Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Antietam image: It's all in the details

After Antietam, famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner took this photo of
a young Confederate soldier and the grave of another soldier next to him.
(Library of Congess collection)

Killed at Antietam, Lieutenant John Clark was buried in 
this grave.  His name and regiment were etched on a crude 
wooden headboard (arrow).  Clark was later disinterred and
 re-buried in Monroe, Mich.  This is an enlargement 
of a section of the image at top.
Andy Hall, who cranks out thought-provoking stuff over at the Dead Confederates blog, posted a spot-on comment on my post on Hartford undertaker William Roberts in which I included the photo above. The detail in glass plate negatives of  Civil War-era photographs, Hall noted, is amazing.

To the right of the dead young Rebel in Alexander Gardner's photo taken after the Battle of Antietam is the hastily dug grave of another soldier, marked by a crude wooden headboard with writing on it. Under magnification -- or enlarged using picnik at right -- the name of that soldier can be discerned:

J.A. Clark,
7th Mich.

William Frassanito, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, first revealed this detail in his terrific book on Antietam  published way back in 1978, before the Internet made such research a whole lot easier, before cell phones -- heck, maybe even before cars. A dog-earred copy of Frassanito's work, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day, easily remains my favorite book on the battle. Go buy it.

Clark, whose image you can view at the Archives of Michigan site, enlisted in the Union army on June 19, 1861, two months after the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter. Promoted to first lieutenant 10 months later, he served during McClellan's Peninsula Campaign near Richmond. After he was killed at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, Clark was buried east of the West Woods and just south of infamous Cornfield. He was 21 years old.

Alexander Gardner
The young rebel to the left of Clark's grave has never been identified.

Gardner's images of the dead of Antietam were later shown at an exhibition at Mathew Brady's gallery in New York, causing a sensation. It was the first time the American public viewed ghastly images of dead soldiers.

This eloquently written passage in The New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862, captured the scene.

"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us that terrible reality and earnestness of war," a reporter whose name is lost to history wrote. "If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard 'The Dead of Antietam'. Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them ... there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes you loath to leave them. You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes."

Just another reminder, too, that war is hell.

John Clark, who grew up in rural Ida Township in Michigan, was listed in the 1860 U.S. census.
His father, Thomas, was farmer. He had two other siblings: Edward and Ellen. His mother

was named Lovonia. (CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE)

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