“I begin to fear the enemy will not attack us. We shall therefore have to attack him.” Robert E. Lee; 30 September, 1861, Letter to John B. Floyd.
Robert E. Lee in War and Peace: the Photographic History of a Confederate and American Icon
by Dr. Donald A. Hopkins
Reviewed by TVCWRT Member John Mason
Donald A. Hopkins, a surgeon who resides in Gulfport, Mississippi, has enjoyed a lifelong fascination with American Civil War and Southern history and has now developed a recent interest in photographic history, particularly those photographs concerning Gen. Robert E. Lee. This is his first offering on this subject, although he previously published The Little Jeff: the Jeff Davis Legion, Cavalry, Army of Northern Virginia, for which he received the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis historical gold-medal. He has also published numerous articles on a number of medical as well as Civil War subjects.
Robert E Lee in War and Peace is a story within a story. First, it is a meticulously researched work that isolates and presents all of the 61 known “from life” photographs of the General still in existence. In so doing, Hopkins provides for both the historian and the collector with a veritable trove of information on when, where, and by whom these photographs were taken, along with the means to differentiate the actual “from life” pictures from the numerous copies made since. Second, it provides an in-depth history of the processes of photography. As Hopkins says, “Lee’s lifetime (1807 to 1870) spanned the period from the early development of the photographic image to the dawn of modern photography.” 1Beginning with daguerreotypes, which were used for Lee’s first two “from life” images, he goes on to trace the history of 19th century photography and photographers.
Daguerreotypes were developed in France in 1839. The first two known images of Lee were made this way, one around 1845 with his son (although many argue that this photo is actually Lee’s brother Sydney and his son Fitzhugh. The family resemblance IS astonishing.) The second picture was taken around September, 1852, perhaps in Baltimore (but equally as possible in Alexandria, Washington, New York, or even West Point), at about the time he was appointed Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. As with the location, the exact identity of the photographer(s) is(are) also in question.
By the start of the Civil War, daguerreotypes had begun to be replaced by new and improved photographic process employing the use of negatives. These were called either ambrotypes or tintypes, depending on whether the images were fixed respectively on glass or tin. There are no known ambrotypes of Lee made “from life”, but there are two tintypes.
Dr. Hopkins proceeds to provide detailed information on all the various types of pictures
- Hopkins, Robert E. Lee in War and Peace, p. xii. available during this period be they collodion, Carte de Visites, or stereographic images. He also traces all of the photographers that worked with Lee, providing brief biographical sketches of each one, the addresses and locations of their offices, and much other information that would help the collector or historian differentiate as to who took what picture when. His detailed examinations of the various photographs are astounding, pointing out the smallest variations in the photos themselves, down even to the angle of Lee’s bow tie. But this attention to detail is what makes this work so important. It is just these small differences that can make the difference in determining time and place. Is it real or is it Memorex?
Every chapter (there are 15 including six appendices) is replete with photographs of General Lee, ordered chronologically, as he advances throughout his life. Most are military in nature, taken at different times during the war. But there are also a fair number taken after the war up until the time of Lee’s death. Here they are, all 61 of the “from life” originals, as well as numerous examples of the various copies other photographers made from them at later dates, be they authorized or not. Many of the pictures include the back marks and logos of the photographers (identifying marks) and even the custom stamps applied by the states were the pictures were taken. The information thus presented is invaluable.
While there are several other books on this subject available (Roy Meredith’s Lee in Life and in Legend, Eicher’s Robert E Lee: a Life Portrait, and Emery Thomas’ Album), Dr. Hopkins’ Lee in War and Peace is the only work that provides a complete cover of the subject at hand. The reader comes away not only being able to recognize the real pictures from all the copies but he/she also gains a rather intimate knowledge of the photographers and photographic techniques involved, as well as the various styles of photographs that were prepared for public consumption. There is indeed a lot of worthwhile history to be found within these pages, whatever your interest might be.
As with any work of this sort, they are always going to be some discrepancies among the experts concerning some of the subject matter. A good example found here is of the early photo in which Dr. Hopkins maintains his Lee and his son Custis. The prevailing opinion is that this picture is actually of Sydney Lee in his son Fitzhugh. Dr. Hopkins does not hide from these discussions, where they occur, but goes out of his way to fairly present both sides of the argument while providing all the evidence he used to reach his own opinion. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide with which opinion he agrees, but should that not always be the case? Critical thinking, after all, is essential to the historian.
Dr. Hopkins intended Lee in War and Peace to be the definitive work on the photographic history of the great General. It was obviously a labor of love. The pictures are magnificent, the research impeccable. The prose is light, the chapters short and concise, and the documentation thorough. But more importantly, the information one gains on the era itself, General Lee, photography in general, and the important ability to distinguish “from life” images from copies is invaluable. This work is eminently readable, and will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in either history or photography.
Your reviewer is TVCWRT member John Mason. For most of his adult life he was a contracting specialist with the U.S. Government. Now happily retired, he spends his time in Huntsville, Alabama studying the American Civil War, particularly as it relates to the state of Alabama. Heroes Afloat: Federal Medal of Honor Winners at the Battle of Mobile Bay is his first book length work after publication of several works in various historical magazines. He enjoys researching the historical niche of the Medal of Honor, and is currently working on a companion work centered on the Vicksburg campaign. When not researching his favorite pastime, he likes to spend time reading, computer gaming, walking, and playing a really bad game of golf. John has lived in Huntsville since 1987 with his two sons, Derek and Jared.