia. The exhibition is held in conjunction with Santa Fe Opera’s premiere of Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s Cold Mountain, based on Charles Frazier’s novel of the same name. The opera, about a Confederate army deserter seeking to reunite with the woman he loves, opens on Saturday, Aug. 1. On the cover is a Civil War-era hand-colored tintype from Fading Memories of an unidentified girl in mourning dress, circa 1861-1870; courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-36863.
During the period that coincided with the American Civil War, the New Mexico Territory was a region of shifting borders; at different points between 1850 and 1912, the boundaries included not only what would become the nation’s 47th state but also parts of Colorado and most of Arizona. Residents in the southern part of the territory mostly sided with the Confederate states. It was only after a key defeat at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, informally referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West,” that Santa Fe, eastern New Mexico, and the Río Grande valley came under the command of Union forces. But for a brief period of nearly two weeks in 1862, the Palace of the Governors — which was, at that time, New Mexico’s first territorial capitol — was under the control of the Confederacy.
Two pre-20th century conflicts dominate the American consciousness: the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War, but it’s the latter that brought war home to families in a way that the war for independence never could: through the medium of photography. For the first time, soldiers could carry small photographic images of their loved ones into battle. The images — daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes — were set in hinged leather cases, ornamented inside with embossed foil, and each one could fit in a pocket. They form part of the exhibit Fading Memories: Echoes
of the Civil War on display at the New Mexico History Museum. “It’s some of the earliest photography, period,” Palace of the Governors’ photo curator Daniel Kosharek told Pasatiempo. “The daguerreotype was invented in 1839, so in the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s they were really popular. They’re on polished copper plates with a silver coating developed with mercury vapors, which is very toxic. That’s why daguerreotypes weren’t done for very long. The ambrotype is emulsion on a glass negative. It’s put over a black background that results in a positive image. A tintype is just emulsion on tin, similar to what a printed photograph would be.”
The images sometimes allowed for identification of such things as an officer’s rank, and his uniform indicated whether or not he was a Confederate or Union soldier. One poignant image in the exhibit depicts a young girl in mourning clothes clutching a cased photograph of an officer, presumably her father. Some are portraits of wives and children and other family members, most of whom remain unidentified. “There’s no place to write on them like with a printed photograph, so most of them end up being unidentified,” Kosharek said. “The whole idea of the exhibit is about memory. People carried photographs to remind themselves of their family.” Housed in the museum’s smallest gallery, Fading
Memories crams in some intriguing history lessons. The exhibit was co-curated by Kosharek, Thomas Leech, director of the Palace Press, and Meredith Davidson, curator of the museum’s 19th- and 20thcentury Southwest collections. “We realized early on that it was a difficult topic to tackle because there’s no material culture left,” Kosharek said. “We had to work with ideas more than anything else.”
The cased photographs are formal portraits, shot in a studio. The duration of time needed for an exposure
demanded the subject be still, something that was not possible in the heat of battle. But artists were employed to sketch the action. Journals such as Frank
Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly, the most widely read wartime news source, were profusely illustrated with their images. Unlike photography at midcentury, woodcuts, lithographs, etchings, and other prints could be mass-produced. “Lithographers were relying on photography, but they still had to reinterpret what they were seeing,” Leech said. Included in Fading Memories is one such image of Abraham Lincoln, an illustration based on a photograph by Mathew Brady for Harper’s
Weekly. Popular printing firms such as Currier and Ives and Kurz and Allison also produced wartime images, but photojournalism was still a long way off. “It was a good 30 or 40 years after the Civil War before photographs could be mass-produced,” Leech said. “Firms like Kurz and Allison had pretty much gone by the wayside. The photo-printing industry caught up to them and pretty much put that kind of hand lithography, as a journalistic medium, out of business, but it didn’t happen overnight.”
During the war, the North employed artists but the South, for the most part, did not. “The South was hindered by shortages of materials,” Leech said. “The North had the supplies and the newspapers had artists on staff who were on the field, drawing and sketching, and that material would then be turned over to a woodcut artist or, in some cases, lithographers.”
Twentieth-century depictions of Civil War conflicts are also on exhibit, including Isa Barnett’s Battle of
Shiloh from 1961, a casein on paper commissioned by Life magazine for a Civil War commemorative issue produced in 1961. Barnett lived in Santa Fe and his son, Ivan, is the co-owner of Patina Gallery. The painting depicts one of the bloodiest conflicts on American soil, which took place in Tennessee in April, 1962. Dead soldiers lay battered and broken on the landscape, strewn incongruously amongst blossoming cherry trees. Another work depicts the Battle of Fort Pillow of 1864 by Louis Kurz. The print shows Confederate forces attacking a Union-held garrison on the Mississippi River. Kurz and Allison produced the lithograph nearly 30 years after the event it depicts: the slaughter of black Union soldiers and their families by forces under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who would go on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. “It’s a condemnation of this massacre of black soldiers,” Leech said. “Instead of being taken as prisoners, they were just murdered.” Leech chose the image as a contrast to heroic battle scenes, also produced by Kurz and Allison in the years after the war that reflected a national reconciliation between North and South. “Kurz was one of the few artists who depicted black soldiers. Also, we have in our collection a Frederick Douglass memorial portrait he did.”
African-American slavery was not as prevalent in New Mexico as it was in the other regions, although other forms of indentured servitude, particularly of Native peoples, existed, especially during the Spanish Colonial era. As a text panel explains, “The region’s African slaves rarely numbered more than a dozen.” Still, New Mexico did have a slave code that was not abolished until two years after the 13th amendment of 1865 outlawed the practice nationwide.
An interactive element of the show allows visitors to listen to Civil War-era music through headphones. Accompanying the display are broadsheets with music for such songs as Henry Tucker and Charles Carroll Sawyer’s “When This Cruel War Is Over” and Henry C. Work’s “Song of a Thousand Years.” Some patriotic Union songs proved so popular that the writers produced Confederate versions with slightly altered lyrics.
Among the ephemera in Fading Memories isa tattered, hand-sewn, 34-star Union flag borne by members of the 1st Colorado Infantry, Company D during the Battle of Glorieta Pass, the historic fray in which more than 350 soldiers on both sides lost their lives. The New Mexico Territory was in a strategic position as part of a westward route to California. Confederate forces from Texas hoped to gain passage through the territory en route to the West Coast, part of a plot to seize California’s seaports and western goldfields. The plan was foiled when Confederate supply trains were sabotaged but not before skirmishes erupted in Mesilla and Valverde. After the violence in Valverde, Maj. Charles Pyron, leading a force of Texas Confederate soldiers, pushed north to Santa Fe, gaining entry to an unguarded Palace of the Governors. On March 13, he hoisted the Confederate battle flag over the Palace. “They just marched up and nobody gave them any resistance,” Kosharek said. “A photo of the Confederate flag flying over the Palace would be the Holy Grail, but it doesn’t exist.”
The Battle of Glorieta Pass took place less than two weeks after the troops entered Santa Fe. On March 26, Capt. Samuel Cook led Cavalry Company F from Colorado and engaged with Confederate forces near Pecos. The bloody conflict concluded on March 29, when Confederate troops were defeated at Glorieta Pass. “In Washington, all of the debates involved New Mexico,” Leech said. “We weren’t out there in the sticks. The whole thing about the Battle of Glorieta being called the ‘Gettysburg of the West,’ obviously it wasn’t in terms of masses of armies and casualties, but it did represent the high watermark of Confederate advance through the Southwest. So the battle was critical.”