Photographs of Civil War battlefields
by Laura Bien
A tiny blotch of blood stains the wide green lawn backed by a distant line of trees and a speeding car's rising dust cloud. The photograph shows the modern-day appearance of the Virginia Civil War battlefield where Ann Arborite Conrad Noll fought.
Noll's grainy portrait, framed together with the lawn scene, shows a stolid, determined-looking thirtyish man with knuckles braced on thighs, ready for action. Behind him sags a wrinkly painted fabric backdrop of crisp white army tents in a pastoral wilderness, a bucolic screen that puts a Boy Scout spin on the brutality of war.
Award-winning photographer John Huddleston gathered Civil War battlefield photographs and then traveled to each site to photograph it as it looks today. The resulting paired photos show erasure. Fields littered with broken bloated bodies, corpse-filled trenches, and carts piled with skulls have become Kmarts, park lawns, and housing developments.
One frame displays two veterans' scarred faces next to the stretch of earth, now rutted by tire tracks, where they fought. Another frame shows shrunken remains of shallowly buried soldiers in Gaines' Mill, Virginia. A bare, sun-bleached tibia and fibula bridge a torn pant leg and tattered boot. The modern-day photo shows a tidy green landscaped house, likely built over fragments of overlooked remains. A third (above) shows a field of fallen soldiers that morphs into a field of football equipment in a weird transmutation of aggression.
The photos speak to a shift in mental landscapes as well as physical ones. The vast agrarian environment of the older photos, over which a mind could apparently roam unchecked, yields to tacky in-your-face visual clutter that noisily eclipses the horizon of the earth and, seemingly, the imagination.
UMMA curator Sean Ulmer reveals that the apparent blood-blotch in the Noll photograph is really a drooping red utility flag. And according to Huddleston, the dust cloud was the work of a pesticide sprayer, the toxic cloud depositing another layer of death on the old battlefield.
The UMMA commissioned the Noll photo pair to add a local touch to Huddleston's show. The museum found ten Civil War photos of local vets in the Bentley Library's extensive Civil War holdings. Huddleston picked Noll, a Medal of Honor winner now buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, who belonged to the Twentieth Michigan Infantry. A giant plaque in the museum's second-floor northwest staircase memorializes the Twentieth's valor in numerous battles. The UMMA was built as (Civil War and Spanish-American War) Alumni Memorial Hall; UMMA director James Steward calls it "Ann Arbor's biggest war memorial."
So it's fitting that our biggest war memorial showcases these testaments to vanishing battle sites, many paved over as the result of historical apathy. A tribute, warning, and bleak comment on the brief half-life of memory, Killing Ground is on display through Sunday, November 7.
[Originally published in August, 2004.]