Teach American History Blog

Who Doesn't Love a Good Conspiracy . . .

Okay, so maybe this doesn't count as an actual conspiracy, but it is a fabricated image. Only I never knew that, even though I had seen the picture dozens of times over the years, without noticing - or hearing - any reference to the fact that it was a fake, a composite of multiple images. (Of course, as soon as I asked William Hardy if he had ever seen this photo before, he responded with "Yes, it's a fake.") It was only when I was browsing through the Library of Congress' website for some of Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs did I notice a tab on the left entitled "Solving a Civil War Photograph Mystery". All of the info (and the photographs that follow) come from that site, although I will summarize it below.

The photographs are all posted on the wiki here. The photograph in question says at the bottom that it is General Grant, at City Point in Virginia; this would place him near Petersberg in June 1864. And so this is where things do not start adding up (although, to be honest, many of these are not things that I would have ever noticed, but someone who paid more attention to these kind of meticulous Civil War details obviously did).

Grant's head does not seem to sit right on his neck. He seems to be stouter (you know, overweight) than most thought in 1864, and is sitting funny in the saddle for one who was very comfortable on a horse. There is only one star on his shoulder (when he should have had three), and the horse does not match any of Grant's favorites. To top it off, there are scratch marks visible near Grant's head and along the top of the head and neck of the horse.

So what happened? L.C. Handy, Brady's nephew, came into possession of the original plates and decided in 1902 (you can see that date in the lower left section of the photo) to make an image that "could have" existed rather than one that did exist.

He took the head of Grant off the second photo (the famous one of him leaning against a tree), put it on top of the body of Major Generall McCook, and for good measure superimposed them all on top of image of Confederate prisoners of war encamped behind Union lines.

I would think that these photos could be used, to great effect, with students to help teach them to study images and primary sources carefully, and to look for the anomolies and biases that historians enjoy discovering.

Posted by Jason Mead - Thursday, 05/05/2011, 12:41 PM - Comments -


Comment by Kristie Dean on May 12, 2011 - 01:06 PM

I agree - it would be a great way to teach students to look at things critically.

Comment by Danielle Rutig on May 16, 2011 - 03:14 PM

Something about photos brings history alive for kids! My students throughly enjoy using primary sources. When I try to introduce a primary source I gave them a few minutes to jot their thoughts in their thinking books. That way I do not limit the conversation and observations to my perspective. I let them lead the way, and sometimes I may lead the way back if needed!

Comment by Robert Clark on June 03, 2011 - 04:31 PM

Utilizing pictures is an effective tool to use in the history classroom. I know a professor who has his students take a picture from the civil war and do a detailed analysis of it. The students we teach could do a similar activity. We could guide them through the first one. The allow them to do one in a small group or individually.

Comment by Brittany on May 16, 2011 - 06:54 PM

I think it's amazing that this picture was fabricated at such a point in time. It's strange to think that even during that time, false objects were being passed off as authentic. Apparently you don't have to use photoshop to alter photos. :)

Comment by Tracy Keck on May 13, 2011 - 09:24 PM

The second picture of Grant is a more famous one located in the elementary level history books. This picture has been viewed and discussed by students often helping them to be biases.

Comment by Jamie Rhodes on May 20, 2011 - 09:29 PM

I took a look at your picture then called my almost eighth grade son into the room. You have to understand that my son's favorite time period is the Civil War. He has lots of books pertaining to this war. I asked him to view the photo and to tell me what he saw. First, he said, "Well, that is Grant". I told him to look closer at the photo. He then comments that the jacket wasn't from the same time period. He also commented that Grant's body was slimmer than the picture portrayed. After a bit more discussion, he goes to his room to find a book to see if he can find the same photo. He then finds a picture of the uniform and points out the differences. Then he finds Grant to make sure his observations are correct. I feel that photos tell stories that voices cannot.

Post your comment

*required field

NOTE: Do Not Alter These Fields: