historian, author, film producer

Category: U.S. West (page 1 of 4)

Civil War Brother Artists

“Brother Artists: photographers and sketch artists on the railroads in the war”
William G. Thomas

This talk was condensed for The New York Times Disunion Blog, “The Civil War’s ‘Brother Artists'” published November 17, 2012. What follows is the full talk edited for clarity, given March 29, 2012 for 1862-2012: Making of the Great Plains Symposium at the
Sheldon Museum of Art.

What I want to do this evening is situate the railroads in the period of the 1850s and 1860s, the beginning point of the exhibition here at Sheldon Museum of Art–what they meant and how they were represented, and how the representation of railroads was changing. My premise tonight is that we need to bring together two, often separate, stories–the Civil War and the railroad building, including the Great Plains, in the period between 1850 and 1869, when the the pacific railroad was completed. Art helps us see how these two events were related in powerful and significant ways and, perhaps, why 1862 was so important. Another premise I want to explore tonight is that these experiences–the railroads and the war–were spatial experiences and visual experiences. They presented new conceptual challenges for nineteenth-century Americans.

Photographers and sketch artists often set up their equipment in the same location and captured the same perspective, as we will see, but they produced views with subtle, sometimes significant differences. Any review of the thousands of photographs taken during the war, especially those on the railroads, reveals the unmistakable and unambiguous presence of black workers and participants in and around the Union Army. Yet, as we will see, the engraved images produced for Harper’s Weekly and other illustrated newspapers rarely featured these participants in the war. This omission deserves explanation.

The pattern was set in the decade before the war, when sketch artists and photographers were drawn to the railroad as a subject. For the most part, artists for the popular new illustrated journals, such as Harper’s New Monthly, produced engravings that romanticized the railroad. They drafted almost no images of the workers who graded the tracks, blasted the tunnels, or maintained the roads. Instead, sketch artists often portrayed a single locomotive in an otherwise pastoral, preindustrial landscape. Photographers, using the collodion wet-plate process, a new technology just emerging in the 1850s, also turned to the railroads, their bridges, and engineering feats as the first panoramas they tried to record.

Ever since the invention of the railroad, artists tried to capture the speed of locomotion and its implications for the experience of space and time. They also tried to come to terms with the place of the machine in the natural world–and the conquest of nature that the building of the railroads so clearly demonstrated. For the most part they did so obliquely, by integrating the locomotive into the pastoral setting, by romanticizing the railroad, by emphasizing a harmonious ideal scene. The first piece in the exhibition outside is a stellar early example of this genre–the Baltimore and Washington Viaduct. You can see the bridge on a curve and the sense of speed it implies, all framed by the pastoral river scene below. The locomotive does not interrupt the reverie of the fishermen–the viaduct evokes Arcadian, ancient notions and distracts the viewer from the modern technology it carries.

Importantly, southern artists depicted the railroad in similarly grand terms. Edward Beyer’s Album of Virginia included a series of railroad and natural wonders in 1858 volume. The beautifully composed Appomattox “High Bridge” indicated that the most modern technologies would not contradict slavery society–these railroads and bridges were built almost entirely with slave labor. This bridge on the South Side Railroad was the second highest in the United States, 160 feet high and 2,400 feet long. At the time of its completion in 1854, it was one of the largest (length and height) structures in the world, costing $167,000 ($12 million today–the whole railroad cost $2,250,000 or $168,750,000 today). Southern states spent more than $128 million on their railroads, over 50 % of the South’s total investment of $240 million–some $1.8 billion today. The chief engineer employed 12 enslaved men as “chainmen and axemen” to cut the survey line, 106 enslaved laborers in the transportation department, and contracted out the grading and laying of tracks and bridge building–a force of 1,000 enslaved men and 200 horses. So, this representation of the railroad here in this pastoral ideal scene, of course, hides what it took to construct the railroad, its costs, and its relationship to slavery.(1)

In 1857 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad conducted a spectacular celebration of its completion, the first railroad to break through the Allegheny Mountains. And in 1858 the Baltimore and Ohio organized an artists’ excursion, again the first of its kind, a notion premised on the idea that the railroad would elevate civilization and the artists would be able to reveal to any and all doubters that the age of steam constituted a new, modern epoch.

The B and O excursion included 15 artists and 5 photographers. One of them, David Hunter Strother was a Virginian who in the war would side with the Union, join the Union Army and serve as a topographical engineer in the Shenandoah Valley. Before the war he studied under Samuel F. B. Morse, and he began producing travelogues for Harper’s Monthly. Strother published an extensive travel essay in Harper’s New Monthly, in June 1859–it has 24 woodcut engravings, 19 pages of text. (2)

Gallery of all images in Strother’s “Artists’ Excursion

Strother explained in Harper’s New Monthly, “The present is the age of steam, and it marks the commencement of a new era in human progress.” The artists were invited, “to examine the most notable productions of human science and labor; to enjoy the magnificent natural scenery for which the line is so famous.” (3)

Despite these lofty sentiments, Strother’s account hinted at tensions just below the surface. First, the photographers on board suggested a new threat–a utilitarian art, a means of documenting that might supplant portrait painting and engraving. Strother offered a compromise: “Brother, give us your hand, though it be spotted with chemicals. Is not the common love of the beautiful the true bond of union between us? What matters it whether we see our divinity with eyes of flesh or glass eyes?” In his lithograph, “A Brother Artist” the inanimate camera–the machine–stares straight at the sketch artist, and the implication is certainly that one or the other might be displaced.

Artists began using photographs to record a scene that they would later engrave for Harper’s or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. In his lithograph “Ascending the Alleghenies” Strother removed the camera boxes along the side of the tracks, and placed the train on a graceful curve in the track. The photograph, by contrast, of the same scene revealed a strikingly less romantic and pastoral scene. Strother explained the scene to match his romanticized image: the men and women rode on the front of the cowcatcher “for the purpose of obtaining a better view of the grand scenes which were opening before and around them. Such was the confidence felt in the steadiness and docility of the mighty steed that the gentlemen considered it a privilege to get a place; while their gentler companions reclined upon his iron shoulders and patted his brazen ribs as though he were a pet pony.”

This idea was central to the 1850s railroad boom–that the machine could be ridden into the future confidently, controlled, tamed like a pet pony, and therefore that the machine could be accommodated into the pastoral landscape. (4)

Strother also described what we have come to call “the technological sublime” — the idea that modern engineering might transcend its material qualities and symbolically represent qualities of beauty, grace, and purpose. At points on the B and O excursion, the artists were 2,638 feet “above the ocean-tides,” and at Cheat River on the Tray Run Viaduct, the track was suspended 225 feet up in the air on cast iron viaducts for a single-track bridge. Strother wrote of these nature-defying feats of engineering: “nowhere else, perhaps, does the result of human labor lose so little in the immediate comparison with the grander works of nature.” (5)

But the railroads clearly presented Americans with striking visual challenges. The railroad could not be easily rendered, but it demanded to be rendered. The railroad transformed space and time, (19th c. Am. said that “time and space have been annihilated by steam”) yet this modern experience remained difficult to convey. Strother confessed at the end of his essay that the real “character” of the railroad could best be realized only by “the rapid, unbroken sweep over the whole length of rail from Wheeling to Baltimore, 379 miles [taken] in 16 hours.”

This was a stunning admission–to the effect that while he could reveal the character of railroad personalities (the conductor, the brakeman), he could not do the same for the character of the railroad journey. The railroad had to be experienced, and the experience revealed or “realized” what it meant to be modern.

Strother could not know in 1859 that his native Virginia would leave the United States 18 months later, that one of the largest, bloodiest conflicts in history would come with the age of steam, and with Strother’s prediction of the “commencement of a new era in human progress.” By 1862 the railroads and the Civil War were mutually reinforcing experiences for Americans. Each required imagination to understand the larger campaigns and systems behind them. Each possessed qualities difficult to reveal except through direct experience. Each offered climactic episodes. Each fashioned an impressive landscape not easily reduced to two-dimensions.

But as we will see, in the Civil War the emphasis on the pastoral ideal began to diminish and an alternative emerged, one that laid bare the conflict, tension, and destructiveness, and even the railroads’ relationship to slavery in the South. The railroad became the chief symbol of the war’s total destruction, even as it remained the nation’s touchstone symbol of progress and modernity. Alexander Gardner and the Civil War photographers, Russell, O’Sullivan, Pywell, Gibson, Barnard, were the first to capture this complex duality in their 1862 photographs. Alexander Gardner, a Scotsman, emigrated to the U.S. in 1856, when the railroad boom in the U.S. took off. Seventy-five per cent of the railroad mileage in the U.S. at the start of the Civil War had been constructed in the 1850s–over 22,000 miles of rail.

Over the course of the war they took thousands of photographs. Of these, hundreds, perhaps the majority, were focused on railroads, railroad bridges, railroad tunnels, railroad depots, and, importantly, railroad workers, including black railroad workers. In fact, the vast majority of images we have of railroad workers in the nineteenth century come from photographs in the Civil War. (6)

Gardner worked with Matthew Brady and with a handful of other talented photographers–Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Andrew J. Russell, William Pywell, and George Barnard. Andrew J. Russell–born in New Hampshire, raised in New York–joined the U.S. Military Railroads in the Civil War as Chief Photographer, the only photographer employed by the U.S. Army. He was likely hired by the Union Pacific to document its construction in 1868-1869.

At this point in early 1862 Alexander Gardner, Gibson, Barnard, and Pywell, working for Matthew Brady, began to travel with the Army of the Potomac, photographing the army in the field, the material of the war, and the destruction of the war in the spring and summer of 1862. Railroads figured prominently in these images–their bridges, tracks, engines, and depots were symbols of the modern progress of the nation, the subject of artists before the war, but now they were literally the lifelines of the nation.

In March and April of 1862, a handful of photographers set out from Washington, D.C. to record the scenes surrounding the Army of the Potomac and to view the destruction left in Northern Virginia in the wake of the Confederate retreat to Richmond. Matthew Brady employed some of these photographers, including Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, William Pywell, George Barnard, and James Gibson.

Gardner, Gibson, and Barnard’s March 1862 photograph “Ruins at Manassas Junction,” one of the first to be taken in the field, indicated right away that the camera could reveal new realities about the war: first and foremost, that the war would be fought, and possibly won or lost, on the railroads, and that the new railroads could be destroyed as easily as they had been built. Confederate forces, not the Union army, wrecked the railroads at Manassas Junction, but the destruction indicated much about the possible course of the war. Railroad places, from Corinth, Mississippi, to Manassas, Virginia, had assumed an importance out of proportion to their history and population.

And another equally significant reality of the war in 1862 could be found embedded in “Ruins at Manassas Junction.” Black workers and former slaves shown in the photograph would determine not only their own future but also possibly that of the Union Army. Later, in his 1866 Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, Alexander Gardner called the Manassas ruins “terrible” and paid little attention to the freedmen workers. The junction, he wrote, was “one wide area of desolation, but a small portion of which can be represented in a single photograph.” The black workers in the near foreground, probably former slaves who worked on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, were now suddenly inside the Union lines and working for the Union Army, but Gardner’s story after the war focused less on their presence and more on the nature of the violence in the war.

See the stacked gallery of 1862 photographs and engravings for comparison.

The majority of Americans, however, viewed this image in its engraved form, originally published in Harper’s Weekly on September 13, 1862 from a sketch drawn by Alfred R. Waud. The former slaves and black railroad workers were removed from the scene. A solitary soldier stood watch over the wreckage.

Confederate forces, not the Union army, destroyed these railroads in retreat down to Richmond in March 1862. When we zoom in on “Ruins at Manassas Junction” we see black U.S. Military R. R. workers, probably former slaves working for the southern railroads, now suddenly in March 1862 inside Union lines.

Famously, after the Battle of Antietam Matthew Brady showcased a series of photographs taken by his assistant Alexander Gardner at the battlefield, displayed in his New York studio on Broadway. The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.” (7)

This was a dramatic moment, indicating a new and modern form of representation and an alteration in the mode of experiencing events in the world. A distant battle was rendered immediate and visceral. An art form–photography–that possessed such “terrible distinctness” one could use a magnifying glass and see details with astonishing precision. “It is a thunderbolt that will crash into some brain,” the New York Times wrote of Gardner’s display.

Photographers in the Civil War, however, began depicting the railroad workers, especially black freedmen, with an unflinching gaze. The romantic ideal portrayed by the sketch artists and engravers before the war quickly crumbled after the “Ruins at Manassas Junction,” and an alternative emerged, one that laid bare the conflict, tension, and destructiveness that accompanied the railroads, and exposed the Confederate railroads and their relationship to slavery in the South.

Over the course of the war, the photographers took thousands of photographs, and of these, hundreds, perhaps the majority, were focused on railroads, railroad bridges, railroad tunnels, railroad depots, and railroad workers. The most prolific of these photographers was Andrew Joseph Russell, who served in the Union Army after late 1862 as the Chief Photographer for the U.S. Military Railroads.

Born in New Hampshire, raised in New York, Andrew Joseph Russell established himself as a landscape and portrait painter in the early 1850s. When the Civil War broke out, Russell created a huge panorama of battles based on engravings of Matthew Brady’s photographs. Russell’s Panorama of the War for the Union made its way in early 1862 through towns in upstate New York as a touring exhibition. Then, in the fall of 1862 as “Chief Photographer,” Russell spent considerable time in Alexandria, Virginia, and produced a series of photographs of black railroad workers. The vast majority of images we have of railroad workers in the nineteenth century come from photographs in the Civil War beginning in 1862, mostly taken by Russell (and now available online through the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division).

Most of the photographs taken during the Civil War, however, were not shown in public, and most did not feature the battlefield dead. Instead, Andrew J. Russell’s images, documenting the vast operations of the U.S. Military Railroads, were records of the war’s specific technologies and techniques, panoramas of its scale and scope. They featured the labor of Union soldiers and African Americans in scene after scene. Like Gardner’s “Ruins at Manassas Junction,” Russell’s photographs place black workers in the foreground. Published in 1863 by Herman Haupt in Photographs Illustrative of Operations in Construction and Transportation, Russell’s images outlined in detail the building of military railroad bridges, as well as their destruction and reconstruction. One of Russell’s most widely reproduced photographs in the report–of the Potomac Creek Bridge in 1862-1863–included a caption that “the common soldiers” of the army constructed the bridge in nine days but made no mention of black labor. General Irvin McDowell’s testimony about the Peninsula Campaign, however, repeatedly stated that Federal troops did the work aided by “colored fugitives” and that his forces employed former slaves to the greatest extent possible as wood choppers, laborers, and carpenters.

Historian Alan Trachtenberg has argued that photography provided a major “element in the war’s modernity, in what made that event such a profound watershed in the transformation of America into a modern nation-state.” While the sketch artists and engravers, such as Alfred R. Waud, Theodore R. Davis, and Edwin Forbes, had the freedom to draw troops in action (and photographers did not), they produced a highly idealized view of the war, featuring heroic Union soldiers in action, soldiers rebuilding railroad bridges, and lone sentries guarding tracks. The photographers, on the other hand, rendered visible what had been ignored in other contexts, even if the captions elided the work of former slaves or the illustrated newspapers erased their presence entirely. Andrew J. Russell’s photographs portrayed black labor everywhere. They also provided a detailed account of the staggering amount of material it took to fight the Civil War. The photographers captured and recorded a war in 1862 that was quickly changing, one that was becoming more destructive, more and more centered on the geography of the newly constructed railroads, and more and more a war of emancipation.(8)

After the Civil War, as the nation turned to the Great Plains West, rather than taking caution from their experience, Americans took the lesson that anything could be accomplished with enough engineering, properly organized.

The transcontinental railroad building offered a new field for the Civil War photographers and sketch artists (and generals, of course). Influenced by their experience in the war and by the landscape they encountered in the West, these artists depicted the West as a place of panoramic vistas, geological diversity, and historical changes–natural and man-made. The first and only image in Harper’s Weekly of the linking of the transcontinental railroad was a celebratory and romanticized view by Civil War sketch artist, Alfred R. Waud, titled “Completion of the Pacific Railroad.”

The predominant railroad images published in the major illustrated newspapers and journals after the war did not return fully to the theme of the pastoral ideal–instead, they took elements of it and applied them to their experience in the Civil War and in the arid landscape of the Great Plains West. The pastoral ideal was reframed. And in a subtle but significant reversal, the images of the railroad’s direction were often reversed, running no longer to the right but to the left — heading in effect from east to west. They featured people in motion, trying to get somewhere. In fact, in the vast expanses of the prairies and plains, it was direction and movement that became the defining feature of these pieces. The idea was that the land needed the railroad to give it definition, to mark and line an otherwise indistinct surface. Rather than dividing, here the railroad, it was hoped, would unify and complete what nature left open and imperfect. The landscape of the Great Plains was itself a blank canvas that needed linearity. (9)

Much has been made of the absence of Irish and Chinese workers in Andrew J. Russell’s iconic image of the two engines cowcatcher to cowcatcher on May 10, 1869, “East and West Shaking Hands at the Laying of the Last Rail.” But workers up to that point had hardly ever been portrayed in illustrated newspapers or literary magazines. (10)

The Civil War sketch artists depicted life in camp, and the everyday soldiers. And this emphasis slowly worked its way into the popular literary magazines. Harper’s Weekly published just four engraved illustrations of railroad workers on the Great Plains in thirty years between 1850 and 1880: one on the Union Pacific on September 7th 1867 by Theodore R. Davis, one by A. R. Waud on May 28th 1869 (“Work on the Last Mile of the Pacific Railroad-Mingling of European with Asiatic Laborers”), and one by A. R. Waud on July 17th 1875 (“Railroad Building on the Great Plains”). (one other December 7, 1867, Chinese Laborers on Central Pacific, unattributed).

The relatively featureless expanses of the West presented a challenge to the artists–a railroad track became a necessary device to compose their pieces. In Alfred R. Waud’s “Building the Union Pacific Railroad in Nebraska” (1867), the rails and telegraphs hurtled westward into the infinite horizon, the workers were all in motion. (See our gallery of Waud’s images) Another characteristic dominates these landscapes–they are imperial in perspective and map like. Many adopt a “bird’s eye view”, itself a product of the Civil War and the Mexican War, and the years of railroad construction promotion. (11)

But, finally, it is Waud’s “Completion of the Pacific Railroad” in 1869 that holds many of the elements of expansionist ideology and conveys the rush westward, the movement left-to-right, the pyramid mountain in the background, the vast spaces bridged, the energy of the workers. Significantly, Waud depicted Native peoples on the right, in retreat, another indicator of Manifest Destiny also present in Fanny Frances Palmer’s well known “Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire” published by Currier & Ives (1867).

The pacific railroad building inspired among artists and observers, as the B and O did, comparisons to the ancient temples, the greatest markers of civilization. Some of this rhetoric, much of it, was sheer propaganda, of course. But the ideology of the expansionist age was pervasive, and can be seen in this photographer’s 1867 account, another attempt to visually grasp the railroad building:

“We found the workmen, with the regularity of machinery, dropping each rail in its place, spiking it down, and seizing another. Behind them, the locomotive, before the tie layers; beyond these the graders; and still further in the mountain recesses, the engineers. It was Civilization pressing forward–the Conquest of Nature moving toward the Pacific.” (12)

Another view of this from a reporter on the Union Pacific in 1867:

“Civilization rolls here like a freshly risen flood; bears up the former life of the wilderness like drift wood, and forces it on before. The track of the buffalo is marked still, but their herds have gone westward; their haunts centuries old are deserted. All wild animals are following them. The prairie dogs have moved their cities. The ruins are frequent; they attest to the march of Empire.” (13)

The prairie dog cities’ “ruins” replaced by the American civilization of rail and motion.

On the one hand, the visual record of the photographers and sketch artists in the war and afterward set aside the pastoral ideal. On the other hand, it emphasized the conquest of nature, and of the second nature systems of rail, iron, and steam. These revealed a set of paradoxes: railroads were both uniquely vulnerable and utterly unstoppable, both radically divisive and unevenly unifying, both fabulously creative and wildly destructive. The legacies of these paradoxes can be found in railroad art through to today.

Sometimes, the railroad is used to evoke a bygone era, and with it a nostalgia for a time when there seemed to be a harmonious balance between technology and nature. But this balance was never struck, it was wished for and imagined, but not realized.


1. Annual Report of the South Side Railroad, October 18, 1853, Annual Report of the Board of Public Works to the General Assembly of Virginia, 1854. Doc. No. 17, p. 509. See p. 525 for statement on accounts “Paid for grading masonry, large bridges, small bridges, road crossings, and changing roads, and advances made to contractors for work in progress for wood and merchant’s bills for bacon, tools, clothing, &c. for negroes, and repairs of road and superstructure 1,271,110.15”

2. Louis Lang, “Artists’ Excursion on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad: Letter from a New York Artist,” New York Evening Post, June 8, 1858. John Durand, “An Excursion on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad,” The Crayon, vol. 5, July 1858. Artists included John W. Ehninger, Thomas Hicks, D.C. Hitchock, John F. Kensett, Louis Lang, Louis R. Mignot, Thomas P. Rossiter, and James A. Suydam (all from New York) and D. E. Henderson, J. R. Johnston, F. B. Mayer (from Baltimore), Joseph Ames (Boston), J. H. Beard, and W. W. Fosdick (Cinn. Ohio). Photographers were on board as well: G. W. Dobbin and son, W. E. Bartlett of Baltimore; Charles Guillon of Philadelphia; and Robert O’ Neil from Washington, D.C.

3. “Artist’s Excursion. Illustrated by Porte Crayon,” Harper’s New Monthly, Vol. 19 (June 1859), 1-19. See also Jessie Poesch, “An Artist’s Excursion, Illustrated by Porte Crayon (David Hunter Strother),” Imprint Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn 1996), 23-35.

4. Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden first directed our attention to this theme. “The sudden appearance of the machine in the garden is an arresting, endlessly evocative image. It causes the instantaneous clash of opposed states of mind: a strong urge to believe in the rural myth along with an awareness of industrialization as counterforce to the myth.” Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 222.

5. See Historic American Engineering Record, “Tray Run Viaduct,” WV-18. National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1974.

6. On Civil War photography, see the excellent analysis of Gardner’s style and significance in Anthony Lee and Elizabeth Young, On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (Defining Moments in American Photography I) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). Anne E. Peterson, “Alexander Gardner in Review,” History of Photography Vol. 34, No. 4 (November 2010), 356-67. Mirjam Brusius, “Impreciseness in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Portrait Photographs,” History of Photography Vol. 34, No. 4 (November 2010), 342-355, especially Cameron’s 1864 letter on the aim of her photography “to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the Ideal.” Keith F. Davis, “‘A Terrible Distinctness’, Photography in the Civil War Era,” Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (Forth Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1991), 139. Also Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill & Wang, 1989) and “Albums of War: On Reading Civil War Photographs,” Representations 9 (Winter 1985), 1-32, especially 24-25 on George N. Barnard’s images; William C. Davis, ed., The Image of War, 1861-1865 (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1984); Frances Fralin, The Indelible Image: Photographs of War–1846 to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985); and Francis Trevelyan Miller, The Photographic History of the Civil War (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1910). Also Alexander Gardner, Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (Route of the 35th Parallel (Washington, D.C.: A. Gardner, 1869). See Martha A. Sandweiss, “‘A Panorama of the Country’ Government Enterprise, Daguerreotypes, and the Exploration of the Far West,” in Print the Legend, Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Robert Sobieszek, “Conquest by Camera: Alexander Gardner’s Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad,” Art in America Vol. 60 (March 1972), 81 argues that Gardner’s record of the Western railroad was the first such effort, predating W. H. Jackson, A. A. Hart, and A. J. Russell.

7. “Brady’s Photographs. Pictures of the Dead at Antietam,” New York Times, October 20, 1862. See also Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Doings of the Sunbeam,” Atlantic Monthly Vol. 12: 69 (July 1863), 11-12.

8. The full title of Russell’s photographic album is Photographs Illustrative of Operations in Construction and Transportation, as Used to Facilitate the Movements of the Armies of the Rappahannock, of Virginia, and of the Potomac, including Experiments Made to Determine the Most Practical Modes to be Resorted to in the Construction, Destruction and Reconstruction of Roads and Bridges. Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 12, Part 1, page 280-1, see also pages 77, 115, 119, and 290 for descriptions of “colored fugitives” working on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad bridges for McDowell’s forces.

9. Roger Cushing Alkin, “Paintings of Manifest Destiny: Mapping the Nation,” American Art, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), 78-79.

10. Susan Danly, “Andrew Joseph Russell’s The Great West Illustrated,” in Susan Danly and Leo Marx, eds. The Railroad in American Art: Representations of Technological Change (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 93-112. Russell’s The Great West Illustrated, Photographic Views Across the Continent, taken along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad (1869), like Gardner’s volume on the Kansas Pacific, offered few pastoral or idyllic images. Instead, he shows the West as barren but geologically compelling, and the railroad as its complementary and necessary intervention. Russell documented the blasting, the tunneling, the grading, and the physical labor necessary to build the railroad. As in the war the human figure was reduced or distant in the vast landscape. Only the group image of “The East and West Shaking Hands” seemed comprehensible to the eye.

11. This piece appeared in Albert D. Richardson’s Beyond the Mississippi (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1867).

12. Susan Danly, “Introduction,” in Danly and Marx, The Railroad in American Art, p. 22. Quotes John C. Browne, “A Photographer among the Prairie Dogs and Buffaloes,” The Philadelphia Photographer 4 (1867): 206.

13. See William G. Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011), epilogue.

Railroad Exhibition planning with the Sheldon Museum of Art

In 2012 the United States will mark several important anniversaries for the Great Plains region, including the passage of three pieces of landmark legislation–the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act, the Morrill Land Grant Act, and the Homestead Act. In addition, the Civil War Sesquicentennial is already underway, directing further attention to the importance of this period in American history.

We are currently planning an exhibition on “Railroads and the Making of Modern America” at the Sheldon Museum of Art from January 21, 2012 through April 2012. This exhibition will coincide with the Center for Great Plains symposium on “1862-2012: The Making of the Great Plains” and will feature works related to this theme in the Sheldon Museum of Art permanent collection. Railroads shaped the landscape of the Great Plains, and they were a central actor in the drama of American modernity.

In one of the most important treatments of the railroad in American art and literature, Leo Marx explained, “The sudden appearance of the machine in the garden is an arresting, endlessly evocative image. It causes the instantaneous clash of opposed states of mind: a strong urge to believe in the rural myth along with an awareness of industrialization as counterforce to the myth.” Machinery was associated with democracy, progress, a sense of history, and a step beyond natural limits. For Marx, Daniel Webster’s defense of the Northern Railroad’s opening in August 1847 captured the trade-off or reconciliation Americans made in adapting to the railroad–the losses (of peace and repose, ugly landscapes, noise, smoke) were more than offset by progressive force of the machinery, tied as it was to the republican progress, cosmic harmony, civilization, and history. No wonder then that Henry David Thoreau treated the machine as both an interruption and a vital, electric event. Henry Adams would consider the generation after 1865 “mortgaged to the railroads” and concluded “no one knew it better than the generation itself.” Adams thought that the railroads were “but one active interest, to which all others were subservient, and which absorbed the energies of some sixty million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or imaginary.” Indeed, the railroads contributed to “a steady remodelling [sic] of social and political habits.”

The railroads have a prominent place in American history textbooks, and yet the global, transnational modernity that railroads catalyzed remains difficult to convey. Art and visual images open up this issue in ways that can reach larger audiences, including elementary, secondary, and college students. Most often, the railroad as a subject in American art has been associated with the themes Leo Marx elucidated in his landmark The Machine in the Garden–the railroad as a subject of the pastoral ideal. But the Sheldon’s collection offers a strikingly different opportunity to examine the railroad as a principal actor in the making of modernity, and in the global consequences of American railroad development.

The Sheldon permanent collection offers the opportunity to unveil the global breadth of these processes and to explore the ways railroads became symbolic technologies, shaping the modern ideas and practices of this period. The Sheldon collection includes engravings and lithographs from the Great Plains, including works featuring the Union Pacific Railroad (U-222), the Platte Valley (U-4497.1), and the Black Hills (U-4498.1). But the collection also features strong work from the 1930s and 40s (such as “Slag Heaps,” “Railroad Crossing,” and “Railway Station”). Some of this work came out of the Works Progress Administration. Finally, the collection has excellent works from the 1960s and 1970s, including Roy Ahlgren “Great American Perspective,” the “Tubes” series, and Walter Blakelock Wilson “Prairie Boxcars.”

Roy Alghren, 1973

In addition, the International Center for Quilt Studies will lend one of its “railroad” pattern quilts and several local private collectors will lend several major contemporary works on the subject of the railroad.

In 2008-09 the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Kansas, opened an exhibit on “Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830-1960.” This exhibit attempted to focus on “how artists responded” to the railroad and featured the work of a wide range of artists–impressionists, photographers, modernists, and landscape painters. The works were arranged chronologically by period, although a few categories were broadly construed (such as “states of mind”).

This exhibition will take a somewhat different approach. We will examine the ways artists captured and shaped the modern ideas, practices, and experiences made possible with the railroads and why they were so important in American history. Rather than depicting the influences only from Europe, we intend to emphasize the broader cross-border movements of the railroads and to explore their global consequences. The audience will be presented with some familiar objects depicting for example the transcontinental, but they will also see and discover the ways that the Great Plains was part of a much larger set of modern processes.

Waiting for Hell on Wheels: AMC’s new drama on 1865 and the building of the transcontinental

I have to admit that I have been eagerly anticipating Sunday night’s premier of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels.” What could be better than the unheralded Anson Mount, one of the best Southern actors of our day, playing an ex-Confederate guerrilla looking for his wife’s killer after the Civil War in Nebraska, in and around the building of the Union Pacific Railroad and its rolling town of “Hell on Wheels”?

Nearly ten years ago, Mount played an FBI undercover operator in ABC’s short-lived Line of Fire. That show was set in Richmond, Virginia, and featured a mix of Southern characters much as Justified has done recently. Mount was simply excellent in Line of Fire, and so were the others (especially Leslie Hope), but the slow pace of the show and perhaps its Southernness did not connect with the audience. The Wire was able to capture for Baltimore much more of that city’s quirky and tough street life than Line of Fire could Richmond’s.

Hell on Wheels has already generated some controversy over what exactly the scene of the building of the Union Pacific might have been like and over the plausibility of the show’s mix of Union and Confederate veterans, freed slaves, Native Americans, immigrants, company executives, and town boosters. The Los Angeles Times reviewed Hell on Wheels and mistakenly referred to Colm Meaney’s character as Thomas “Doc” Duncan–it was Thomas C. “Doc” Durant. The picture of so many freedmen in the scene has prompted questions.

One controversy has erupted over whether Chinese laborers worked on the Union Pacific. The answer is no, at least not according to the Union Pacific records. Jeff Yang’s Wall Street Journal piece, “Do Chinese Pioneers Get Railroaded in AMC’s ‘Hell on Wheels’?”, examines the problem of what one commenter called “Asian invisibility.” I have found no records of Chinese laborers on in the Union Pacific payrolls in the 1865-68 period. The U.S. Census, while not the most reliable in counting some populations, recorded no persons of Chinese birth in Nebraska in 1870, nor any Chinese persons living along the counties of the Union Pacific Railroad. Yet, the U.S. Census counted even small populations of individuals, listing sixteen Chinese in Mississippi, two in Michigan, and seven in Colorado Territory that year. In 1870 the census listed 49,310 Chinese persons in California.

On the other hand, there is evidence of freedmen working on the Union Pacific as early as 1863. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, John P. Usher, reported that year that 300 “free colored laborers” had moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to begin working on the Union Pacific Railroad. His office had been “repeatedly urged to use its influence to cause as many colored laborers as can be procured to be employed on this work.” (see John P. Usher, Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1863, p. xix, in Annual Report of the Department of the Interior)

AMC’s promotional material includes photos from the premier, and we see the black freedmen prominently in them. It would help if we could gain a renewed sense of the vast displacement and movement that came from the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Freedmen moved all over and even out of the South. Historian Leslie A. Schwalm has described the movement of freedmen into the Midwest during the war in detail (see Schwalm’s Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest). It should be no surprise that racial conflict simmered just below the surface and broke into the open at Memphis and other places, including in the North. One white former Confederate’s railroad trip in 1865, and his persistent racially bigoted views, can be found in Stephen Ash, A Year in the South: : 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2004). Ash traces the story of John Robertson out of Tennessee in 1865 on his way to Chicago and then to Iowa, who finds freedmen in the depots at Nashville and Louisville and stewed that they “had forgot to get out of the way of white people.” Robertson’s annoyance at the changes all around him were further confirmed by his racial prejudices.

Whatever AMC does with this series, the Confederate gunslinging guerrilla played by Anson Mount should prove complicated. Given the recent scholarship on guerrilla warfare in the Civil War–which places the guerrilla action more at the center of the conflict and at the center of the Confederate national commitment–we might expect Mount’s character to carry the resentments and repressed loyalties of his lost cause forward. T. J. Stiles’s biography of Jesse James, for example, indicates how much of the Confederate national project came out of Missouri and continued to burn in the hearts of these men. Mark Geiger’s terrific book on Financial Fraud and Guerrilla Violence in Missouri’s Civil War shows just how the motivations of Confederate guerrillas worked. Whether AMC will deal with the complex motivations and histories of race, white supremacy, and Confederate nationalism remains unclear. We will have to watch to find out!

In the meantime our Railroads and the Making of Modern America project includes some useful documents to put some of the AMC’s Hell on Wheels premier in perspective:

  1. Incidents of Guerrilla Warfare along the Railroads in the Civil War–Timeline and Map
  2. Incidents of Black Labor on the Railroads in the Civil War–Timeline and Map
  3. Photographs of black laborers in 1861-1865
  4. Payrolls record of the Union Pacific Railroad, 1864-1868
  5. Letters to and from Thomas C. “Doc” Durant” regarding the Union Pacific Railroad and Credit Mobilier

Digital History Harvest in North Omaha Today!

Today in North Omaha we will run our third History Harvest, this time focused on the African American history of that community. We will be digitizing documents and materials from families, businesses, schools, churches, and clubs. We start at 10 a.m.

This year, though, the History Harvest is being planned and run by undergraduate students as part of a special class we organized in the University of Nebraska Department of History. Patrick Jones is teaching the class and its main focus in reading and discussion has been civil rights history and African American 20th century history. This class and The History Harvest have been such a success that we will be running the class each year on a different community. The Omaha World Herald covered our students as they helped organize the materials of the Great Plains Black History Museum: a remarkable collection of documents, material objects, posters, records, and letters and diaries, all of which had been locked in a shipping container/dumpster for nearly a decade.

Yesterday, I saw a demonstration of what those documents included, and the diversity and significance of these artifacts of history takes your breath away. Students will be working this semester and next semester to create the web site featuring each document or object brought into the History Harvest. Because this project is student-run and student-led, the excitement, energy, passion, and commitment to doing history has run high in this class. Fifteen graduate students in History will be helping as well today, taking oral histories, supporting the undergraduates, and working to help digitize the materials.

This year’s University of Nebraska History Harvest project is a collaboration with Love’s Jazz and Art Center, the Great Plains Black History Museum, the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation and NET Television and Radio for an innovative effort to uncover, perserve and share North Omaha’s rich, but often hidden, African American history. Students have been working with the Empowerment Network and spreading the word through churches and community organizations as well as through new media, including Facebook. Community members are invited to bring their letters, photos, documents, heirlooms or other artifacts that help tell the story of African-Americans in North Omaha and across the country. The objects will be digitized and included in a unique web-based public archive of African-American history in North Omaha, available for free to teachers, students and everyday people. Some may even be featured in an upcoming NET Television segment.

Teaching American History–with the Gilder Lehrman Institute in Colorado

Yesterday sixteen teachers from Virginia toured Cripple Creek and Victor, Colorado. Thomas Andrews, University of Colorado, Boulder, and I each met with the group in seminar session to discuss the effects of railroads and coal mines on the West and in U.S. history.

The highlight of the day, of course, was the trip we took down the Mollie Kathleen mine shaft, 1,000 feet down. We also rode the narrow gauge railroad. I’ll post more on this gold mine and our experience in the coming days.

As always, it was a pleasure to talk with and be with these passionate teachers and to think about history together–how to interpret the past, how to teach the past. Thanks to the teachers, Andy Mink, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for a great trip and day!

June 27, 2011:

With Gilder-Lehrman Institute teachers down in the gold mine, at 1,000 feet.