'The Atlantic' Remembers Its Civil War Stories

Dec 5, 2011

Today it is widely understood that slavery is a stain on American history — indelible and regrettable. But on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, a new issue of The Atlantic magazine reaches back to a time when this matter wasn't yet settled, and monumental questions were still up in the air: Would slavery continue? Would America remain united?

The magazine was founded by a group of prominent writers, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They were some of the country's early intellectuals and they used their Boston-based journal to challenge the institution of slavery.

The commemorative issue includes some of the same articles Atlantic readers mulled over as battles raged in Chickamauga, Ga., and Appomattox, Va. Louisa May Alcott addresses the grim reality of life inside a Union hospital. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. writes about the desperate search for his son, future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who had been shot through the neck.

The magazine also paints a grim and vivid picture of life in Washington, D.C., where stately federal buildings were transformed into makeshift infirmaries. One of those buildings is a massive marble-columned structure that over the years has housed the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Patent Office. Today it houses the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, but during the early years of the Civil War it served as a hospital and a morgue.

On a recent visit to the museum, I met with photography curator Frank Goodyear, museum historian David Ward and James Bennet, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. In the mid-1800s, The Atlantic didn't carry photos, so for its commemorative issue, the magazine teamed up with the Smithsonian to provide historic photos alongside its early articles.

Together, Goodyear, Ward, Bennet and I walked down a hallway to what's essentially the museum's antebellum room, where we found ourselves surrounded by famous Civil War-era faces.

"We're moving to essentially the room of American intellectual origins," Ward said, "[Nathaniel] Hawthorne, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and the transcendentalists who formed such a basis for the anti-slavery and reform movement in pre-Civil War America."

Bennet says that spirit of reform was at the center of the magazine's mission when it was established in 1857.

"They really had two principal goals," Bennet said. "On the one hand they wanted to identify and promote what they saw as an emerging American voice in letters. On the other hand they wanted to promote what they called the American idea."

But they didn't clearly spell out what that idea was. Instead, in issue after issue, they debated questions of leadership, patriotism, national unity and freedom. In an 1862 Atlantic article, Emerson wrote, "Emancipation is the demand of civilization."

"They saw slavery as fundamentally antithetical to the idea of America," Bennet said, "a rot, basically, at the core of the country."

Not all of The Atlantic's early contributors shared that point of view. American novelist Hawthorne, for instance, penned a piece that made clear he was ambivalent about slavery and unimpressed with Abraham Lincoln.

Hawthorne writes about going to the White House to meet with Lincoln and how the president kept him waiting for half an hour while he finished his breakfast. Bennet says it's hard not to be a little disappointed in Hawthorne after reading the piece.

"You have the sense of a guy who feels a little too cool, a little above the struggle that's taking place," Bennet said, as Hawthorne's portrait stared down at us from the museum wall. "It's a very contemptuous take that is very modern, actually, in journalistic terms in the sort of attitudinizing about these kinds of grubby politicians. In this case, those grubby politicians happen to include Abraham Lincoln. So what it is is a terribly superficial piece of magazine journalism from one of the foremost writers in American letters."

A New Technology For A New Society

The oil paintings of the antebellum room soon gave way to a new tool for chronicling American history.

"It's interesting to note that this is the period in which photography is being first introduced," said Frank Goodyear, the museum's associate photo curator. "These oil paintings, these busts that you see here very much look backwards to earlier artistic traditions. But ... photography is going to explode people's understanding of the events of this age."

To get a better sense of how that happened, we headed upstairs to a kind of storage space. At the center of the room, on a big white table, sat two slightly yellowed photographs.

The larger of the two is like this museum's Mona Lisa. It's the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that appears on the cover of The Atlantic's special issue — but it's flawed. The image was made in 1865 from a glass negative that was accidentally cracked during processing, so there's a thin line that runs across the top of the image and slices across the very top of Lincoln's head. The photographer, Alexander Gardner, made only one print before throwing the cracked negative away.

"This is the last formal portrait of Abraham Lincoln before his assassination," Goodyear said. "I really like it because Lincoln has a hint of a smile. The inauguration is a couple of weeks away; he can understand that the war is coming to an end; and here he permits, for one of the first times during his presidency, a hint of better days tomorrow."

The Reality Of Slavery Exposed

Goodyear says Lincoln was the first president to really understand the power of photography. But the abolitionists were another set of early adopters.

On the table, and next to Lincoln's portrait, was a small, widely circulated photo of an escaped slave who found himself in a Union camp and decided to enlist. His name is Gordon and his back is filled with welts from repeated whippings.

"He had to have a medical exam and when he took his shirt off, these extraordinary welts in his back were revealed. They took a series of photographs of his scourged back and this photograph became one of the leading abolitionist images," Goodyear said. "It revealed the violence behind slavery."

The photograph is both grotesque and beautiful. It circulated around the country and even found its way to Europe. In it, Gordon looks almost regal.

"Part of the incredible power of this image I think is the dignity of that man," Bennet said. "He's posing. His expression is almost indifferent. I just find that remarkable. He's basically saying, 'This is a fact.' "

Because The Atlantic didn't yet print photos, its editors tried instead to convey in words what the image of Gordon captured: Slavery was not the benign institution promoted by Southern propaganda.

"They were out to do everything they could to expose the horror of this institution the way this photograph does," Bennet said.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.