I had named my camera Polyphemus, after Homer’s Cyclops, for its one poked eye. In the early days of the war, Polyphemus and I took portraits of young men for their sweethearts or mothers. Some did straggle in drunk, posing in uniforms half-buttoned, grinning stupidly as I strapped them to chair legs to keep them still. More often, they arrived with puffed chests, with moustaches grave and neatly combed and eyes shining. I had not thought much about where they were going.
Just before the war came to the farmland and woods surrounding our small town, two Union soldiers appeared at my studio. They were haggard and hurried. One showed a tintype of himself two years earlier, looking hale and clean. Now, a scar slashed from the bottom lid of his left eye, trailing down to the top of his lip, like a tilted crescent moon. His name was Thomas and he wanted a new tintype. His friend stood behind me and sighed impatiently as Thomas shuffled into a comfortable stance. I stamped the back of the tintype with the name of Tompkins & Sons, as required by a law that few of my colleagues followed. Thomas tipped his Union hat before leaving and said, “Do not stay long in this town. Rumor has the Rebels arriving.”
By mid June, the Confederate General Lee found his way to Pennsylvania, followed by the Union army. Within two weeks, the fighting started and I packed up my family when some of our boys hollered that the streets would soon be rioted with Rebels. My Quaker blood stayed me from battle though I prayed for Northern victory. We left our household, took the horses and carriage to my cousin’s apple orchard seven miles off, with bursts of gunfire echoing in our heads.
I should have stayed on my cousin’s land, or at least, left the wife and sons behind in that welcomed shelter. I did not know that the dead now outnumbered us all, four to one. And the wounded, with their torn eyes and shattered legs, draped on kitchen tables and barn floors, would haunt us as they searched for dignity to cover their wounds. I would not take any photographs of that horror, though those documenting war would come by the dozens in the weeks ahead, capturing the bloated men rising out of the blood-soaked farmland upon which they had fallen. It was a necessary thing, compiling this wretched album, but it was not something I could do. Not Polyphemus and me. The newspapermen and photographers would travel to the next battle while we who stayed would watch as the rotting corpses were dug up and moved and buried again. Next year’s spring rains would not let us forget either, uncovering the dead, revealing a femur or skull that refused its bed.
A year after the battle, my neighbor Alphonso stood at my door holding a dirt-covered image he had found at the base of a white oak tree on Culp’s Hill. The crescent scar, sweeping from left eye to lip, shimmered like silver. I put the photo of Thomas in a small wooden box and buried it.
This is what I learned: The camera takes memory and hands it to you, and some day you may smash it against a rock or lay it flat against glass, or you may bury it. But while you pose, it inhales your breath and exhales it as its own. And you are never the same.
Reblogged this on ROAMIN' GNOMIALS and commented:
I am republishing this tremendous post from the Pigspittle Ohio blog. Enjoy. Please, make any comments to the original:
Thanks so much! Please visit again.
Tremendous. Reblogged on my site.
Things I love about this: the period style voice, the detail (strapping to chair legs and Quaker blood), and everything about the last paragraph. Also bones refusing their bed. I just really like the way you use unexpected words to name something.
Thank you, my friend, for your kind words and reading. I need to visit your blog…been off in my own little world for the last week or so! Really glad you enjoyed this. I hope I didn’t overdo it on the voice — was trying to be a little more formal, like the vernacular of True Grit but didn’t have enough time to really investigate that style.
“as they searched for dignity to cover their wounds.” That phrase was especially heartbreaking to me because, probably, many of the wounded were proud soldiers before the battle.
Reblogged this on Janet’s thread and commented:
A graphic account of the horrors of war.
Thanks so much for sharing, Janet! I’m honored.
Oh you! Love your writing. Such a voice you created.
Awww, thanks, Jen. Very kind of you. <3
Wow. This was good. I’ve been reading a Civil War history lately, and you captured the mood perfectly.
I’m so glad to hear this, Michael. Thank you!
K, this made me cry. I’ve visited Gettysburg four times (and I live in Washington state), and it never fails to wash over me with the richness of the earth, the universe, and the ineffible ccrraazzyy held within the quiet, old nothing/everything of a tintype. Thank you for writing this and for caring about the nameless dead. You are a fucking hero. They applaud you and bake you cakes.
Thanks so much for your kind words. I am grateful for the read. I, too, have visited Gettysburg and its power continues to move me. All those young men.