A Photographic Requiem for America’s Civil War Battlefields

Walking far-flung battlefields to picture the nation’s defining tragedy in a modern light

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (top) and Chickamauga, Georgia (bottom) were the sites of two Civil War battles. Eliot Dudik

In “Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat,” Walt Whitman describes a landscape that is oblivious to human suffering, with “innocent and disdainful” summer crops rising out of the same ground where generations lie buried. He published the lyric in 1856, not long before the Civil War transformed peach orchards and wheat fields into vistas of mortal anguish.

The “Broken Land” photography series, by Eliot Dudik, seems to challenge Whitman’s vision of an indifferent earth: In these battlefield panoramas, the new life of 150 summers can’t seem to displace death. Seasonal change is just another ghostly note in these images. Fresh snow, high cotton—it hardly matters. Moss advances in Shenandoah River bottoms and clouds storm Lookout Mountain, but nature never conquers memory here. The soil still looks red.

Dudik, who spent his childhood in Pennsylvania, moved to South Carolina in 2004. “Conversations there always seemed to turn toward the Civil War,” he says, and that made him “realize the importance of remembering and considering.” He embarked on “Broken Land” three years ago, and so far has photographed about a hundred battlegrounds in 24 states. He’s now founding a photography program at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia; this summer, while he’s on break, he hopes to add battlegrounds in three more states.

Using an antique view camera that weighs 50 pounds, he typically takes only a single, painstaking picture of each battlefield he visits. He prefers to shoot in winter, and “in rain, and on really overcast and nasty days. Blue sky is kind of my nemesis.” The subdued light makes landscapes look perfectly even. “I avoid the grandiose, the spectacular, the beautiful. It helps the viewer consider what’s being photographed.”

In Dudik’s pictures, trees are everywhere. “If I could take pictures of trees for the rest of my life, I would,” he says. He likes how their vertical forms balance long horizons, but they are spiritual presences, too. They go gray or blue, depending on the light. They hold the line, beckon, surrender:

A Photographic Requiem for America's Civil War Battlefields
Kock's Plantation, Louisiana, July 12-13, 1863: Outnumbered Rebels drove the enemy back six miles. (Eliot Dudik) Eliot Dudik
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, September 12-15, 1862: John Brown tried to take the town’s Federal armory in 1859. In 1862, Stonewall Jackson succeeded, capturing 12,000-plus Yankees —the largest surrender of U.S. troops in the war. Eliot Dudik
Olustee, Florida, February 20, 1864: “Most of the wounded colored men were murdered on the field,” a Union general wrote. The Rebels’ pause for slaughter allowed the surviving Yankee troops to escape. Eliot Dudik
Cedar Mountain, Virginia, August 9, 1862: Victory gave the Confederates the initiative in Northern Virginia. Eliot Dudik
Cloyds Mountain, Virginia, May 9, 1864: Union forces prevailed in fighting that was hand-to-hand for an hour. Eliot Dudik
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, November 24, 1863: It was immortalized as the “Battle Above the Clouds.” But U.S. Grant (whose troops won) wrote that there “was no action even worthy to be called a battle....It is all poetry.” Eliot Dudik
Big Black River Bridge, Mississippi, May 17, 1863: Exhausted Rebel soldiers “seemed to expect a defeat,” a Northerner wrote. They fled, burning a wooden bridge (later replaced by the one pictured here). Eliot Dudik
Chickamauga, Georgia, September 18-20, 1863: “We were too tired to heed the dead bodies lying all around us,” a Rebel recalled. The bloodiest battle in the Western Theater inflicted a total of 34,000 casualties. Eliot Dudik
Falling Waters, West Virginia, July 2, 1861: Virginians had voted to secede just two months before. But soon after, western counties rebelled against the rebellion. They entered the Union as West Virginia in 1863. Eliot Dudik
Fox's Gap, South Mountain, Maryland, September 14, 1862: Rebel resistance marked the prelude to the battle at Antietam Creek. Eliot Dudik

Related Reads

Preview thumbnail for video 'The Civil War: A Visual History

The Civil War: A Visual History

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.