Rutland Writer Focuses On Civil War Photographer

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(Host)  The first shots of the civil war rang out 150 years ago this month. Ten percent of Vermont’s population served in the war – more than 32,000 Vermonters, and 5,200 died.    Brattleboro photographer George Houghton traveled with several Vermont regiments and captured striking images of Vermont soldiers.  

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports a Rutland writer and historian has gathered over 100 of Houghton’s photographs in a new book.

(Keck)  When historians talk of famous civil war photographers, George Houghton’s name is often eclipsed by that of Matthew Brady or Alexander Gardner. Brady and Gardner caused a sensation during the war with their grisly images of corpse-strewn battlefields. Rutland historian Don Wickman says that while Houghton’s photographs were less sensational, they captured the nuance of day-to-day life for civil war soldiers.

(Wickman) "His composition is amazing – everything that you’re taught now about dividing pictures up into thirds, line of sight – he’s using back in 1859, 1860."

(Keck) Houghton was born in Putney and was operating a photo studio in Brattleboro when the Civil War broke out.   He tried to enlist, says Wickman, but was turned away because of health reasons.  

So instead of fighting, George Houghton followed Vermont soldiers to Virginia with his camera – becoming a pioneer in the budding field of photo-journalism.  

(Wickman)  "When we start looking at previous conflicts from the French and Indian War and the Revolution – photography wasn’t there so people would do pastels, pen and inks so you had an artists interpretation of the scene. Photography now captured the scene as it was. bringing the war and the scenes associated with it back home."

(Keck)  Don Wickman’s new book, titled "A Very Fine Appearance," contains over 100 of Houghton’s photographs accompanied by excerpts from letters and diaries of Vermont soldiers.    

There are long-range photos of union camps that show row upon row of white triangular tents tucked amidst the landscape. There are sobering scenes of men burying their comrades. But Wickman says it’s the images of soldiers relaxing that may be the most haunting. They show the men in front of tents – their worn and dusty boots propped up on stools – fatigue etched into their young faces. Behind them, jackets and laundry hang on tent posts.

(Wickman)  "They’re not all spit and polish. A real favorite that I have shows veterans of the 4th Vermont regiment returning at the expiration of their 3 year term of enlistment in 1864 to Brattleboro. They look totally opposite from the way they would have looked in September 1861. They’re wrapped in blankets their clothes are ragged. But they’ve just been through 3 full years of war and they’re showing it."   

(Keck)  Harold Holzer, one of the country’s leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era writes in a forward to Wickman’s book, that "George Houghton produced some of the most comprehensive and visually arresting images of the war." "It remains something of a mystery," he writes, "that Houghton has remained all but unknown for nearly a century and a half."  

While Vermont soldiers fought in some of the most horrific battles of the day, Holzer thinks George Houghton was a victim of geography, living too far from the reigning media centers where photographs were exhibited and reviewed. Don Wickman hopes his new book will help to change that.  

For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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