Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography By R. B. Bontecou

By Stanley B. Burns, M.D.

Of all the photographs taken during the Civil War, none are more compelling than the clinical photographs taken of the wounded soldiers.  A large number of these photographs were taken by Dr. Reed Bontecou, and of these, most were at one time in the collections of the Army Medical Museum.  Over the years, the museum dispersed many of these photographs out of their collection.

Dr. Stanley Burns, an ophthalmologist by trade, has spent a large portion of the last 35 years tracking down these photographs, collecting and preserving them.  A few of the photographs in his collection, known as the Burns Archive, have been published in various publications over the years, but most have not, that is until now.  With the publication of “Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography By R. B. Bontecou,” Dr. Burns has begun a to publish his collection.  This volume, the first of several projected, depicts portraits of soldiers, photographed vertically, partially clothed, often in their uniforms with their wounds exposed.  The soldiers represent 101 regiments, most were wounded in the final battles of the war, and each holds a chalkboard identifying them.

The first 53 pages of the book, cover the history of the photographs, how and why they were taken, a biography of Dr. Reed B. Bontecou, new weaponry vs. old tactics, views of death and sacrifice in Civil War America, the final battles of the war (from which Dr. Bontecou would acquire a large number of his subjects), and Harewood Hospital where Dr. Bontecou did most of his work.  The rest of the book is dedicated to the photographs of the wounded soldiers.

The photographs were originally carte de visites and Dr. Burns presents them a little less than double their original size of 2⅛ × 3½ inches.  There is one photograph per page, and each is accompanied by text (sometimes only the identification written on the chalkboards and other times notes that were either written on the photographs or in the albums containing them).

There are indices of the represented regiments (page 57) and the battles at which his subjects received their wounds (pages 103 & 104), and a short bibliography of primary sources.

It is safe to say that due in part to Dr. Bontecou’s work medical practices and procedures were greatly improved during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and through Dr. Burns, the medical history of the Civil War will be preserved for future generations.  This book is not only a must have for students of the American Civil War, but also those interested in photographic and  medical history.

ISBN 978-1-936002-05-4, Burns Archive Press, © 2011, Hardcover, 6.75 x 6 inches, 168 pages, Photographs, Bibliography & Indices. $50.00

1 comment:

John from Macro Photography For All said...

Interesting that Dr. Burns is an ophthalmologist, a medical specialty that relies heavily on photography. Clearly he appreciates the significance of medical photography when it comes to this unique and tragic history.