My wife and I have two sons, aged eighteen and twenty-two. Both have registered for the Selective Service, as the law requires. (“Our objective is to register you,” the official letter reminded them, “not to have you prosecuted.”) We don’t have a clear idea of Tommy’s or Nicholas’s views regarding military service; we hope that circumstances won’t force us to find out. None of us knows any men or women currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are someone else’s children. We watch news reports of wounded veterans learning to walk with prosthetic limbs. Recent stories about body parts mislaid at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base fill us with outrage. Still, for many of us, it is a general, not an individualized outrage.
During the Civil War, in contrast, the mangling of young bodies was evident to all. Three million volunteers armed with advanced rifles, and firing at one another at point-blank range, fought on battlefields often not far from their own homes. American writers, many of whom had children in the war, were not insulated from the carnage. Fred Stowe was standing in the graveyard on Cemetery Ridge, above Gettysburg, when a live shell exploded near his ear, opening a wound that never healed. Charles Longfellow sought distraction from the trauma of the war in Yokohama, where he had a giant carp tattooed across his back, around the scars of two bullet holes. Emily Dickinson chose as her literary advisor a Union colonel suffering from PTSD: “We can find no scar,” she wrote in a famous poem, “But internal difference— / Where the Meanings, are.”
Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman served as nurses and eyewitness reporters in the hideous Union hospitals in Washington, D. C. Alcott contracted typhoid in the septic wards and wrote Little Women, about the daughters of a father wounded in the war, while treating herself with mercury. Whitman ministered to the needs of wounded soldiers while also keeping a careful visual record of everything he saw, “this other freight of helpless worn and wounded youth,” as he wrote to Emerson. “Doctors sawed arms & legs off from morning till night,” he reported in his journal. He was dismayed to see “a heap of feet, arms, legs, etc., under a tree in front of a hospital.” As he moved from bed to bed in the overcrowded wards, he was shocked by the youth of the victims. “Charles Miller, bed 19, company D, 53rd Pennsylvania, is only sixteen years of age, very bright, courageous boy, left leg amputated below the knee.”
The remarkable medical photographs of the Civil War surgeon-photographer Reed Bontecou—now published in their entirety for the first time and recently shown at The Robert Anderson gallery in New York—bring us closer still. Bontecou, from Troy, New York, was a classifier of seashells and an ornithologist who had traveled in the Amazon before the war collecting specimens. A pioneer in surgical procedures known for the dexterity and speed of his operations, he was also a photographer of genius. His iconic image, “A Morning’s Work,” shows a pile of amputated legs he himself had sawed off earlier that day. Bontecou’s albums served many ends, most obviously instruction, with before-and-after shots, in the identification and treatment of conditions like gangrene and bullets lodged in bone. But they also aided in the later identification of veterans for disbursement of disability and pension funds. Bontecou was apparently an engaging and capable administrator of army hospitals who was once threatened with disciplinary action for inviting a recovering Confederate officer to his home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Most poignant and painful is Bontecou’s artistic ability to capture the terror of his patients, what the editor and collector of medical photographs Stanley Burns, M.D., calls “individual bereavement.” Pvt. John Parmenter, unbearably young, lies prone on an army cot with his beautiful and vulnerable face turned towards us and his gangrenous foot propped up on a cushion. Then, in another photograph, we see him lying deathly pale and unconscious; a surgeon with his hand on one of Parmenter’s bent knees looks down thoughtfully at the severed foot. The picture has some of the bleak, geometrical power of Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat.
In another arresting image, Robert Fryer, eighteen years old and wearing his cap and uniform, all gold buttons carefully buttoned, holds his hand to his chest as though playfully mimicking a handgun. His features are deadpan. At first, we assume his hand is partially hidden in his jacket. But no, it’s an illusion, presumably deliberate on the part of the photographer. Fryer’s middle, ring, and little fingers are amputated. According to Bontecou’s notes, “Patient has good use of forefinger and thumb.” Perhaps he watched young Robert Fryer buttoning his coat.
The photographs are a bitter reminder of the hideous race between better medical response and ever more devastating weaponry. If, as Burns notes, the improvised explosive device (IED) has changed the way war is fought and the wounded treated today, the novelty of the Crimean War and the Civil War was the 58 caliber Minie Ball, named for its inventor, Claude-Etienne Minié. This was a war in which 94% of Union wounds were caused by bullets. The Minie Ball, Burns remarks, “shattered and fractured bone easily and commonly carried clothing and other debris with it into the wound, making infection a constant companion in almost every case.” Bontecou’s images “documented the battle against gunshot wounds,” at a time when battle armor was minimal or absent and two years before the discovery of the principles of antiseptic surgery in 1867. Burns adds grimly, “Many of the men we see here are going to die.”
There is another race on display in these photographs, between the sheer horror of the army hospital and our ability to find words and images adequate to the horror. “The real war,” Whitman wrote in Specimen Days, “will never get in the books.” The simple identification boards that many of Bontecou’s patients hold in their hands, with their name and company inscribed in white chalk, carry their own dire and individualized lyricism, as though to say, in Whitman’s resonant words: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” Andsell H. Beam, shot in the skull on April 6th, 1865, bows over his identification board as though in prayer, or in simple disbelief in his unfathomable fate. “Now that I have lived for 8 or 9 days amid such scenes as the camps furnish,” Whitman wrote his mother, “… really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.”
Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography By R.B. Bontecou by Dr. Stanley M. Burns has recently been published.