Massaponax Church (May 21, 1864)

massaponnox croppedToday is the 150th anniversary of one of the most famous photographs from the Civil War. It was exactly a century and a half ago when Timothy O’Sullivan lugged his camera equipment up to the second floor of a little brick building called Massaponax Church and captured an image of Union officers, among them Grant and Meade, sitting outside on pews their staffs had hauled outside. They are tremendous photos. In this one you can see Meade at the end of the pew to the left, looking at a map. Theodore Lyman sits next to him. Andrew Humphreys sits at the end of the adjacent pew, reading a paper. Grant sits next to him, puffing on one of his ever-present cigars. After the long, bloody stalemate at Spotsylvania Court House, the Army of the Potomac was on the move, shifting to the left to pass by Lee’s flank and head south. The wagons of the V Corps are in the background in the photo. (This image is from the Library of Congress; click to enlarge).

Charles A. Dana (Library of Congress).

Charles A. Dana (Library of Congress).

Sitting next to Grant is Charles Dana, the assistant secretary of war. Lyman described him as “a combination of scholar and newspaper editor, with a dab of amiability, a large dab of conceit, and another large dab of ultraism.” Dana had accompanied Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign, and Lincoln dispatched him from Washington to report from Virginia. In a memoir Dana recounted his rather critical impressions of Meade. “He was a tall, thin man, rather dyspeptic, I should suppose from the fits of nervous irritation to which he was subject,” Dana said. “He was totally lacking in cordiality toward those with whom he had business, and in consequence was generally disliked by his subordinates. With General Grant Meade got along always perfectly, because he had the first virtue of a soldier–that is, obedience to orders. He was an intellectual man, and agreeable to talk with when his mind was free, but silent and indifferent to everybody when he was occupied with that which interested him.”

Massaponax Church as it appears today (Tom Huntington photo).

Massaponax Church as it appears today (Tom Huntington photo).

Below is an engraved version based on O’Sullivan’s image. The population of generals has increased substantially! If you read the caption to the print, you’ll also see the artist has added the presence of generals who were nowhere near–not only Winfield Scott Hancock, who had moved with the II Corps ahead of the army, but also General William T. Sherman, who was making his way through Georgia at the time, Daniel Sickles, George Thomas, and James Garfield.

Here's an artist's conception of that scene. He has allowed his imagination some free play. If you read the caption to the print, you'll also see that has added the presence of generals who were nowhere near--not only Hancock, who had moved with the II Corps ahead of the army, but also General Sherman, who was making his way through Georgia at the time, and General Sickles.

Here’s an artist’s conception of that scene. He has allowed his imagination some free play (Library of Congress. Click to enlarge).

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