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 -