WASHINGTON, D.C. — In this 150th anniversary season you can explore the Civil War by reading narratives, memoirs and letters. You can examine historians’ visions and scholars’ revisions. You can delve into the great speeches of the era, especially those of Abraham Lincoln. But perhaps the best, and most unexpected, thing you can do is to walk into the National Portrait Gallery and be stirred by the portraits, posters, prints and handbills on its venerable walls.
The Civil War was a photographed war, the first major conflict to be recorded by camera. These pictures, especially those by Mathew Brady, are riveting and realistic. But the camera was the Twitter of the time: flashy, relatively new, full of promise, attended by overly excited early adapters. (No matter that the most moving photographs of the war were battlefield pictures, many of them staged, with bodies moved for effect.)
The old, reliable medium in the middle of the 19th century was the painting: familiar, true, centuries-old, steeped in tradition, a craft with its own conventions and a time-honored apprentice structure. Though agitated by new movements, rife with rebellion, upended by realism, it remained old-fashioned even then, in a time we now consider old-fashioned.
And so, amid all of the fancy new multimedia presentations about the war that redefined the country and redeemed its founders’ idealism, we might pause before a few old paintings that speak to us still, a century and a half later. Perhaps that’s because we feel the poetic intervention of the painter in these Civil War portraits, leading us to sense that our experience is shaped by someone thinking about the subject in a way less obvious to us than when we view a photograph.
It is, of course, false to say that photographs involve less human intention and intervention than paintings do, but we are conditioned, often wrongly, to think that they are records as opposed to interpretations. As George T.M. Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, put it: “We look at a painting of Lincoln in a way we read a poem about Lincoln by Walt Whitman.”
So these portraits, many gathered from the gallery’s permanent collection, aren’t so much a fire bell in the night -- Jefferson’s characterization of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that put off the war for four decades -- as a whisper in the ear. And yet they are jarring to modern Americans trained to think of Civil War generals as dusty busts on a tucked-away shelf. Not so.
Here is Stonewall Jackson, strong and proud, and William Tecumseh Sherman, resolute in Northern eyes, despised in Southern.
Here is Joseph E. Johnston, mysterious and hesitant. He and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, bickered, much the way Abraham Lincoln, president of the much-reduced United States, fought with George B. McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac but was reluctant to use it. These men engage us on the wall even though they did not engage the enemy on the battlefield.
Ulysses Grant did engage the enemy -- Lincoln explained in two words why he favored him: “He fights.” The portrait of him at Vicksburg is not the Grant of legend and lore -- or of the presidency. He was young then (41), with a far-off look, for while victory at Vicksburg was imminent, victory in the war was not.
Perhaps the most striking painting is the heroic Thomas Buchanan Read portrait of Philip Sheridan on horseback, commissioned by the Union League of Philadelphia. This is not classic equestrian portraiture, but a glimpse of the Union general galloping in full fury and urgency on a horse called Rienzi toward the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia in October 1864. The painter actually visited Sheridan’s camp to create a work of art that seethes with action.
If it is wartime determination you are seeking, you will do little better than the striking portrait of Dorothea Dix, superintendent of nurses in Washington. She brought comfort to soldiers and set exacting standards: “All nurses are required to be plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop-skirts.”
Now, a final word about a final portrait, this one a remarkable hand-painted lithograph of Martin Delany, the black activist, doctor and editor who was an associate of Frederick Douglass.
Much about this portrait is wrong -- it shows him standing in front of Union tents, presumably as the battle commander of black troops. But there remains something strong and true about this image. Delany persuaded Lincoln to allow black officers to command black troops, and he was chosen to lead the 104th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops in Charleston, S.C. But the war ended too soon for Delany or his troops to see action, though the point remains: Delany was a pioneer and visionary, two traits that ensure his memory today.
“He was one of the most militant activists for African-American self-determination and civil rights during the antebellum period,” says Ann M. Shumard, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “He had gone to great lengths to catalog the professionals of color who were men of accomplishment.”
A century and a half later, the Civil War and the debate on slavery that prompted it still inspire great moments in the arts. Late last month, a group of arts organizations and universities announced it would develop a dozen new theatrical works about the war. Washington, D.C., already is full of visual exhibits about the conflict, including one on the art of the era at the Smithsonian American Art Museum adjacent to the National Portrait Gallery.
But before you wander there, linger for a moment before one final masterpiece at the portrait gallery, an 1864 chromolithograph of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia. This breathtaking print portrays black soldiers and their white commanding officer at Camp William Penn, and its title is “Come and Join Us Brothers.”
The lesson of the Civil War is that the conflict itself joined us as brothers, and nowhere is that clearer than in these pictures at an exhibition.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.