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 third and final 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!
The enormity of the American Civil War’s scope and toll upon humanity is nearly impossible for many to fully comprehend today. The Union military consisted of approximately three million soldiers while the Confederacy’s ranged from 750,000 to one million men. Four million former slaves were set free from bondage and began to pursue their previously forbidden American dream. And even for those not fighting on the front lines of battle or seeking their first taste of freedom, the Civil War altered the lives of all who lived through it, defining the nation and its population for generations. With 750,000 men dead and well over one million wounded, war-time suffering often became tragically anonymous. Mass graves, unknown burial sites, and collective memorials were the orders of the day. However, photography became an important mechanism to revive the names and faces of many participants and victims of the Civil War. One relatively little-known duet of images captures the toll of the conflict on a small town and its martial heroes.
New Hampshire photographer, J.F. Keniston and publisher, E. Lovejoy printed and sold numerous stereo-view photographs of the below-featured local unit, self-identified as the Lincoln Rifles. The photograph below was taken in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1861. The subjects number about 32 soldiers.
Milford is a small town in south-central New Hampshire near the Souhegan River. Prior to the Civil War, it was well-known for its strong abolitionist views, with many residents openly vocalizing their dissent against slavery. Because of this abolitionist enthusiasm, the town was a vital stop on the Underground Railroad. Additionally, Milford was home to some of the largest granite quarries in the United States. Milford granite was used to build the pillars of the US Treasury Department in Washington D.C. Because of the importance of granite, Milford was nicknamed “Granite Town.” Additionally, in the 19th century, Milford followed the trend of other New English states in developing a prominent textile industry. The quarries and textile mills were the main employers for Milford residents, and thus the likely place of employment for at least some of the Lincoln Rifles.
During the war, many of Milford’s residents eagerly volunteered for the Union army. According to local researcher and historian David Nelson, 196 Milford citizens served in the military and 60 were killed; 40 of those dead were never recovered to be buried in their hometown. Keniston’s 1861 photograph of the Lincoln Rifles displays the passion and patriotism of the quaint town which has eagerly turned out an entire company of sharp-looking, fresh-faced recruits who stand at attention behind a U.S. flag, ready to fight for Union and a permanent end to the scourge of slavery. Fellow townsfolk take in the patriotic scene from the background.
Likely named in honor of their immediate reply to President Lincoln’s April 15, 1861 call for 75,000 troops to help put down the southern rebellion, the Lincoln Rifles were most likely attached to the 2nd Regiment of the New Hampshire Infantry—the longest serving New Hampshire regiment during the war. The regiment was formally organized in May, 1861 and mustered out in 1865, with the vast majority of the originally three-month enlistees quickly re-upping their contracts to serve for an additional three years. The 2nd New Hampshire was engaged in the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861; the Battle of Seven Pines, the Second Battle of Manassas, and the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862; the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863; and the Battles of Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and Fair Oaks in 1864. In 1865, the 2nd New Hampshire occupied the trenches outside of Richmond, Virginia until the Confederate evacuation in early April of 1865. Of the approximately 1,000 men who enlisted in the 2nd New Hampshire, the regiment lost a whopping 15 officers and 163 enlisted men, either killed or mortally wounded, and 6 officers and 166 men from disease.
Attached to a unit that endured some of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, the Lincoln Rifles suffered great losses during their four years on the front lines. Keniston’s second image of the unit’s survivors, taken a few years after the Civil War ended, and in the same spot as the 1861 picture, hauntingly captures that suffering. In the second image, the group numbers about 22 men.
The war veterans stare at the camera with their arms folded or tucked defiantly into their jacket pockets. They stand loosely grouped together in a far more causal way than in their formal unit photograph of 1861. Most starkly, they are missing nearly one-third of the soldiers photographed in the first year of the Civil War. Few civilians can be seen in the background, and those present appear merely to be going about their daily chores; none stand by in reverent awe of these former combatants. For them, life has moved on .
It is not known if the smaller number of men is due to a low turnout for the gathering, or if the reduced number represents the casualties that the Lincoln Rifles suffered during their service. Based on the men’s somber affect, it is most likely the latter. The men were clearly organized to re-stage their 1861 portrait, but with a specific narrative to convey. Keniston’s photograph vividly depicts the human cost of war without displaying corpses of grievous wounds . In a way, his method of photographing the civilian-dressed veterans in the same location as their initial 1861 image–without their commander in the foreground and without many of their former comrades–makes the true cost of war that much more apparent, and the long shadows of even a victorious war effort that much more haunting. Despite the grievous death toll of the war, most soldiers who served ultimately survived, living face-to-face not only with the triumph of victory, but also with the tragedies of the conflict. One wonders what these veterans thought and felt as they once again posed in front of Keniston’s camera. Did they picture the men who were no longer by their sides? Did they ponder how the war likely changed their outlook on their military service? Did they reflect back on the early-war excitement, idealism, and romance that likely swelled the hearts of many in their 1861 portrait with sadness? Cynicism? Pride? These questions and numerous others like them hint at the main message of the Lincoln Rifles’ stereo-view photographs. As the infamous Confederate cavalry officer, Nathan Bedford Forrest once stated, “War means fighting, and fighting means killing.” But, what far-reaching impacts did that killing have on those who had made it out alive?