Many amateurs, as well as war historians or American historians, take a keen interest in the Civil War. In one fundamental respect, the Civil War is more interesting than, say, the Revolutionary War. And that’s because the Civil War was one of the first wars to be photographed.
Historical photography is the closest thing we have in this life to a time machine. It’s like an open door between the present and the past. You can’t step through the door, but you can see through the door. Looking back in time.
Take this photograph, from August, 1862:
Or this picture, from March 1864:
You can see what it actually looked like to be there, on that particular day, at that time of day. In the morning, or the afternoon. A day long ago. An unrepeatable day.
You can see the people. Some trees. Grass. Sunlight. Shadows.
It feels as though you could step right through the picture frame, like a doorjamb, and walk straight back into the past. To suddenly find yourself in 1862. Totally immersed in the past. The sights. The smells. The dirt under your feet. Blending in with men, women, boys and girls, who lived and died long before you were born.
Of course, we have paintings of the past. But that lacks the immediacy. You’re not seeing the past.
We, the living, sit in our chair, gazing at a photo of the once living. People who lived 150 years ago. Who died a 100 years ago.
And 100 years from now, somebody maybe sitting in a chair, gazing at our old photo the way we were gazing at these old photos.
Death doesn’t end our existence, but it ends our opportunities. Ends the opportunity to make a difference in this life. Who will we take with us? What will carry over? What are we doing in the here-and-now to make a mark in the hereafter? What are we doing, while we breathe, to furnish eternity?