The technology of photography and memorial day collections

It's almost Memorial Day weekend, and as frequent readers know, Iconsider Memorial Day to be more than a way to sell patio furniture andkick off the summer season.

There is something in honoring the dead that is, for me at least, amoment worthy of pause - not to mention a moment for seeing the waysour digital world offers up new ways of remembering and honoring them.

Memorial Day started out as a series of local community observances forthe Civil War dead. In 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army ofthe Republic  issued for a General Order that designated May 30 asDecoration Day, a day for:

"... strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the gravesof comrades who died in defense of their country during the laterebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, andhamlet churchyard in the land."

It was the Civil War with 600,000 to 700,000 American dead thattriggered Decoration Day. It was a death toll that touched everyone inthe young country.
It was also the first death toll that was recorded with thepowerful new technology of photography. Photography captured thehorrors of war and loss in way never experienced before.

Technically, The US Civil War was the fourth war to be photographed(for enquiring minds the first was the Mexican-American War in1846–1848). However, it was the first with an organized effort todocument it visually, and it was the first where photojournalism left arecord that stands today.

Of course technology alone doesn't change anything - it also takes aperson who deploys it. In this case, the person was Mathew B. Brady.

Brady's contribution wasn't his own photographs, although he was aphotographer and ceratinly made images of the war. The driving forcewas the way his studio  organized departments of photographers to coverthe war, hiring and deploying the first carmera-and-plate haulingjournalists.  

But that's not all. Both the Confederate and the Union governementscaught on that they had the power to record images ... and they did.Equipment, personenel, battle sites -- all recorded less than 40 yearsafter the very first permant image had been made.

There aren't any action photos - the technology to make them had not yetbeen invented. Photography itself was still in its practical infancyand it was the War Between the States that put this emerging technologyto a practical test.

The most amazing thing was yet to come, though. Fast forward another hundred years and visit the US Library of Congress.

Here, for your digital browsing pleasure, are 7,309 of the known US Civil War images:
  • Doctors examining a Federal prisoner returned from prison.
  • Charles K. Irwin, doctor of the 72nd New York infantry, seated at the doorway of a tent with another man. 
  • Headquarters, Army of Potomac--Brandy Station, April 1864.
  • Atlanta, Ga. City Hall and camp of 2d Massachusetts Infantry on the grounds.
MemorialDay isn't about the famous people or about the glory moments. It isabout the men and women, the ordinary ones who left daily life because, for them,  it was the right thing to do. It is about the ordinary onesawho didn't return.

Remembering them in the abstract is hard. Seeing their faces is another thing all together. The images carry it all home.

Our digital era brings old photographic plates to a whole new audience.The plates are fragile, not easily shared, not easily accessed. Thetechnology of hard plates remembers the story of war and its toll,while our digital technology brings those stories to our fingertips.

Plus, digitalization enables other passionate parties to share nationalmemories, parties like the PA-based non-profit The Center for Civil WarPhotography -

Where the Library of Congress is an amazing digital database, theCenter for Civil War Photography hosts small traditional exhbits atCivil War sites combined with a global reach in digital exhibits ( In these digital exhibits images, themes, and history interweave.

Did you know that this week in history, Alexander Gardner and othersrecorded images of the Grand Review of the Union Armies on PennsylvaniaAvenue in Washington? Or have you ever watched a video of wet platephotography underway?

The power of digital collections opens up more than photos. Handwrittenletters form the other large set of Civil War memories, but untillibraries began turning old paper into digital files ... well, theirimpact was felt only by a very few.

In contrast, for example, take a visit to the University of Virginia Library's Civil War collections:

Hey, isn't it cool that you CAN visit with just a click? And that youcan read letters - in the original handwriting or transcribed intoeasier-to-follow text? And look at family Bibles. And see Census recorddata? And view battlefields through interactive maps?

In 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issuedfor a General Order that designated May 30 as a day to remember theCivil War dead.

Who would have guessed that nearly a century and a half later we'd beable to see their faces and read their words and remember ... rememberthat they were real, that they believed in something, and that they arepart of who we all are today. And remember it all through a very 21stcentury technology.


(Last year's column about Map the Fallen and Web 2.0 is at welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on