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The Civil War Wounded in Photographs

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Winter


Seated in profile, the young men pose as they would for family portraits. On closer inspection of the oval gold-lined frames, the serene faces are scarred, bald spots divided by deep canyon-like cuts, shoulders swollen around bullet craters. These are the “after” photos, taken after the men had left their homes to fight for the Union or the Confederacy, and after they were wounded, carrying the scars of the American Civil War for the rest of their lives.

“This is one moment in this person’s life,” said Heidi Knoblauch, a doctoral candidate in the History of Medicine program, who is examining Yale’s collection of 98 photographs taken during the Civil War at Harewood Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. “To piece together what happens after this moment, how people live with their wounds afterwards, how that patient experience either carries with them or doesn’t carry with them, has been a motivating factor for me.”

Knoblauch’s photo analysis will comprise one chapter in her dissertation on the use of photography in American medical practice from 1839 to the eve of World War II.

Locked away in the stacks of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, these Civil War photographs are one of four collections of enlarged photographs commissioned by the head surgeon at Harewood, Reed Bontecou, M.D., a pioneer in the art of clinical photography. Yale’s collection is now used as a teaching tool in several classes, including “Photo Memory in the U.S.,” taught by Laura Wexler, Ph.D., professor of American Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Knoblauch noticed that most of the scholarship on the photos focuses on Bontecou and the practice of surgery rather than on the patients he photographed. “By focusing on him, we’ve kind of lost the patients’ narratives,” Knoblauch said. Investigating the lives of the men in Bontecou’s photos is a way for Knoblauch to enter into that patient experience, she said. “Being wounded gave them a record; it attached a visual image to their name, something that a lot of Civil War soldiers did not get,” she said.

On the backs of the photos are short biographies of the soldiers—both Union and Confederate—containing personal and medical information. Knoblauch also searched census data and military and pension records; she will use the individual stories to tell the larger story of what it was like to be a wounded Civil War veteran.

Robert A. Butcher, a 21-year-old laborer from Philadelphia who served in an infantry company, suffered two saber cuts to his skull during a battle at Burke’s Station, Va., in April 1865. He complained of severe headache and sensitivity to light and noise, but left Harewood at his own request and lived for 68 more years, moving among veterans’ homes across the country from Milwaukee to the Chesapeake Bay.

Aaron Detweiler, an 18-year-old corporal in a Pennsylvania infantry company, was shot in his upper right arm during the battle of Hatcher’s Run, Va., in March 1865. He went on to become a doctor and later drowned in a place called Devil’s Hole.

“It’s a different story because it shows not only the tragedies of the war, but also the resilience. A lot of these people live until 1910, 1930—and just thinking about how they go on has been interesting for me,” Knoblauch said.

The photographs will be part of an exhibit curated by Knoblauch titled “Portraits of Wounded Bodies.” They will be on display in the rotunda of the Medical Library from January through April 2013. The cases in the foyer of Sterling Hall will provide background on medicine during the Civil War, including maps of and information about Harewood Hospital as well as a biography of Bontecou.

Natalie Villacorta is a student at Brown University and was Yale Medicine’s 2012 writing intern.