The Past is Present: A Reflection on Civil War Veterans

The following is a guest post by Naomi Subotnick, Liljenquist Fellow, Prints and Photographs Division, Summer 2017.

This past summer, I worked as a Liljenquist Fellow in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, where I helped to digitize, catalog, and house recently acquired Civil War-era photographs. Working with the Liljenquist Family Collection brought new discoveries every day, and I would like to share one such discovery that particularly moved me.

While working with the photographs one day, I was struck by a portrait of a Civil War veteran in his Union uniform, seated beside a much younger man, possibly his grandson, who wore a World War I uniform. The two men sat side by side in what seemed to be a conflation of two different worlds.

Unidentified Civil War veteran and unidentified World War I soldier. Photo by Schriever, between 1914 and 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.53064

Unidentified Civil War veteran and unidentified World War I soldier. Photo by Schriever, between 1914 and 1918. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.53064

I tend to imagine the American Civil War and the first World War as being separated by both time and space–– but the photograph insisted that I confront the overlap between these two events.

As I continued my work, I found this confluence repeated elsewhere. A small carte de visite photograph depicted John L. Burns, a veteran of the War of 1812 who at age 69 became a civilian combatant with the Union army at the Battle of Gettysburg.

John L. Burns, veteran of the War of 1812, civilian who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg with Union troops.... Photo by Brady's National Portrait Gallery. between 1863 and 1872. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.52196

John L. Burns, veteran of the War of 1812, civilian who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg with Union troops…. Photo by Brady’s National Portrait Gallery. between 1863 and 1872. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.52196

The pocket-sized portrait contained layers of history–– from its surface gazed not only a weathered face of the Civil War, but eyes that had seen the national struggles of decades earlier.

Sometime later, I came across a photograph of Lawrence Swinyer, also a veteran of the War of 1812, and his eight sons, all of whom had fought in the Civil War. Four of those sons were wounded in the war. From my studies I had some sense of the bloody toll of the Civil War, but the photograph made those numbers personal— I understood the cost paid by one family.

Lawrence Swiney [i.e. Swinyer], veteran of 1812 Eight sons of Lawrence Swiney [i.e. Swinyer] of Starksboro, Vt., in the Union army during the war of the rebellion 1861 to 1865. Photo by Harvey Custer Ingham, ca. 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.53423

Lawrence Swiney [i.e. Swinyer], veteran of 1812 Eight sons of Lawrence Swiney [i.e. Swinyer] of Starksboro, Vt., in the Union army during the war of the rebellion 1861 to 1865. Photo by Harvey Custer Ingham, ca. 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.53423

I have been reflecting on the ways in which these veterans were witnesses to, and participants in, multiple historical events. Indeed, in the process of researching these photographs I discovered that the oldest Civil War veterans died in the 1950s.

As a student of American history, I tend to categorize events into distinct historical periods— grouped by decades, symbolic moments, and social movements.  But as I observed these photographs, I realized that such temporal divisions are the artificial creations of historians, imposed upon the past to make it more digestible, easier to study and scrutinize. The reality is much messier, more complicated, and more fluid. The Civil War did not end with the surrender of the Confederate armies–– no war ends with a surrender or a treaty. The veterans live on after the conflict, carrying the memory, the pain, and the consequences of its events with them. A war is not an isolated or contained event— it reverberates through time long after the official documents have been signed and the troops have been sent home.

The past is never truly gone. We all carry our memories on to the next generation. And while there is much to be learned from studying the story of history from a textbook, perhaps we ought also to listen to those who have lived it—who continue to live it. Our past is not always as far away as we might imagine it to be.

Photography is a medium that allows us to access this truth. In a photograph, the material of time melts away. Past and present coexist in a single image, whose immediacy allows us to feel almost as if we can communicate directly with the person depicted. In viewing these photographs, the past is made present.

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