Poster Boys for the Confederacy

Published:May 7, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


I have no interest in making any partisan avowals here, only to note (as I did earlier) the interesting re-emergence of secession and nullification in the political lexicon.

Our entry on states’ rights should be up soon. Meanwhile, our entry on Gettysburg is up, and it includes the above photo of three Confederate prisoners. The caption quotes Shelby Foote from Ken Burns’s PBS documentary talking about how for him these three call to mind the archetypal Johnny Reb:

You see something in his attitude toward the camera that’s revealing of his nature . . . as if he is having his picture made but he’s determined to be the individual that he is.

Which, let’s face it, is an awfully romantic take on things and, it turns out, one that may not square with the reality of the photo. Scholar Thomas A. Desjardin, in These Honored Dead (2004), has pointed out that Mathew Brady probably took the picture around July 15, two weeks after the battle. If that’s true, then these soldiers—none of whom seems to be wounded—were likely deserters captured not during the battle but well after.

So much for being ideal Confederates.

Not that that stops the photo from being iconic. Recall the scene in Confederates in the Attic (1999) where the re-enactors actually recreate the photo:

Returning outside, I found Rob and his friends hoisting their gear. They had a date with a photographer who wanted to duplicate the most famous picture of the entire War: three lean Confederate prisoners standing proudly beside a snake-rail fence at Gettysburg. The photographer was also putting together a Civil War calendar and planned to use a portrait of Rob as the accompaniment for one of the months. “Poster boy for the Confederacy,” Rob said with a grin. “Next thing you know I’ll be doing centerfolds.”

I love that! We continue to refight the war—or at least some idealized version of it that resides only in our heads. Speaking of which, that’s what’s going on at Matthew Yglesias’s blog. Read the hundreds of comments on this post (if you can stomach such a thing) and witness folks fiercely battling over secession, nullification, slavery, and treason with almost no sense of historical perspective at all.

And I thought people became strangely attached to Poe!

IMAGE: Three Confederate prisoners on Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg, ca. July 15, 1863, by Mathew Brady


2 Comments on “Poster Boys for the Confederacy”

  1. Trevor Jackson

    I saw the comment total last night on that Calhoun post at Yglesias’s and thought, No way am I going in there.

    Completely unrelated: I love the name “snake-rail fence” to describe that pile of logs.

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    A few examples, to let you know what you missed:

    * The South is our Waziristan.

    * My wife and I lived in Northern Virginia for a few years, and referred to Jefferson Davis Highway as “Traitor Lane.”

    * Remember Lincoln only “freed the slaves” in the states that seceeded.

    * civil war wasn’t fought over slavery, MATTHEW

    * Why didn’t Lincoln just kill ALL the Southerner whites then?

    * Actually, slaves had free health care. In that, they’re much better off than the wage slaves of today.

    That’s probably a good place to stop. I need a shower.

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