Faces of Union generals from the Civil War inspire, intrigue
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.