Immortalizing death on the battlefield: US iconography of war from the American Revolution to the Civil War

Nicola Paladin


Military iconography has always been a crucial aspect in the relationship between consensus and the outcome of US military interventions. A recurrent and elastic visual component of war master narratives is the representation of death on the battlefield, a classic trope in Western tradition whose first American photographic stage was the Civil War. By focusing on Civil war photography observed against the grain of early republic paintings of the American Revolution, I intend to analyze the cultural transformations determined by the advent of photography on the US perception of war in contrast with the pictorial tradition. My purpose is to demonstrate how such a shift implied a radical reshaping of the visual (and cultural) paradigm of death on the battlefield in the way it was represented and perceived by the audience. I propose a comparison of the aesthetics and the ethos of the most well-known Civil war photos of dead soldiers with one of the most famous paintings of the American Revolution representing death on the battlefield, John Trumbull’s The Death of Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and significant literary counterparts from the Revolution (Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s homonymous tragedy which inspired Trumbull's paintings), and the Civil war literature (with particular reference to Stephen Crane).


Photography; Death; Iconography; War

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