I must confess, I do find many an American Civil War snap to be an absolute hoot. As insensitive as it is considering the carnage of the feud, they, not Union Army general-in-chief George B. McClellan, remain for me the real mystery of the war (see U.S. Grant observation). A combination of obscenely long exposure times and the photographer and subjects’ conscious imitation of the stylistic conventions of painting results in the most otherworldly, seemingly out-of-place actors and scenes ever captured in conflict.
It’s as if smiling would impart a lack of gentlemanly elegance, or worse, a madness recorded for posterity. The classical aesthetic is at total odds with the haphazard, improvised nature of the battles and campaigns that claimed the lives of an estimated 620,000 men.
I picture generals halting their chatter of logistics and supplies to stare passively into space in a kind of Victorian ‘Mannequin Challenge’ whilst the bloke with the big fuck-off camera got his photo. Ghostly (or alternatively ghastly) images, they are utterly bizarre to behold.