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Flipping through our copy of Hallowed
Ground magazine, I was struck by several photos of Civil War army officers
posed like this unidentified soldier:
I’ve seen photos like this before, and I always thought that the men were imitating
of “Napoleon in his Study.” The emperor, I’d heard, clutched his torso because
of a stomach ulcer.
But it seems odd (at least to me) that when you have what would’ve been a rare opportunity
to capture your likeness for posterity, you’d decide to undo a couple of coat buttons
and stick your hand inside the opening.
When I looked into it, I learned that men who posed this way weren’t necessarily imitating
Napoleon, and that he wasn’t sticking his hand in his coat because of an ulcer (though
he did have one, according
I found many explanations online, such as “he didn’t trust anyone and liked to keep
his hand on his wallet” and “painters at the time charged by the limb.” But experts
Series site’s FAQ say that the hand-in-jacket pose was “a common stance
for men of breeding” and appears frequently in 18th-century portraiture. Even some
ancient Greek and Roman statues have hands in togas.
Napoleon probably didn’t actually sit for the painting; an admirer commissioned that
work and the artist painted it from memory.
After consulting historians about the hand-in-jacket pose, author
David Feldman writes that certain gestures were indeed part of photographers’
standard poses. For example, you’ll often see two men posed shaking hands or with
hands on each others’ shoulders, meant to convey a friendship or familial relationship.
Holding a Bible and pointing off-camera are other standard poses.
The historians also suggest that putting a hand in a jacket, or on a table or other
object, also might’ve been a way of keeping the hand still for long sitting times.
Here’s Gen. George B. McClellan and his staff:
Civil War resources from Family Tree Magazine:
War Genealogy Toolkit (free article)
War sailors (free article)
War genealogy research guide in the July 2007 digital edition of Family Tree Magazine,
available from ShopFamilyTree.com
Things You Didn’t Know About the Civil War by Thomas R. Turner, Ph.D.