Faces of Union gen­er­als from the Civil War in­spire, in­trigue

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY EMMA COLLINS

At the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, you can stare into the eyes of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

And from be­neath a fur­rowed brow, he stares back — his eyes glim­mer­ing with quiet, fo­cused fe­roc­ity.

Grant’s grim coun­te­nance is part of the gallery’s ex­hibit “Mathew Brady’s Pho­to­graphs of Union Gen­er­als.” Call it the Face­book of the 1860s. The ex­hibit in the gallery’s Fred­er­ick Hill Me­serve Collection fea­tures pho­to­graphic por­traits of 20 Union gen­er­als, taken by Brady in his New York and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., stu­dios dur­ing the Civil War.

“[The por­traits ] make me proud, proud of Amer­ica. And just kind of amazed at the strug­gle they went through at that time, and how they per­se­vered to help save the Union,” said David Schaaf, a re­cent viewer of the ex­hibit.

The pho­to­graphs, which are mod­ern prints made from Brady’s orig­i­nal plate­glass neg­a­tives, all look es­sen­tially the same — bearded, uni­formed men gaz­ing sternly ahead in hues of black and white. They are re­mark­able, how­ever, be­cause they are or­di­nary.

“They re­mind you that it was men just kind of like us that were thrust into these po­si­tions,” said Mr. Schaaf, a federal worker in his 30s.

An­other viewer, the­atri­cal set di­rec­tor Laura Hilliker, also was struck by the in­ti­mate sense of nor­mal­ity the por­traits con­vey across the decades since they were taken.

“I think, while its not present day, [the pho­to­graphs] help you re­al­ize this greater im­pact with pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause it makes it feel more real and present,” she said.

The most fa­mous U.S. pho­tog­ra­pher of the 19th century, Brady is renowned for his vis­ual doc­u­men­ta­tion of the Civil War, es­pe­cially his pho­to­graphs of the First Bat­tle of Bull Run and the aftermath of the Bat­tle of An­ti­etam — many of them the work of a team of pho­tog­ra­phers on whom he re­lied.

But Brady was also a pop­u­lar por­traitist, whose sub­jects in­cluded pres­i­dents and mil­i­tary lead­ers. Among the dis­play of stony vis­ages of Union gen­er­als are pho­to­graphs of Am­brose Burn­side, Ge­orge McClellan and Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man, as well as Grant.

Plaques that briefly note the mil­i­tary ac­com­plish­ments of each gen­eral sit be­side each por­trait, but it is the faces that make these his­to­ries come alive.

“I think its help­ful to get faces. I think a lot of times when you read about wars in gen­eral its just names and num­bers and it doesn’t add the hu­man per­son­al­ity to it, so I think hav­ing por­trai­ture is im­por­tant,” said Ms. Hilliker, 32, who works in Bal­ti­more.

The ap­prox­i­mately 2-inch by 3-inch por­traits, known as cartes-de-vis­ite, served as per­sonal call­ing cards for the gen­er­als.

They also were com­piled into “face books,” of sorts, that were housed in par­lors through­out the coun­try, as the gen­er­als en­joyed a de­gree of celebrity among Union sup­port­ers.

While Gens. Daniel Sick­les or Sa­muel Heintze­man may no longer be house­hold names, the ex­hibit is worth a visit for its hy­per-real­is­tic glimpse of Amer­ica’s past.

“Mathew Brady’s Pho­to­graphs of Union Gen­er­als” runs through May 31. Ad­mis­sion is free.


Mathew Brady is renown for tak­ing pho­tos of Union gen­er­als and soldiers, like this one of Col. Elmer Ellsworth. His ex­hibit will be on dis­play through May 31.

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