The colloquialism “seeing is believing” is a term that highlights the human need to visually observe something in order to understand its portrayal. This human need is met through visual aids such as paintings, documentaries, photographs, and other sources that accurately depict and convey truths about reality, which aids in the construction of any belief. This theory was proven during the Civil War, where art and photography were used for the first time to sway public opinions about the reality of the war by spreading news visually. Therefore, due to these new perspectives that emerged, art and photography became the basis for changing the general attitude towards the conflict, by depicting the war monstrosities realistically instead of ideally to the public.
Paintings during the Civil War were employed for the purpose of illustrating both the reality of the battles and the metaphorical undertones of the war which informed and swayed the public opinion. During this time period, artists were sought out to create renditions of battles for newspapers, journals, and magazines which were then mass produced to the public. These paintings included battle scenes and their aftermath (corpses strewn over the fields), as well as personal depictions of family members left widowed or fatherless from the war (most famously Eastman Johnson’s “The Girl I Left Behind Me”) , each of which struck emotional chords with the general public and caused severed adversity to the war. For instance, during this time period Union artists such as Friedrich Erwin Church would employ the use of color and subject matter in order to portray a deeper, metaphorical message, such as dark skies and clouds representing uncertainty and tensions looming, meteors representing the force of John Brown throughout the Union, and rocky terrain depicting the turbulence of the war and the destruction to both sides. Thus these painters utilized a type of non-verbal appeal to the emotional psyche of the public, rendering them anxious at what the war had done, and what it would continue to do.
Frederich Erwin Church, Meteor of 1860
In continuation, art during this time period proved crucial in illuminating dividing issues that existed in the country. The most successful painter to accomplish this was Winslow Homer, whose controversial paintings depicting complex issues such as slavery, prisoners of war, and the tiresome attempt at reconstruction caused him to become one of the most feared yet respected artists of the time. Working for the Union and selling his landscape paintings to newspapers, Homer quickly realized his platform as an artist gave him the ability to reach a wider audience, and thus he began creating work surrounding the core issues of the war. He did not hold back. Creating depictions of freed slaves having standoffs with their former owners, portraits of black female slaves in the cotton fields planning their escape, and scenes of prisoners of war taken from the confederacy, Homer depicted each and every one of these with the intention of stirring conversation, which he hoped would lead to positive change and an end to the bitter war. And he wasn’t the only one. Many artists during this time (Eastman Johnson, Sanford Gifford) began to realize that the crux of the battle was over the issues of slavery and breaking southern traditions, and thus began attempting to create art to discuss this.
Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers 1876
However, although many artists attempted to convey the north and the south equally, the reality was that the majority of artists during this time were northerners. Due to the way the war was going and the overall historical presence of art in the United States, there existed very few artists in the confederacy, and those who were there were extremely limited to supplies and finances. Nevertheless, the few paintings that did emerge from the south were extremely construed and did not accurately portray the current situations of the confederacy. For example, one of the more prominent confederate painters Conrad Wise Chapman only painted idyllic scenes of the south: the sun setting over the confederate fort in the Charleston Bay, the confederate flag waving in a light breeze- all extremely cheerful and entirely inaccurate of how the war (and those places) actually looked.
This of course lead the Union artists to take it upon themselves to depict the south as they believed it to be. Thus emerged paintings of lone veterans in a field, hoping to rebuild their land (“A Veteran Returns From War” Homer, A white woman, her slave, and a confederate soldier hiding from firing shells, “Civilians Under Fire at Vicksburg National Park Service”, and countless other interpretations of how the North believed South looked during this time. Although not entirely wrong, the lack of actual representation from the South (and very twisted little representation actually presented) led to the war opinion, both nationally and internationally, to turn towards favoring the North.
Civilians under fire at Vicksburg National Park Service
Furthermore, the most groundbreaking advancement that changed the tide of the war against the South indefinitely was the creation and utilization of photographs. Before this time period, photography had not been truly established, and with the rise of conflict came the opportunity to document, and thus mass media and photojournalism erupted. The war quickly became the most photographed event of the century, and for the first time the general public was able to not only read about the war, but actually see it for themselves in its murderous entirety. This was unheard of prior, and it quickly became the most necessary tool for changing opinion of the war from patriotic pride to utter horror. This was in large part due to the renown and avant- garde photographer Mathew Brady, who established a team of photographers specifically for documenting the war and its effect on everyday life. Now for the first time there existed photos ranging from bodies lying dead on the battlefield to portraits taken of young soldiers for family keepsakes. In fact, without the use of photographs the war would have remained distant and obscure to the civilians involved. It was because of these photos that the public was forced into accepting the harsh realities of the war, as these photos by Brady “brought home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it…” . Thus, these photographers and artists served as types of visual philosophers, challenging the perspective of the civilians and forcing the severity of the war into the public forum of discussion, in the effort (and achievement) of finally ending the conflict.
Alexander Gardner (exhibited by Matthew Brady) The Dead of Antietam 1862
Therefore, it is through these breakthroughs in realism within the realms of art and photography that the Civil War was established as the notoriously violent conflict rooted in human rights atrocities that not only tore the country apart, but also shaped the present day ideas of the North and the South. It is because of these unapologetic portrayals of the war through the paintings and photos that caused the general public to become inevitably affected, and due to these emotional appeals, the surge of resistance which resulted finally ended the bitter war for good.