In celebration of American Archives Month, the National Archives is teaming up with the Academy of American Poets. Throughout the month we’ll be publishing original poems inspired by the holdings of the National Archives. To view the poets performing their original work, visit the National Archives YouTube Channel.
Today we have three poems by Eric Pankey, who was inspired by Mathew Brady’s Civil War–era photographs.
Noted photographer Mathew Brady and his associates produced several thousand photographs of battlefields, towns, and people affected by the Civil War.
Among the various scenes the photographers captured were these haunting images related to the Battle of Chancellorsville.
The Battle of Chancellorsville took place between April 30 and May 6, 1863, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. The battle saw Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s 60,000 men face Union Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac, who had more than double in force.
Despite an unlikely Confederate victory, the Confederates sustained heavy losses.
Brady shocked many people when he displayed images of dead soldiers from the battle of Antietam the previous year. Americans were unaccustomed to seeing the reality of war.
Although many photos in the National Archives are attributed to Brady, many were taken by others under his supervision. When Brady published photographs from his collection, he credited them with his own name whether or not he actually took the photograph.
The National Archives has digitized over 6,000 photographs of Civil War–era personalities and scenes taken by Mathew Brady and his associates. These images can be viewed in our online catalog and on our Flickr page.
THREE MATHEW BRADY PHOTGRAPHS
by Eric Pankey
1. CONFEDERATE DEAD BEHIND A STONE WALL AT FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
Where the glass negative broke:
A silky, liquid black,
Like spilled scrivener’s ink,
Pools in the print’s margin.
Mouth gone slack, eyes upward,
Face glazed with blood, the man—
Lifeless, slumped, and tangled
In a tarp—looks for God.
Two leafless trees hold up
A scratched sky’s leaden weight.
Autumn? Winter? No wind
To sway the upright trees.
Such a long exposure
To affix the fallen,
(Staged or happened upon,)
Abandoned to this ditch.
2.WILDERNESS, NEAR CHANCELLORSVILLE, VIRGINIA
It is a slow process:
fallen and standing trees,
Propped, bent, a clutter of intersections—
All moss- and lichen-ridden,
Bored by grubs, antler-scraped, bark rubbed free—
Hard to tell from the decay
the living from the dead,
The dead from the almost dead—
horizontal across the creek,
Uprooted when a flash flood cut the cut-bank—
Still leaves, blossoms, bears fruit.
Without a buttress,
A long dead sycamore remains upright.
3. BURYING THE CONFEDERATE DEAD AT FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA
Jesus said, Let the dead bury the dead.
Two caskets and five or six canvas-
Covered bodies wait beside a trench
Three black men have spent all day digging.
Given their druthers, they’d obey scripture.