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Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Story Behind a Wartime Burial Party

Four men with shovels set to work on an old battlefield, digging graves, while a fifth crouches beside a wagon filled with the grisly remains of Union soldiers. The laborers wear no uniforms or other signs to identify them; all we know is that all five are Black.

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia is a photograph taken by John Reekie, one of 100 collected in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. This two-volume work extensively catalogued every aspect of the American Civil War, from generals and their soldiers at camp to the grim aftermath of the battles, through a series of pictures taken by photographers who traveled with the armies. A conscientious photojournalist, Alexander Gardner paired each image in his book with a detailed caption, providing context and insight into the lives of soldiers and the horrors of war.

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia.
Photograph by John Reekie, April 1865, one of 100 collected in
 Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War. Gardner identifies the
 five African American men as Union soldiers “collecting the remains of their comrades,”
 but tells us no more about them. This photograph was acquired by WAM in 2020.

The Battle of Cold Harbor was one of the bloodiest of the American Civil War. Fought from May 31 to June 12, 1864—following a month of escalating conflicts as Union troops advanced on Confederate fortifications—the battle finally ended with thousands dead or wounded as the Union army retreated. Battlefield ethics at the time generally allowed the withdrawing army to leave men behind to bury the dead without being harassed by the enemy; but at Cold Harbor many of the Union bodies were left unburied. Gardner speculates in his caption that the assigned troops “may possibly have been called away before the task was completed,” and notes that the dead were similarly left by the Union Army at both Gettysburg and the First Battle of Bull Run.

According to Gardner, in such cases “the native dwellers of the neighborhood would usually come forward and provide sepulcher [burial] for such as had been left uncovered,” but at Cold Harbor the local Virginians apparently refused the task. Gardner does not record the reason, but one can imagine the physical and mental toll of such a task. The work was apparently uncompensated, too; after Gettysburg, Union troops hastened after the retreating Confederates, telling the local civilians to complete the burials. The locals demanded to know “who was to pay them for it.”

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia was photographed in April 1865, a full ten months after the battle ended. Gardner identifies the five African American men as Union soldiers “collecting the remains of their comrades,” but tells us no more about them. While perhaps understandable in this case—it isn’t the only photograph that fails to identify its subjects, and Gardner was clearly more interested in the broader story of care for the dead—it does speak to a larger pattern. 

Alexander Gardner (American, born in Scotland, 1821–1882), 
  President Lincoln on the Battlefield of Antietam (1862)
  from Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War,
 albumen print from wet collodion negative on mount with lithographed typography,
Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2008.53

The American Civil War is considered the first war to be extensively photographed and documented, with countless portraits of officers and scenes of men in their camps. However, there are comparatively few images of Black soldiers—even though they made up an estimated 10 percent of the Union troops (179,000 soldiers). These men were organized into their own, segregated regiments; African American men and women attached to the white regiments tended to be non-combatant volunteers: cooks, blacksmiths, laborers, nurses, spies, and scouts. It is these, along with refugee former slaves performing similar functions, who we see far more often in American Civil War photographs.

American (19th century), African American Union Army Troops on Drill,
 near Chattanooga, Tennessee
(1864), albumen print from wet collodion negative,
Stoddard Acquisition Fund, 2008.54

Every photograph in Gardner’s Sketchbook was selected to tell part of the story of the war as he perceived it. While the particularly gruesome imagery of A Burial Party adds to his overall narrative of the horrors of the war, we are still left to wonder why he chose an image of Black men (whether soldiers or civilians; note that we only have Gardner’s word to identify them) performing burials instead of white. Is it meant to present them as hardworking men, laboring to perform a final service to their fallen comrades? Similar stories of the loyalty and spirit of former slaves—delivered to the North through letters written by soldiers in the field—did much to raise Abolitionist sentiment during the war. On the other hand, the image also could serve to reinforce notions of racial hierarchy, as the Black men perform the most menial and undesirable of tasks.

This photograph was acquired by WAM in 2020, a page from the first edition of Gardner’s Sketchbook. The almost mundane morbidity gives us a glimpse into the horrors of war, stripped of Victorian associations of loyalty, bravery, and patriotism. It also adds to WAM’s collection of works depicting people of color—including two other 19th-century photographs—and will, we hope, open the door to difficult but necessary conversations about the history of race relations in America.

—By Sarah Leveille, Digital Content Specialist, based on research by Nancy Kathryn Burns, Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs

 February 11, 2021

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