Mirror With A Memory: Harvard in the Civil War

Group portrait of Harvard military alumni of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry standing before regimental headquarters at Camp Benton, Maryland during the Civil War. HUG 3286p

Announcing A New Exhibition in the Harvard University Archives

“Mirror With A Memory:” Harvard in the Civil War through a photographic lens

Writing about stereographs in an article published in The Atlantic Monthly in June 1859, American physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes (AB 1829) described the art of photography (then just twenty years old) as “the mirror with a memory.”  Two years later, on the eve of the American Civil War, Holmes invented a handheld stereoscope for easier viewing of increasingly popular stereographs.  Stereographs were just one format through which the public experienced unprecedented photographic documentation of the war.  Photography’s popularity meant that soldiers were able to carry images of loved ones with them into battle and to send their own photographs home.  These visual representations became especially important when a soldier died, providing a touchstone for remembrance of the individual and his service. 

More than 150 years after the beginning of the Civil War, such photographs provide us in turn with a more immediate experience of the war.  Together with textual documentation, including letters and diaries, photographs broaden and inform our memory of the Civil War, adding a visual dimension to the names inscribed in history.  This exhibit explores three aspects of Harvard’s Civil War – the home front, student and alumni engagement in the war, and commemoration of those who served – through the lens of the photographic processes that were developing into the 1860s.

An exhibition and timeline highlighting photographs and Harvard-related historical materials from the Civil War era can be viewed at the Harvard University Archives, Pusey Library from, March 4 2013—June 5, 2013,  Monday—Friday, 11 am4 pm.



The "Harvard" Regiment

The 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, led by Colonel W. Raymond Lee, was familiarly known as the “Harvard” regiment because so many of its officers and enlisted men had attended Harvard.  In the carte-de-visite pictured above (HUG 3286p), Lieutenant Colonel William Francis Bartlett (AB 1862), Colonel Francis Winthrop Palfrey (AB 1851), Dr. Nathan Hayward (AB 1850, MD 1855), Quartermaster Charles W. Folsom (AB 1845) and Adjutant William Frederic Milton (AB 1858) are shown standing before the log cabin serving as regimental headquarters at Camp Benton, Maryland. 

This photograph-a salted paper print-was taken shortly after the regiment’s participation in the battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, in Loudon County, Virginia.  Eighty eight officers and men were killed or wounded during the battle; Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was among the latter category.  One hundred and thirteen officers and men, including Colonel W. Raymond Lee and Major Paul Joseph Revere (AB 1852), were taken prisoner.  Revere, grandson of Paul Revere, died on July 5, 1863, of wounds received at Gettysburg.  Second lieutenant Sumner Paine (Harvard College Class of 1865) died at Gettysburg two days earlier on July 3, 1863; he was the youngest Harvard student to die during the war.