Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography by R.B. Bontecou

By Lauren Letizia ’23

This semester, CWI Fellow Lauren Letizia ’23 is analyzing the numerous roles, cultural significance, and lasting impacts of a cross-section of Civil War photographers upon American society. While some may be familiar to avid readers of Civil War history, others represent lesser-known, but equally as important photographers whose methods, mediums, and end-products helped shape the way Americans understood and made meaning out of the war’s swath of destruction and those who participated in it. We are delighted to share her first piece in this series with you!

The CWI would like to express enormous thanks to Ron Perisho for his generosity in sharing the majority of the images featured in this mini-series, as well as the invaluable sources and insights he has provided to make this blog series possible!

On June 16, 1864, during a speech in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln stated to the gathered crowd, “War at the best, is terrible, and this war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration, is one of the most terrible.” When the war drew to a bloody conclusion a little over a year later, the United States had to contend with not only 700,000 dead, but millions of wounded and maimed soldiers. As the development of weaponry progressed, soldiers had received wounds of even greater magnitude. Clinical Union photographer, Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou captured the horrifying, grisly, and gruesome physical wounds of the war. Using a purely medical and realistic approach to his photography, Reed shared a horrid glimpse of war that was not always as directly presented by the gallery photographers of the period.

The Civil War was the first sustained conflict to be documented through photographs in American history. Famous photographers such as Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan dropped the destruction and casualties of the war on Northern civilians’ doorsteps by publishing their photographs in newspapers, galleries, and selling prints for profit. Often, Brady and others would stage their scenes for specific cultural or political purposes by moving bodies or asking surviving soldiers to play dead. The medical photographs of R.B. Bontecou include none of these tactics. Instead, they portray the atrocities of the Civil War as plain and unfiltered as if one is in the room with these wounded soldiers.

Dr. Bontecou was the Surgeon-in-Charge of the Harewood U.S. Army General Hospital in Washington, D.C. He is credited with taking the largest number of photographs of wounded soldiers during the war. Afterward, he donated many of his photographs to the Army Medical Museum and published some of them in medical journals. For Bontecou, his personal and intimate knowledge of these patients’ maimed bodies made their grievous wounds not subjects to appease the public’s morbid curiosity about war, but rather important case studies through which other medical professionals might learn to treat, and perhaps save the lives of, future wounded soldiers. However, in disseminating his images to medical museums and journals, he joined a cadre of other medical photographers who would also, perhaps unintentionally, disperse their records and accounts to the civilian public. Many doctors took photos of their wounded soldiers, and some even sent amputated limbs to other institutions for further study and display. Although such actions were largely undertaken to further the field of medicine, the ensuing commercialization and public showcasing of those soldiers’ most private and grievous wounds would unintentionally dehumanize the young men, turning them into mere case studies and/or helpless subjects, shockingly exposed to the gawking public, rather than medical patients entitled to their privacy and dignity. The original purpose of the photos was to document the pre-and post-operative progression of Bontecou’s patients. Often, each image was labeled with the soldier’s name, regiment, wound, where the wound occurred, and his current condition. He also treated many soldiers who suffered from gangrene or other viral diseases. Bontecou wanted to use the grim photographs to teach other physicians how to care for war wounds and other camp diseases. After the war, he organized his photo into albums, categorizing each by which body part was wounded (from head to foot), and then alphabetized the patients’ names, creating a novel “catalogue” of the medical consequences of warfare.

Though Bontecou’s images were not developed as art or as a cultural statement about the Civil War intended for the gawking eyes of public consumers, they are expertly posed and positioned for a public audience. The soldier is often seated in a chair in front of a blank background while holding a chalkboard with his name and regiment. He stares directly at the viewer with a blank, sober expression. The photographs were published as cartes de visite (CdV), making them easy to produce and display multiple images at a time. Bontecou’s collection of wounded soldiers’ photographs was not replicated in accuracy and artistry until the latter years of the First World War. Because of Bontecou’s work, he transformed clinical and medical photography into an unintended but invaluable art form, one that can truly bring the grotesque consequences of war to the home front.

David R. Templeton- Co. A, 46th NY Regiment
“Age 16, was admitted to [Harewood Hospital] April 5th 1865, with gunshot wound of the head. Ball hit left temple, just back of outer angle of eye, grazing malar bone and eyeball, destroying sight; passed off producing flesh wound of the tip of the nose. Was wounded at Petersburg April 2nd 1865. He is now well, June 1st, 1865.”  -Description by R.B. Bontecou  
Charles Harris- Co. A, 31st US Colored Troops (New York)
Private Charles Harris was 24 years old when he was wounded at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg on July 30, 1864. He was shot in the right leg and the left ankle. He was a soldier in one of the specially trained USCT units ordered to attack Confederate forces after the explosion that created the infamous crater. In Harris’ regiment, the 31st NY, 54 were wounded, 31 were killed, and 13 went missing in action. He was discharged from Harewood Hospital on 1 December 1865.

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