Today at his blog Zoom, Errol Morris launched the first of a five-part series on what the NYT calls a "Civil War Mystery." At the same time, he's doing me a huge favor.
In part one of "Whose Father Was He?" Morris begins the story in a tantalizing fashion:
Intrigued? I am. And also grateful, because it looks as though Morris is offering me a little bit of help with my book. In the first chapter I look at public narratives about "recognition" in the context of spirit photography after the Civil War. One of the short sections of the chapter mentions the practice of publishing images of the corpses of unknown soldiers in the hopes that readers would be able to identify them. Despite that the photographs could only be reproduced as engravings, people frequently replied that they "recognized" this man as their husband, brother, father, etc. In her marvelous book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust writes about one image which, when reproduced in Harper's Weekly four years after the soldier's death, produced several letters from women claiming this was their husband. Grief, trauma, and loss were likely what produced this recognition, not an actual identification; this same set of emotions, I contend, is what framed people's claims about recognition in the context of spirit photography after the war.
To give you an idea of what this language of recognition looks like, here's Morris citing an 1863 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer announcing the plan to use the picture of the children to identify the dead soldier:
Note the difference between the terms recognition and identification here. Because nothing was found on the soldier that might produce a firm "identification" of him, the editors seek instead "recognition" of the children in the ambrotype. As Morris points out, recognition will, hopefully, lead to identification, though certainly not in the usual way. Despite the fact that the newspaper only described the photograph in words, Morris tells us that the effort was successful: shortly thereafter, a woman came forward, identified the ambrotype as her children, and knew her husband was dead.
I'm looking forward to parts two through five, which will appear on Morris's blog every day the rest of this week.