Profiles in Courage: Understanding War through Soldier Photos

    The American Civil War produced thousands of evocative images that stirred the emotions of citizens all across the nation. Almost like video footage on cable news channels today, 1860s photography served as a portal for the grotesque and previously unseen perspectives of warfare. On October 20, 1862, just a month following the Battle of Antietam, the New York Times editorialized of Matthew Brady and company’s battlefield photographs: “The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement. Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.” For one of the first times, battleground horrors were brought vividly to life to citizens who otherwise may not have been exposed to such carnage. Subsequent battles offered further visual testimony to the human cost of life, including Gettysburg.

The Faces of Gettysburg exhibit within Gettysburg National Military Park’s Museum and Visitor Center offers people the ability to put a human face to the large and complex story of battle. Every soldier pictured in this exhibit was a casualty of some type in the battle or campaign.

    But one can grasp this human toll through more than photographs of battle’s aftermath. Some of the most emotionally-charged photographs of the war are of soldiers themselves – young, formal, and forever changed. The faces of 1863 stare at us a century and a half later with an intensity that still moves us. What can we learn from these profiles? These men (or boys sometimes) had their whole lives ahead of them, sharing the same aspirations young people today desire. They wanted to succeed in life, receive educations, start families.

Sgt. (later Lt.) Franklin Adams of the 17th Maine lost an eye and multiple fingers in the Civil War. Maine State Archives

Many did not survive to achieve such lofty hopes but in the process, their own loss enabled others to live the lives they themselves were denied. Civil War portraits speak not only to youthful vigor and impeccable uniforms, but the scars of battle and the personal losses associated with it. When we view such photos, we can envision young people like our own family members who were swept up amidst the catastrophe which is warfare. As the number of United States troops killed in the Middle East nears 7,000, looking back on some lost faces of the past can afford us an opportunity to grasp the tolls and consequences of the present.

   As you watch the short Profiles in Courage: Wall of Faces at Gettysburg film above, keep in mind that wars are fought not merely by regiments and companies, but by living individuals not unlike ourselves. Acknowledging this fact can indeed figuratively bring war to “our dooryards and along the streets.” As it should.

Jared Frederick, Park Ranger

p.s. The full 15 minute version of the Profiles in Courage: Wall of Faces at Gettysburg video is available on YouTube at:


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