Web Faces of War





Faces of the Civil War

By James E. Sefton
California State University, Northridge
January 2005

Besides the fact that Civil War soldier portraits have always been inherently interesting to Americans, two other current considerations make Faces of the Civil War timely. One is the detailed media coverage of the life stories of Marines and soldiers killed in Iraq. The other is that veranular photography-- pictures of unidentified subjects taken by unidentified people in unknown circumstances -- is popular among collectors of photographic fine art. There are many books of Civil War letters, and photographs are common. But this book is a first: a collection of identified portraits accompanied by brief narratives of the subjects' lives.

The book offers seventy-seven cartes-de-visite from Ronald Coddington's large collection. He has followed a paper trail on each subject, consisting primarily of his military service and pension files. In a few cases there are newspaper articles. Regimental histories add useful details. However, the book's 321 footnotes contain no census records, no church records, and no civil records regarding such things as property ownership, taxes, wills, and legal actions, all potential sources of additional personal and family details.

Coddington's soldiers, whether officers or enlisted men, are for the most part remarkably ordinary. No generals here, because they are already well known, but a lot of lieutenants and captains, a few majors and colonels, and only two dozen enlisted men out of seventy-seven subjects. They were farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, laborers, and professional men, perhaps prominent in their small towns but usually not beyond. They came from commonplace backgrounds, joined thousands of their fellows to save the nation, and afterward, often grievously wounded, went their separate ways, sometimes home, sometimes wandering far afield.

Many factors make assessing the representative quality of this group of seventy-seven images difficult. Coddington's private collection is itself selective because of his long residence in the northeast and access to local sources. Thus, eastern regiments outnumber Midwestern ones. The collection may be selective for other reasons. The author states that Confederate cartes-de-visite are "rare"-- but so rare as to be unavailable from southern antique dealers? Then there is the matter of numbers -- of soldiers, photographers, and photographs. From the uncounted thousands of images made, is there survivability a function of age, rank, financial status, large family, medical history, or other factors? We simply don’t know.

The sketches are well written and not at all formulaic in presentation. Coddington allows both the faces and the lives to speak for themselves and lets viewers fill in the shadows and the interstices. The images do what good photography is supposed to do: invite the viewer back for a second look amid questions left unanswered by the stories.

The description of Civil War photography is rudimentary. Readers would benefit from more details about processes and technical limitations as they affect visual ctyle. Reproduction quality of the cartes is good. Both scholars and general readers will appreciate Coddington’s extensive research and will enjoy the result.

facebook_logo facebook_logo   flickr_logo