Confederate dead at Gettysburg, July, 1863.
Credit: Confederate dead at Gettysburg, July, 1863.Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Visual materials can speak of the past with such immediacy that we feel ourselves in the presence of those times, drawn to knowledge by the power of emotion. Yet, like all documentary materials, images of the past carry contextual information which, after careful analysis, may reveal as much about the past as the evidence presented to our eyes.
Begin by asking students to examine the photograph titled "A Harvest of Death" by Timothy O'Sullivan (a member of Mathew Brady's photographic team) in the Selected Civil War Photographs collection at the American Memory website. (You can search for this image using its title.) This image of the aftermath at Gettysburg is perhaps the best known of several photographs in the collection that show Confederate casualties dead on the battlefield. Ask students to comment on the title O'Sullivan attached to his image. How does the title enlarge the scope of the picture beyond photojournalism? How does it slant the meaning of the picture within the partisan context of the Civil War? What was O'Sullivan's purpose in making this image for a Union audience? In what way does it comment on the Union cause? What attitudes toward the Civil War does the picture express? What might the picture look like if its purpose were to glorify a Union victory? Follow up these questions by asking students what other archival sources they might consult to support their interpretation of the photograph (e.g., periodicals and correspondence of the time).
Next ask students to examine the World War II poster titled "The Sowers" by Thomas Hart Benton in the "Powers of Persuasion" exhibit at the National Archives website. This is one of several posters in the collection designed to influence American attitudes toward the enemy during the war. Ask students how the enemy is characterized in the poster. How does this characterization compare to O'Sullivan's portrayal of enemy casualties? How are the two images related to the special circumstances of the two wars? How are they related to our national memories of both wars? To our lasting attitudes toward both "enemies"?
Share with your students a broader selection of images from the "Powers of Persuasion" exhibit at the National Archives website. Ask students how an anthropologist might describe the American people based on the images portrayed in these posters. How might these posters have served to enhance solidarity among all Americans during World War II? How does this compare with the solidarity O'Sullivan's Civil War image might have fostered?
Have students work in small groups to research and analyze other images of wartime America. They can search the Selected Civil War Photographs collection or the Photographs from the Office of War Information collection at the American Memory website for images of American mobilization during World War II. In addition to the "Powers of Persuasion" exhibit, students can find World War II images at the National Archives website in the A People at War exhibit and in a collection of "Pictures of African Americans during World War II," as well as in a collection of "Pictures of the Civil War." Have each group organize an exhibit that illustrates a range of American attitudes toward war and toward the role of civilians within the war effort. Ambitious groups might extend their research to include images from more recent wars, such as the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.
Depending on your curriculum, you might use these images of war as a starting point for study of American literature about the experience of battle: for example, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, stories from Ambrose Bierce's In The Midst of Life, Mark Twain's Private History of a Campaign That Failed, or Walt Whitman's Specimen Days; N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, or Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play. The images can serve also as a starting point for a broader investigation of the techniques of persuasion they represent. Finally, you might compare these images from wartime with the attitudes Americans express toward war through national monuments like the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial.
2 class periods