"A Very Fine Appearance" The Vermont Civil War Photographs of George Houghton. By Donald H. Wickman. Forward by Harold Holzer. Illustrated, maps, notes, bibliography, index, 238 pages, April 2011. Vermont Historical Society, 60 Washington Street, Barre, VT 05641, Hardcover $44.05, Paperback, $34.95
The first significant publication relative to Vermont for the Sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the Civil War, is a fascinating work by historian Don Wickman. Drawing on the resources of sixteen public and private archives, Wickman has brought to the public more than 100 photographs of a heretofore obscure Vermont photographer.
Just horses and men. No electricity, no automobiles, no digital cameras, no Internet. Today there are millions of photographers, probably billions of photographs, but in 1860, there were barely 3,000 photographers, the medium still being in its infancy. One of those 3,000 was Putney native George Houghton.
A successful photographer in Brattleboro before the war, Houghton, like many others, wanted to enlist, but poor health prevented that from occurring. It did not prevent him from going to the seat of war anyway. Houghton followed the regiments of the 1st and 2nd Vermont Brigades to Virginia, spending several months, during three trips, and recorded for posterity the camps, cemeteries, hospitals, fortifications, and most importantly, the men of these units.
There are long-range photos of union camps that show row upon row of white triangular tents tucked amidst the landscape. There are sobering scenes of men burying their comrades. But Wickman says it's the images of soldiers relaxing that may be the most haunting. They show the men in front of tents - their worn and dusty boots propped up on stools - fatigue etched into their young faces. Behind them, jackets and laundry hang on tent posts.
Pictures of the men (and women camp followers), range from very informal shots of one or two soldiers, one showing the interior of their tent, to formal company-sized portraits.
Although not every soldier in these photographs is identified, there is a very good chance, if your ancestor served in one of these units, that he is pictured somewhere in this book. Even if he isn't, these photographs give you a intimate look into the life of the men in these units.
Complimenting each photograph is an apt quotation from a newspaper, letter or journal, written predominantly by privates and sergeants, but also regimental officers, generals, and even a colonel's wife. Besides a caption for each photograph, many identify the soldiers in each scene. Many of these soldiers never made it back home.
Film maker Ken Burns said “This is a wonderful, intimate portrait of the war that still continues to define us," and Civil War photography scholar William Frassanito says, “Never before have the extraordinary efforts of a long-obscure Civil War cameraman named George H. Houghton been so thoroughly chronicled."
Houghton died young, in 1870, only forty-six years old. One wonders what he would have accomplished with his trade given another two or three decades.
Augmented by maps, both period hand-drawn and modern renditions, and a succinct biography of Houghton, Wickman has ensured that Houghton finally gets his due. Well done, Don!
Tom Ledoux is the creator and webmaster of the Vermont in the Civil War web project, VermontCivilWar.org. He has an M.A. in military studies (Civil War studies) from American Military University.