Devil in the Details: Examining Visual Material from the Civil War

This post is by Nina Silvia Iskandarsjach, the Summer 2021 Liljenquist Fellow at the Library of Congress.

My first task as an intern for the Library of Congress was to read Ron Field’s book Silent Witness and to update the Library’s online catalog based on Field’s research. This involved finding every image attributed to the Library of Congress and adding or modifying information on those images in the Library’s catalog. 

Some photographs were simple to find. I could search the Library’s catalog by photographer or location to quickly find my match.

I found the image of this unidentified soldier because its location, Benton Barracks, was identified in both Field’s book and the Library’s catalog.

Image of African American Civil War soldier in uniform holding guns

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with a Austrian Lorenz rifle-musket and Remington revolver in front of painted backdrop showing weapons and American flag at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri. Enoch Long

Civilians crowed in boxcars fleeing Atlanta at the end of the Civil War

Atlanta, Ga. Civilians crowded on tops of boxcars at railroad depot as soldiers gather around an S.D. Goodale & Sons stereoscopic viewer next to office of the Daily Intelligencer newspaper. George N. Bernard, 1864

However, photographs with unidentified soldiers, misidentified photographers, or vague descriptors are difficult to locate within the wealth of digitized images. Thus, I quickly learned that when it comes to research, the devil lies in the details.

For harder to identify photographs, like the one on this page from Atlanta, I learned to observe closely for details that might indicate its identity.

After search results using the terms “railroad,” “Atlanta,” and “Barnard” (photographer) were fruitless, I examined this photograph more closely, noting a boxcar in the background and soldiers huddling in the center. I finally discovered this image in the Library catalog, titled “Atlanta, Ga. Soldiers on boxcars at railroad depot.” With a closer look, however, you can see that the people piled on top of the boxcars are not actually soldiers, but civilians. According to Field, they are “panicked civilian passengers” attempting to flee Atlanta following Sherman’s capture of the city. Additionally, at the center of the photograph, you can see a group of soldiers huddled around a stereoscopic camera. Now the Library’s online catalog has been updated to say, “Atlanta, Ga. Civilians crowded on tops of boxcars at railroad depot as soldiers gather around an S.D. Goodale & Sons stereoscopic viewer.”

As a student of history, I understand how intimidating historical research can feel. It may seem like everything important  is already discovered, especially when it comes to prominent historical events like the Civil War. But the truth is, there is so much of history that has yet to be uncovered.

This image of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was captured just 11 days after his surrender at the Appomattox Court House.

Image of Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee.

Detail of image of Robert E. Lee showing the word "devil".

Detail of image of Robert E. Lee showing where the word ‘devil” has been carved in the brick.

On the surface, it depicts a surprisingly cordial end to one of the bloodiest wars in American history. But there’s more to this photograph than what initially meets the eye. On the left side of the image, faintly visible on a brick adjacent to the doorknob, the word “devil” is etched into the house of Robert E. Lee.

This tiny detail reveals a history of post-war tension that is not immediately evident and foreshadows a messy post-war reality. The richness of history does not lie in simple facts or commonly known truths. In history, the devil really does lie in the details.

Next Steps:

  • Present students with Civil War images chosen from this blog post. Additional images can be found in the Library of Congress online collections of Civil War photographs. (Also check out the related images at the bottom of each item page!)
  • Give students ample time to closely examine images. Each student or group of students should make several observations from their close examination.
  • As a whole class, compile observations and discuss. Ask students: What new information was discovered after the close examination? Was there anything consequential discovered that wasn’t noticeable at first glance?

Please leave a comment about what images your students found compelling, and what they discovered.

Where Do You Go If You’ve Reached a Historical “Dead End”?

Where can you look if you think you’ve run out of information about a person or place? How can we encourage students to be persistent researching in the face of a “dead end”? And how do we equip students with the knowledge of databases and archives, so that when they run into a historical dead end, they know where to keep looking?

The Evolution of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

The Library of Congress houses the largest archival collection of Walt Whitman materials in the world, all of which have are now available online. Seeing portions of Whitman’s poems in various stages of composition reveals both his very active creative mind and his innovative ways of seeing the world and crafting poetic expressions.

Expanding Student Understanding of Slavery in America by Exploring an Arabic Muslim Slave Narrative

In the January-February 2019 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article discusses the Life of Omar ibn Said, the only known extant narrative written in Arabic by an enslaved person in the United States. Analyzing this unique manuscript provides students with an opportunity to expand their understanding of some of the people who were brought to the United States from Africa to be enslaved. How educated were they? What did they believe?