Capturing Chaos: The Myriad Roles and Lasting Impacts of Civil War Photographers

By Lauren Letizia, ‘23

This semester, CWI Fellow Lauren Letizia ’23 is analyzing the numerous roles, cultural significance, and lasting impacts of a cross-section of Civil War photographers upon American society. While some may be familiar to avid readers of Civil War history, others represent lesser-known, but equally as important photographers whose methods, mediums, and end-products helped shape the way Americans understood and made meaning out of the war’s swath of destruction and those who participated in it. Stay tuned for her three comparative blog profiles highlighting the lives and works of some of these fascinating individuals! 

The CWI would like to express enormous thanks to Ron Perisho for his generosity in sharing the majority of the images featured in this mini-series, as well as the invaluable sources and insights he has provided to make this blog series possible!

In his famous book, Specimen Days, Civil War field hospital assistant-turned-writer, Walt Whitman wrote that “the real war will never get into books.” After four years of bitter conflict, millions of dollars of destruction, 700,000 soldiers dead, and millions more wounded, the United States knew that theirs was an experience that was brutally new to the land of proclaimed freedom, liberty, and pursuits of happiness. Though many tried, words and written recollections or reports struggled to capture the scope of grief and horrific bloodshed stretching from south-central Pennsylvania to Texas. Partly considering this new reality, the American public turned to the newly blossoming and unique medium of war photography.

Though photography existed prior to the Civil War, the war was the first conflict in which photography was a main documentary tool to chronicle the devastating epoch. Photographers would brave the gory aftermath of grim battlefields and establish themselves within military encampments to capture the true face of the war. Many of these photographs were then translated into engravings or sketches and printed in newspapers, hung in original form in galleries, or sold for commercial benefit in small print form to a curious public. Never had images of war causalities, razed towns, or other forms of human suffering of the frontlines been distributed to the home front. Many of these photographs countered the Victorian idea of romanticized battlefield assaults or glorious charges and good deaths, stripping American society of the civilian naivete towards combat. Some of the most iconic pioneers of this new industry were Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Alexander Gardner, who would ultimately gain a significant following and great acclaim for their images. Surprisingly, they were met by a largely receptive audience that desired to view the scourge of war in all its gloom and gore. (It should be noted, however, that many of the original images were often “sanitized” in their transposition into the engravings and sketches that made the major newspapers, while other images were carefully doctored to present a certain narrative of the war which, while clearly grim, still sought to fit within certain acceptable tropes of nineteenth-century sentimental culture in order to appease a paying viewership). Several photographers, most notably Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady, also set out to capture–and succeeded with great fanfare–the official presidential portraits of Abraham Lincoln and the official military portraiture of iconic generals such as Robert E. Lee and others that still dominate that public consciousness.

Ironically, despite his own severe visual impairment, Mathew Brady’s collection of photographs from the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania made him a household name. His images were extremely popular in metropolitan galleries in New York, and later, in Washington, D.C. His first series, “The Dead of Antietam” shocked the American public, as it was the first such visceral representation of the war dead to meet Northern civilians’ eyes. However, despite their relative popularity, his photos did not sell nearly enough for a sustainable income, and Brady was forced to eventually declare bankruptcy. In 1875, the federal government obtained Brady’s Civil War negatives for $25,000. Alexander Gardner, a Scottish-born former assistant to and protégé of Brady, likewise struggled with financial insecurities (as well as how to carve out an independent identity from his former boss), but managed to produce some of the most iconic shots of the war, including the last posed photograph of Lincoln in February of 1865, images from his funeral and the hanging of the conspirators, as well as his famed (though pricey) “Photographic Sketch Books of the War,” published in 1866.  Adding to the financial troubles of Brady, Gardner, and their peers was that fact that, both during and after the war, local photographers such as Gettysburg’s own Isaac and Charles Tyson, William Henry Tipton, and others would often supplement their own collection of self-captured negatives by copying the prints of Brady or Timothy O’Sullivan’s images and selling them to tourists and other curious Americans eager to have a memento of America’s deadliest war. These relatively inexpensive “knock-off” prints padded the pockets of local photographers but did little to sustain the fortune of the original photographer himself. Brady’s and Gardner’s financial struggles were not unique to Civil War photographers. Many of them failed to create a stable income, while others often died relatively young from long-term exposure to the chemicals used to develop their photographs.

 Interestingly, despite the seemingly genuine and realistic nature of these photographers’ wildly popular images, many Civil War battlefield photographers staged their famous images. Some even asked surviving soldiers to play dead in sunken roads or on rocks to manufacture riveting images. Other photographs, such as Gardner’s well-known image of the dead Confederate sharpshooter at Gettysburg, were shot by moving bodies to different locations or positions. However, regardless of these questionable maneuvers, these well-known images, as well as other not so famous photographs, allowed civilians to view the ramifications of war in vivid display and in copious amounts, shaping their conceptions not only of warfare but also of the evolving meanings of death, suffering, and sacrifice 

Civil War photography was also used for more practical military and medical purposes, such as the documentation of wounds and medical treatments, military engineering practices (made famous by Union engineer A.J. Russell), and the organization of topographical information. However, after the war, even some of these more “pragmatic” photographs would be released to the public and showcased in museums and galleries.  Photographers with both Union and Confederacy loyalties were active in the field. For instance, George Barnard of Mississippi and Connecticut transplant George S. Cook photographed the war from the Southern perspective starting from the beginning of the war. Yet, the most well-known images and their photographers hailed from the North, with many early apprentices and protégés of Brady and Gardner, such as John Reekie and James Gibson, blossoming during the latter part of the war.

“Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar (Broad and Legare Streets) Destroyed in the Fire of December 1861.” Charleston, SC, George Barnard
Pontoon Bridge built by USMRR in Construction Corps in Belle Plain, VA. Published in May 1864, A.J. Russell

The actual task of capturing battlefield and war photographs was not an easy endeavor. Photographers had to carry their cumbersome equipment, including their darkroom, as well as their sensitive chemistry through tough terrain by horse-drawn wagons. These challenging conditions made the actual development process of photographs exceedingly difficult, as the prints were extremely light sensitive and the dirt, debris, and weather anomalies photographers faced on the road and out into the field complicated the process at every turn. At the beginning of the war in 1861, photographers used a method called wet-plate photography, which chemically coats an image onto glass with a chemical called collodion. It was time-consuming work, as the chemicals were mixed and applied by hand. The negatives of the images needed 5 to 20 seconds of stationary light exposure. Hence, there are no action photographs of the Civil War.

“The Sick Soldier” (1863), Mathew Brady
Wounded Union Zouave soldier in Confederate hands.

However, as the years progressed, photographers began to develop new ways to view images. One of the most influential methods was the printing of photographs in stereo view. These were three-dimensional images that were captured by a twin-lens camera that shot a photograph with two separate lenses. This methodology mimicked the way in which the human eyes see the same image from different angles of the head. The images were then developed using the wet-plate process. Once this step was completed, the photographer would put the two stereo images on a viewing card, known as a stereograph or stereo view card that could be inserted into publicly available viewers to create a 3D image. Additionally, in the later years of the war, a process called albumen printing was the dominate form of photographic development. This included the soaking of paper in fermented chloride and egg white, letting it dry, then soaking the paper in a solution of silver nitrate. The paper would then be placed in a frame directly touching the negative of the image. It was then dried using sunlight.

One of the most popular forms of photographic publication and printing was the Cartes de Visite (CdVs). A CdV is a photographic print pasted on paper to a larger card (2-1/2’’ by 4’’) They were mostly used in albumen prints since the 1850s. CdVs became incredibly popular during the Civil War, as they were cheap and easy for families and soldiers to carry in pockets or purses. CdVs were used to capture both portraits and battle scenes, which gave them a universal and accessible appeal.  As the war progressed, it became possible to print larger CdVs, such as those iconic prints of Atlanta after General Sherman’s march, portraits of President Lincoln, Lee, and other known generals and their staff.

CdV print of a young Union sergeant, Johnston Brothers Studio NY

The photographic advances of the 1860s and the novel ways in which photographers captured the Civil War ignited a new age for both the art and science of photography. Civil War photography went on to inspire scores of war-time photographers during modern wars such as World War II and Vietnam. The horrific scale and scope of the Civil War was, combined with the public’s desire for a wide-scale, so-called “authentic” and “genuine” record of warfare   popularized the photographic medium throughout the war years and well beyond.   As photographers found their niche audiences, be it within the circles of wealthy purchasers of the so-called “sketchbooks,” or amongst upper class socialites who craved the stereo views of the latest battle images for their parlor guests, the middling-class visitors to urban galleries, or the readers of major newspapers or collectors of cartes-de-visites, they continued to adapt their mediums to the scope and scale of the war. In doing so, they helped, in vital ways, to set the tone for the ways in which the war was presented to the civilian public (both national and international), and thus shaped, in no small way, the cultural meanings and enduring legacies of the costliest war of the nineteenth century.

Alexander Gardner’s Photographs of the Battle of Antietam (September 1862)
Top Image: “Burial Crew at Work”
Bottom Image: Confederate Soldier remains unburied beside a buried Union Soldier

3 thoughts on “Capturing Chaos: The Myriad Roles and Lasting Impacts of Civil War Photographers”

    1. Thank you for pointing that out- we have updated the post with corrections!
      -Ziv Carmi ’23

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