Unidentified soldier in Union uniform of the 119th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, wearing the belt buckle of the Philadelphia Reserve Brigade., c. 1861-1865, Library Of Congress

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform of the 119th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, wearing the belt buckle of the Philadelphia Reserve Brigade., c. 1861-1865, Library Of Congress

“One of our wounded, whose father brought him home to be nursed, bore to me a letter from my husband and a package from General Stuart,” writes Myrta Lockett Avary. The year is 1864 and America is divided. No one can escape the political schism that is shaping the landscape, and no one can escape the loss that accompanies it. She continues writing: “The package contained a photograph of himself that he had promised me, and a note, bright, genial, merry, like himself. That picture is hanging on my wall now. On the back is written by a hand long crumbled into dust, ‘To her who in being a devoted wife did not forget to be a true patriot.’ The eyes smile down upon us as I lift my little granddaughter up to kiss my gallant cavalier’s lips, and as she lisps his name my heart leaps to the memory of his dauntless life and death.”

The Civil War had an incredible impact on how death was managed and understood in the United States. Spanning from the spring of 1861 to the spring of 1865, the Civil War remains the largest and most gruesome war to take place on American soil. The war mounted in over 620,000 casualties, or 2% of the population; in the contemporary moment, this scale of loss translates to the entire populations of both Los Angeles and Chicago. This massive loss of life transformed the culture of the United States. With the emergence of photography in the early 19th century, photography became both wildly popular and hugely influential. Photographs, or likenesses, were taken and shared as memorials and keepsakes. Photography also brought the horrors of war into the homes of civilians. The first war to be photographed, the visual remnants of battle greatly impacted how war was both seen and understood. 

This piece was originally written for The Order of the Good Death. The entire essay can be viewed here.