By Ken George
It was after a break in the icy December weather that Union Major General George H. Thomas ordered his troops to leave the fortified safety of Nashville and attack the Confederate Army of Tennessee under the command of General John Bell Hood. The two-day battle routed Hood’s forces, its scattered remnants fleeing south. The Confederacy had breathed its last gasp in Tennessee, but at the cost of 7,407 Americans killed or injured.
Fast forward 141 years.
Office buildings, grocery stores and fast food franchises have sprouted where Thomas and Hood once slugged it out. And near the site of some of the heaviest fighting, a KFC sign advertises discounts on the colonel’s secret recipe.
That one of the nation’s signature fry shacks is hallowed ground is just one of the many extra-crispy nuggets of irony to be plumbed from a new photography exhibit at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln.
The collection is comprised of images from John Huddleston’s book: “Killing Ground, Photographs of the Civil War and the Changing American Landscapes.” The book features period images of Civil War sites juxtaposed with contemporary photographs of (roughly) the same location. Huddleston says his photographs were taken “at the time of year when the Civil War fighting took place,” and that most “were made in the area where the heaviest killing in a battle happened.”
The archival images include iconic scenes of Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and other charnel houses, as well as views of some of the now forgotten corners of the War Between the States. Huddleston’s contemporary Civil War geography is one of hangdog towns, suburban ticky-tacky, marquee battlefields and areas that appear little-changed in the intervening years. Together these images of the past and present document changes in America’s physical and cultural terrain since the Civil War.
Many remind us that steroidal growth is strip-mining places where blue and gray gave their last full measure of devotion. And even marquee battlefields are not immune. A muddy photograph of Civil War Fredericksburg shares space with Huddleston’s image of a sign heralding a luxury home project christened “Artillery Ridge II.” More jarring is a photograph of Confederates killed in Chancellorsville that is juxtaposed with the embryonic beginnings of a tract of suburban housing.
The collection is also sprinkled with images of places that have escaped the backhoe. One of my favorite Huddleston photographs is a crisp, clean composition of tall weeds, trees and overcast sky. It is the site of what was the Union Left at Cold Harbor, and it is paired with a photograph of an African American burial party gathering the bones of soldiers who fell there. Huddleston’s tranquil field seems a more fitting resting place for these ghosts of the past than the soul-deadening sprawl noted above.
The images dealing with race were for me the most emotionally gripping in the collection. For example, there is Huddleston’s photograph of a Jackson, Miss., hotel with a black lawn jockey in front of one of its windows. He has partnered this photograph with an underexposed image of a wedding on Jefferson Davis’ plantation: The adult slaves have gathered in all their threadbare Sunday best, and in front of the party sit the children. One young boy is in comparatively sharp focus and his expression suggests mixed feelings over being part of the proceedings. This scene brims over with humanity and, by comparison, the hotel’s antique-shop relic appears all the more offensive and inane. And in what one hopes is a metaphor for bigotry is Huddleston’s photograph of a literal road to nowhere (offshoot of an unfinished highway?) with racial epithets scribbled on the asphalt. It is shown with a period image of a slave market in Atlanta, “Auction and Negro Sales” trumpeted from the storefront placard.
A couple of quibbles: The exhibit’s explanatory text is a tad sparse. Those lacking history degrees might want to peruse the book — the museum has mercifully furnished a display copy for just such a purpose. And some of the period battlefield carnage (especially the close-ups of amputated limbs) seemed gratuitous, and distracted from the more restrained — and poignant — illustrations of war’s cost.
But these are mere quibbles.
Overall this collection makes for a powerful viewing experience. It is an at times disquieting reminder of a past that is literally underfoot, and a poke at the collective conscience that more should be done to protect our historic sites. And in a nation where the Civil War still resonates, that future generations will little note nor long remember a past that has been paved over is a proposition that not only armchair historians should find alarming.
And speaking of Civil War landscapes, for more fascinating period photographs I recommend you get a hold of “Landscapes Of The Civil War: Newly Discovered Photographs from the Medford Historical Society.”
The images are from a cache discovered in a Medford attic in the early 90s. Their stunning clarity is due to a decades-long lack of exposure to light.
For my money, the most compelling photographs are of the ruins of Southern cities. These scenes invite comparison to European cities firebombed during the Second World War and give a sense of the industrial-scale destruction visited upon the South.
See for yourself: A number of the photographs are among the multimedia tidbits included in a special feature that WBUR Arts produced in 2004 entitled, “The Unknown Civil War.”