150 years ago today Irish photographer Timothy O’Sullivan struggled up the stairs of Massaponax Church, Virginia with his equipment. Time was of the essence as he sought to capitalise on a fantastic opportunity to expose what he must have hoped would be an image to remember. As it transpired, the series of photographs he created that day remain well known to all with an interest in the Civil War. Union Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade were frozen in time, sitting on pews outside the Church as they consulted with their staff, while Union troops continued their relentless advance in the background. The occasion allowed O’Sullivan to move beyond the carefully posed images we most often associate with these men, capturing a very real moment at a critical juncture in the campaign. His achievement was instantly recognised- within weeks O’Sullivan’s images were being described as depictions that would ‘live in history.’ I took the opportunity during my recent trip to Virginia to visit the site where these very special photographs were created.
Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Historian Eric Mink has carried out some excellent research on these images, most interestingly identifying a later Medal of Honor recipient from the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry who can be seen in the background of one of the scenes. You can read his post on the Mysteries & Conundrums blog here. During his research he came across an account of the moment when the photographs were taken, which appeared in The Huntingdon Globe (Pennsylvania) on 29th June 1864:
‘Under the shade of some noble trees in front of Massaponax church, I was permitted to look upon a number of our generals in council, consulting some maps of the region through which we were moving. A crowd of curious eyes gathered around to look upon the noted faces for a moment, while from the gallery windows of the church I observed a photographic instrument seizing the rare chance.’ (to read the full quote visit the Mysteries & Conundrums post linked above). (1)
The images captured by O’Sullivan were quickly reproduced as engravings and magazines, and as Professor Brooks Simpson highlights in his post on the topic (which you can read here), has more recently inspired a recreation using model soldiers! One of the earliest examples of the images being reproduced I have come across are as a sketch on the front page of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for 16th July 1864- less than a month after the photographs were exposed. Even so soon after they were captured, their special nature was recognised. Leslie’s described just how they felt about them:
GEN. GRANT IN A COUNCIL OF WAR
At Massaponax Church.
There have been few mere groupings in the illustrations of the present war. The public calls for action, and our battle scenes cannot be painted in the stereotyped fashion of European art, where a group of mounted officers, glass in hand, overlook, from a rising ground, the work of death below. Even Meissonier, free by his reputation to carve out a new path, durst not depart from the old idea in his Battle of Solferino.
Our illustrated papers have opened a new path, and its influence is felt in Europe. It has been remarked, and justly, that the recent illustrations in the foreign papers of the Danish war resemble our American battles. The scenery is given truthfully, the moving masses of men, the steady progress of the shot and shell of the great guns, with the cloud of the volleys of small arms, the rising dust, all are now given. Formerly a few officers made a battle, now we see armies contending, and recognise the spot.
Yet, perhaps, we overdo this. The sketch which we give of Gen. Grant at Massaponax Church deserves to live in history. Spottsylvania had been left and the Mattapony crossed. At Massaponax Church Gen. Grant stopped with his staff and Gen. Meade did the same. Warren came up with his staff, and under the trees, on the church benches, a council of war was held. The fine spirited grouping of men, who 100 years hence will be the heroes of American enthusiasm, inspired the photographer, and his success in producing a fine picture cannot be denied. At the foot of the two trees sat Grant, and beside him the more towering form of Meade. Rawlins lies studying the map on the right, and Warren, who was the last comer, seems similarly engaged. On the bench to the left Burnside will easily be detected, and on the bench to the right we cannot guess far astray in placing Sheridan and Pleasanton. How many a deed of fame, how many a battlefield won with glory come up to the mind as we gaze on these men! Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Newberne, South Mountain, Antietam, with the varied scenes of two months’ battle still going on, come to our lips and minds. In these careless hats, these scare military dresses, devoid of all but the faintest show of rank, are the true heroes of a republic. (2)
Although the writer appears to have overestimated the number of Generals in the picture, it is nonetheless apparent just how unusual and special an image they considered it. They are undoubtedly special. Even though General Grant was unquestionably aware that O’Sullivan was exposing images of the event, he and his men appear to carry on with their routine in a fashion unusual in Civil war images. This allows to view these photographs as a rare insight into this ‘real’ moment in time. Timothy O’Sullivan left us with a series of pictures that continue to fascinate, even 150 years later.
(1) Mink 2011, The Huntingdon Globe; (2) Simpson 2014, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper;
References & Further Reading
Mink, Eric 2011. Medal of Honor Recipient Caught Straggling on the March. Mysteries & Conundrums.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 16th July 1864
The Huntingdon Globe 29th June 1864