Reflections on a photograph of Fort Sumter, 1866
By Brendan McDermott
George Barnard might be the worst Civil War photographer, or the best. It depends on how you frame it. If you’re looking for the human element, the corpses that contributed to body counts, the families twisted against themselves, or the brave young men who stood prepared to die from gunshots (or shoddy medicine), it’s not there. In the sixty prints Barnard published, there is no combat, and hardly any soldiers.
This was because Barnard was documenting a different sort of destruction. He visited battlegrounds after the civil war, capturing ruined and leveled cities, upturned and fractured trees, the equal-opportunity rending of civilization and nature. Barnard’s photography was about the aftermath, and it asked the very relevant question of “Where do we go from here?”
Nowhere is this question more pertinent than in Barnard’s documentation of Fort Sumter. The site of the first shots of the war, Fort Sumter was a powerful symbol on both sides of the fighting, a symbol of Confederate sovereignty when it was taken in 1861, and of Union power when it was recaptured in 1865. Even the Union flag from the fall of Fort Sumter was revered in the North, “auctioned” off to raise money for the war, and then returned, only to be auctioned off again.
But when the war was won and this symbol was returned, what was left? Just piles of rubble and abandoned battlements. Add newly emancipated slaves and very angry southerners into the mix, and you’ve got Reconstruction, and thirty years of a nation that has no idea where to go from the conflict that embroiled and consumed a generation and spit out amputees and veterans from both sides of the same war.
Reconstruction age politics and culture would become some of the most confusing and racially charged times in American history, as newly enfranchised slaves would rapidly ascend to power, exercising their right to vote and even holding office, before their former masters were able to rewrite constitutions and find their new whip in the form of Jim Crow laws. And this age has its foundations in the piles of rubble in Charleston Bay, and across the former Confederacy.