Midway through the war, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. urged Atlantic Monthly readers to study the gruesome photographs taken after the Battle of Antietam by Alexander Gardner. “Let him who wishes to know what the war is look at this series of illustrations,” Holmes declared. The images were, he said, “a commentary on civilization such as the savage might well triumph to show its missionaries.”
By then Vermonters had been fighting on such battlefields for more than a year. One native son who saw the fray firsthand was 38-year-old George H. Houghton of Brattleboro, as talented a war photographer as Gardner, but without his level of fame.
Despite health problems that kept him from military service, Houghton journeyed to the front and chronicled the everyday life of Vermont troops on campaign. His beautifully rendered photographs, undeservedly long forgotten, include scenes as skillfully composed and dynamically posed as anything created by Houghton’s more celebrated rivals.
Beginning in October 1861, when he joined Vermont troops at Camp Griffin in Virginia, Houghton aimed his cameras at small but revealing details of army life. After a hiatus back home, he headed to the front again in 1863, living in “primitive style” alongside the troops and making souvenir photos for their families.
Houghton never photographed an actual battle—it was too dangerous. He was clearly animated as much by profit as by patriotism. Though proUnion, he believed his field work would prop up his struggling gallery. One 6th Vermont soldier remembered his pictures costing 75 cents, a hefty chunk of a private’s $21 monthly paycheck.
Houghton did earn some local praise, with one Vermont newspaper acknowledging he had produced many “pleasant reminders of our brave boys.” But Houghton’s images, now kept at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre, are much more than keepsakes. They vivify war around the edges—the smoke of a campfire, a skyline of white tents, a keen-eyed sharpshooter lurking with his rifle behind a boulder. Though never as frightening as Gardner’s photos of battle dead, Houghton’s sublime works approach genuine art.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.