The Perfect Vessel of Grief: Women and Mourning Photography

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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Unidentified girl in mourning holding a picture of her father. (photo via Library of Congress)

After her father died, the girl in the photo above went through a highly ritualized and formalized process of Victorian mourning. This process radically changed with the invention of photography in 1839. Now one could record the grieving process, which is what the photograph above accomplished. The photograph is a typical mourning portrait, depicting the mourner (the little girl in this case), with the photo of her deceased loved one in her hands. Like so many other photographs, this one recorded the grieving process, allowing loved ones to keep a piece of that person even after their death. 19th-century photographs also were often used to capture images of loved ones while they were dying. Photography was particularly apt for this kind of work as it was seen as a vessel of truth, intimately connecting the past and the present. 19th- century Americans realized that photographs told stories like few other objects could, and they used this storytelling ability to convey their emotions surrounding mourning.

Queen Victoria, after whom the Victorian era was named, went into deep mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Although mourning was already an important part of people’s lives before Albert’s death, it became even more so due to Queen Victoria’s highly public and drawn out mourning process, which was aided by the invention of the photograph. Mourning was such an important process because death was a constant feature of life in the 19th century. Disease, an overall lack of understanding of how to treat illnesses, and poor sanitary conditions shortened the average lifespan to about fifty years old. Due to the constant reality of death, funeral and mourning practices became an important aspect of everyday life. When someone was expected to die, their house would be draped in black crepe to let everyone know the family was expecting a death. The family would often prepare for death by taking portraits of the dying person. These portraits would later be sent out as part of memorial cards, informing one of the funeral and providing them with a keepsake to remember the dead by. In addition, the family would often take photographs with their deceased loved ones, especially infants, to further commemorate their life and passing.

After the death, women especially became vessels of grief. Women were thought to be more emotional and sensitive, so it was particularly their job to express their emotions over the loss of a loved one. They wore black, as well as jewelry specially made for mourning which would include a picture of the deceased on it. It was also common to include a lock of the deceased’s hair in the mourning jewelry. The child in the picture above is already preparing for her role as a mourner, which would only become more circumscribed as she aged. She is dressed in all black, is wearing mourning ribbons, and holds a picture of her father, who died in the Civil War. Although she is young, she is already learning how one dresses, acts, and behaves while grieving, as well as performing a central part of the mourning process.

An integral part of mourning processes like the little girl’s was the mourning portrait. These portraits did not begin with the invention of photography. In fact, many portrait companies were created to produce lithographs of the mourning process, such as the company that would come to be known as Currier and Ives. These lithographs usually depicted women in full mourning next to a tomb, which was oftentimes topped with an urn. There also was usually a weeping willow and a church in the background. These images typically showed women in exaggerated poses of sorrow, draped over the tomb next to them. Women were in these poses because mourning was very public; one had to show they were deeply aggrieved by the loss of their loved one. If women did not show their emotion, it was thought that they were cold and uncaring about the death of their loved ones. Since it was women’s jobs to mourn and be emotional, not doing so would have been considered a social faux pas. However, a woman could not be too emotional either, as that would have been unseemly for an era which also called for personal restraint in public. Not only did they have to “perform” their grief, but they also had to record it. They would hang these lithographs, and later, photographs, on the walls next to a portrait of their loved one, forever immortalizing their loved one’s death and their own grief at the dead’s passing. The photograph of the little girl is a continuation of the lithography process in a new medium. Now all at once, the girl has a picture of her father and of herself mourning her father.

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A typical mourning print done by Currier and Ives. (image via Library of Congress)

Photographs radically changed the mourning process because people saw photographs as somehow more truthful and organic than other artistic depictions, such as paintings. While it is true that the process of taking a photograph was staged, the photographer still could only capture material realities. One could not just add things into photos that were not actually there, at least not in the 19th century. In addition, by staging the photos in a certain way, people felt like they were able to convey a deeper truth and reality, unlike they could in paintings. Victorian Era Americans also believed that by looking at a photograph of someone you could see into their soul and see what they were feeling at the moment the photo was captured. A photo could therefore authenticate a moment in history, which was why photography became so important to the mourning industry, so much so that people built businesses out of traveling and taking mourning photographs. Mourning photographs served as proof of the mourner’s deep sorrow, more so than a lithograph ever could. The girl in the photograph has a haunting expression on her face and she looks much older than she actually is. The photo served to capture her emotion and the fact that she was forced to grow up by losing a parent long before any child should. Her father will always be with her though, and will never be forgotten, as is evident by the way she clasps his photograph to her.

The photograph was also important in mourning practices because it could capture the visual attributes of the deceased, either in the process of dying, or just before. On the brink of death, people were supposed to be resolute and accepting of their fate and if their face showed this in the photograph, family members would know that their loved one was going to heaven. The photograph, therefore, became a vessel for memory and a way to remember a loved one. Before the invention of photography, people only had an article of clothing or a toy to remember the deceased by. Photography now allowed loved ones to have a memento of the loved one’s appearance, which played a role in both the public and private mourning process. The girl in the photo could always remember specific details about her father’s appearance or demeanor, as she had a photograph of him. In addition, her father’s death no doubt served as a political statement and evidence that he fought and died in the name of the Union’s just cause. Such mourning photographs of Civil War dead thus played a significant role in perpetuating key, familiar tenets of 19th-century sentimentalism—that death, and familial grief for a loved one served a higher, patriotic purpose in which those who were left behind should take comfort. Therefore, not only did this specific image allow the little girl to remember her father’s death; she could also remember how she herself felt after his death, as she also had a picture of the mourning process. The photo was a way of transporting her into the past to ensure that she would never forget her father, the higher purpose for which he died, or his guiding influence.

Mourning photography fulfilled similar needs for many other families of the deceased, especially during the deadly years of the Civil War. In this way, the technology of photography was able to radically and rapidly change the mourning tradition. People quickly noticed and took advantage of the capacity for photography to capture landmark moments in history by capturing “truth,” be it all natural or staged for even greater or “more truthful” effect. In addition to providing a window into 19th-century mourning practices, this photograph also serves as a testament to how technological innovations throughout history have helped to better connect past and present, and affect sweeping cultural changes.


Sources:

Bedikian, Sonia A. “The Death of Mourning: From Victorian Crepe to the Little Black Dress.” Omega: Journal of Death & Dying 57, no. 1 (May 2008): 35–52. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Grootkerk, Paul. “American Victorian Prints of Mourning.” Southeastern College Art Conference Review 11 no. 4 (1989):276-283. Accessed October 1, 2018.

McConnell, Kent A. “Photography, Physiognomy, and Revealed Truth in the Antebellum South.” Southern Quarterly 52, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 32–53.

“The Custom of Mourning During The Victorian Era.” Nps.Gov. Last modified 2018. Accessed October 1, 2018.

A Gun With a Story: Waller Patton’s Civil War Pistol

By Laurel Wilson ’19

Musselman Library Special Collections is home to a wide variety of artifacts, including a rather impressive number of Civil War era items. One Civil War artifact, the Patton Pistol, stands out from the rest by virtue of the story attached to it. The 1861 Navy Colt revolver originally belonged to Waller Tazewell Patton, who was the great uncle of General George S. Patton Jr. of WWII fame.

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The 1861 Colt Navy Revolver owned by Confederate Colonel Waller T. Patton and donated to Gettysburg College Special Collections by James D. Patton ’13. Courtesy of Gettysburg College Special Collections.

Waller T. Patton was a Colonel in the 7th Virginia Regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia. He was mortally wounded during Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, 1863, when a piece of artillery shrapnel removed much of his jaw. He was brought to the Pennsylvania College Hospital (now known as Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College), where he eventually died on July 21, 1863. Continue reading “A Gun With a Story: Waller Patton’s Civil War Pistol”

Some Small Tribute: How Modern Americans Find Meaning in the National Cemetery

By Matt LaRoche ’17

In anticipation of Remembrance Day and Dedication Day this week, we have asked our Fellows why and how they commemorate the Civil War. Read Megan’s post below, then check back later in the week for more posts on commemoration and remembrance.

In my last post, I appealed to the public to make good on the tragedies of Gettysburg in the same broad vein as President Clinton’s appeal at the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica—to make the tragedy a “sacred trust” towards a better future. Needless to say, the material of the last piece stuck with me powerfully. In my musings I realized that I had, in my own experiences, stood witness to some small but remarkable efforts by visitors at Gettysburg to take something constructive and enduring from this tragedy.

Photograph courtesy of Kevin Lavery

Living in Gettysburg, I’ve learned that the town is many things to many people. It’s the place where the Civil War most permeates the public imagination, most touches the lives of everyday Americans. It’s a tourist trap. It’s our greatest killing ground. But above all, it’s a place where seekers from all segments of society come to understand—just what have we inherited from these men, and where do we take it from here? Once visitors step onto the field and learn the stories of what happened here—once they see the graves, the white stones and the sunken hollows of burial pits strewn across the field—many cannot help but start their search by trying to understand these men: their sorrow, their intentions, the sum total of their lives and the consequence of their actions. Continue reading “Some Small Tribute: How Modern Americans Find Meaning in the National Cemetery”

Seeing the Sorrow Anew: Recapturing the Reality of Suffering Through Srebrenica

By Matt LaRoche ’17

Those who know death know mourning. Those who know mourning know the meaning of empty spaces that we all wish had stayed filled. But do we, or even can we, as the few members of this society who habitually reflect upon the tragedies and triumphs of the past, fully understand the immensity of the suffering we dwell upon while wandering our battlefields? In the Civil War field, whether as professors or as history buffs, we deal with the heartbreak and the violation of violence on a daily basis. However, this summer, as I worked at Gettysburg National Military Park and gave my National Cemetery tour almost daily, I quickly realized just how much of a disconnect the ages have put between us and the Civil War generation. I realized how never having known the people in the graves at your feet warps your perception of the events that took their lives. And I realized how, especially for the majority of the park’s visitors who have never known war, it is imperative that we try to connect to the reality of suffering that the war generation bore in order to understand not just our fragility as humans, but the long reach and lasting consequences of our actions.

By chance, I also discovered a lens that allowed me to do to this—that lets me reevaluate what the dead of Gettysburg mean, and what their deaths have to teach. This July, as I sat in the break room reading CNN on my phone, I saw a run of articles detailing the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia. I watched videos of crowds of mourners gathering in the cemetery-memorial to the over 8,000 murdered Muslim men and boys of Srebrenica, and I realized that this is not what we see at the National Cemetery. We see a sense of completeness, of the weight of history. The cemetery is lovely and well visited. To us—to we who have known it no other way—all is well. But we are misled. We no longer see mothers waiting—perhaps forever—to simply bury their sons. From Srebrenica, I heard the voices of people who will be struggling forever to make sense of what happened in July of 1995, their search for answers made infinitely harder because it is torturously emotional, not just an intellectual query. That conversation ended in the National Cemetery with the last person who knew the Civil War dead. Continue reading “Seeing the Sorrow Anew: Recapturing the Reality of Suffering Through Srebrenica”

Noble Sacrifice or Meaningless Death? Interpreting the 116th PA Monument

By Sarah Johnson ’15

Any visitor to the Gettysburg battlefield will no doubt be almost overwhelmed with the numbers of monuments and memorials to various Union and Confederate units strewn about the field. Sculpted soldiers with sabers, rifles, even fists raised in defiance of the enemy, ever charging forward into the heat of battle are commonplace. In the case of most Union monuments, a culture of just victory and celebration of noble sacrifice emanates from gray stones and bronze figures. One monument, however, tucked along Sickles Avenue in the Rose Woods, portrays a different message. The monument of the 116th Pennsylvania, erected by regimental survivors in 1888, is the only monument at Gettysburg that depicts a dead soldier. While other monuments, such as the Freemason monument at the Soldier’s National Cemetery, the Louisiana state monument, and the Mississippi state monument depict wounded soldiers, these monuments are accompanied by themes of fraternity and noble sacrifice as the focal point rather than the fallen soldier himself.

These two examples of Confederate monuments at Gettysburg feature wounded soldiers, but in each there is a focal point of another theme. In the Louisiana monument, the wounded soldier clutches his heart while Spirit Triumphant flies overhead. The Mississippi monument depicts a comrade standing over his fallen brother wielding his rifle as a club against oncoming attackers. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
These two examples of Confederate monuments at Gettysburg feature wounded soldiers, but in each there is a focal point of another theme. In the Louisiana monument, the wounded soldier clutches his heart while Spirit Triumphant flies overhead. The Mississippi monument depicts a comrade standing over his fallen brother wielding his rifle as a club against oncoming attackers. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recruited from the Irish-American population of Philadelphia, the 116th was a part of the famed Irish Brigade. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, the 116th performed well by rescuing a Maine battery from capture. For this action, the 116th’s commander, Major St. Clair A. Mulholland, received the Medal of Honor. By the battle of Gettysburg, the 116th had been reduced to barely four companies. During the morning of the July 2, the 116th moved in to support the right flank of the III Corps and fought in various support capacities throughout the day. At the end of the battle, the 116th had lost two men killed, twelve wounded, and eight missing. Continue reading “Noble Sacrifice or Meaningless Death? Interpreting the 116th PA Monument”