Implements of Civil War Photography

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. We are delighted to share her first piece in this series with you!

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!

With the innovative rise of photography as a means through which to document war, many aspiring 19th-century photographers flocked to infamous Civil War battlefields to capture the perfect image. Whether depicting a decimated landscape or mutilated soldiers, Civil War photography proved to have an eager audience both during and after the conflict. The photographers’ desire to display the consequences of what sometimes felt like “total” war opened a new chapter in the portrayal of death, destruction, and human suffering. However, despite these photographers’ pursuit of provocative imagery in the aftermath of a cataclysmic battle such as that at Gettysburg, many Civil War photographers manufactured scenes to better evoke the theme they sought. One such photographer was Peter S. Weaver, from Hanover, Pennsylvania, a borough located thirteen miles east of Gettysburg.

“Photographs at Gettysburg” collection by Peter S. Weaver: 11 November, 1863. (Courtesy of Ron Perisho)

The above stereo view image was taken on the Gettysburg battlefield in November of 1863. It depicts nine dead Union soldiers lying among the boulders of Little Round Top, with two Union doctors named Chamberlain (right) and Lyford (center) surveying the carnage. These “dead” soldiers, however, were very much alive. One of the “bodies” is believed to be military musician, Jacob Shenkel (lying to right of Dr. Lyford), of the 62nd Pennsylvania Infantry. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Shenkel aided the wounded and, after the battle, was ordered to serve as a hospital attendant at the famed military hospital, Camp Letterman, located just outside the Gettysburg borough. Staging scenes after pivotal battles were not unusual during the Civil War. Often, photographers moved dead bodies to distinct positions or locations. Alexander Gardner’s famous image of a dead rebel sharpshooter at Gettysburg is a perfect example of this practice. Gardner moved the body to craft a dramatic story about the romantic death of an expert sharpshooter slain at his post, killing implement still by his side.

“‘Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter’: Gettysburg 1863,” by Alexander Gardner.

Peter Weaver also subscribed to this methodology. When representing war, nothing is more impactful to a civilian audience than seeing heaps of dead young men, lying amongst rocks and dirt. This portrayal lays bare (in this instance, with dramatic exaggeration) the shocking reality that many soldiers’ deaths were not glorious, romantic, or sentimental. Rather, soldiers regularly died in ghastly positions, atop nightmarish landscapes, for the gawking eye of the public to behold. Weaver’s photograph was originally produced on large plates, but the above image was reprinted as a stereo view print, making it more suitable for consumers and mass reproduction.

To a modern viewer, the idea of staging war photographs, repositioning soldiers’ bodies, and asking living soldiers to play dead might seem extremely unethical or immoral. However, Weaver and other Civil War photographers wanted their images to convey their own view of the war, its purpose, and its consequences. Weaver’s above-shown image from his “Photographs at Gettysburg” collection was taken on November 11, 1863, long after the Union dead were initially interred, then reinterred, and just eight days before President Lincoln delivered his now iconic “Gettysburg Address” at the dedication of the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Although Weaver couldn’t possibly have known what Lincoln would say in the cemetery, nor anticipate the enormous staying power of those words when he initially staged this image, the photograph visually came to demonstrate the powerful message of Lincoln’s speech: Brave and devoted Union soldiers here gave their lives by the thousands in sacred sacrifice to preserve freedom and the “last best hope” for democratic government; the American people could not possibly let such sacrifices be in vain. Whether it was executed with or without artistic integrity, and even though Weaver may have initially staged the photo for mere “shock and awe” value as a “collector’s item” from the great battlefield at Gettysburg, the image became widely popular in the wake of Lincoln’s address.  Thus, Weaver’s photograph added not only to the general public’s understanding of the immense human carnage wrought by the Civil War, but also to the larger meaning of the human sacrifices made in the name of some of the most cherished political ideals over which any men, anywhere, ever fought.

Photographer William H. Tipton also played a crucial role in portraying the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. Born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he studied photography from the early age of 12 with Charles and Isaac Tyson, both of whom were some of the first photographers to capture images of the Gettysburg battlefield. After the epic three-day collision ended on July 3, 1863, Tipton allegedly helped renowned photographer, Mathew Brady with capturing some of the most iconic images of the battlefield. Tipton became known for his landscape images, but his photographs of the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania remained his most famous.

“The Implements of Modern Warfare” (front), copyright 1876, by William Tipton.
(Courtesy of Ron Perisho)
Definitions of the “Implements of Modern Warfare” (back of photoprint).  (Courtesy of Ron Perisho)

This Tipton stereo view photograph card, “Implements of Modern Warfare,” stands out among Tipton’s other photographs for its unique display of 50 diverse artillery and mortar shells collected from the Gettysburg battlefield, as well as a chair used by Union General George Meade during the battle, and a musket (right of cabinet) used by local hero, John L. Burns. Burns was a veteran of the War of 1812 who, at 69 years old, became a volunteer civilian combatant at Gettysburg when he grabbed his old 1812 musket and ran to the front lines to help stave off the Confederate advance on July 1. He was wounded but survived to become both a local and national icon. On the back of the card, Tipton identified each artifact and piece of ordnance, including where it was found and its weight. The Civil War saw many advances in weaponry and manufacturing, hence its reputation for exceptionally bloody and brutal combat for that time. Muskets, rifles, and artillery became more accurate and more deadly. By highlighting many of the types of ordnances and materiel employed to facilitate such death and destruction in the neatly aligned rows of a well-organized cabinet, Tipton has transformed his war narrative from one focused on graphic human suffering to a fascinating, almost trivia-esque inventory of the tools of modern warfare. The contrast between the organized display and the bedlam caused by these implements’ bombardments and barrages evokes a jarring, yet necessary distance between the actual victims of war and passive audiences on the home front—a distance reassuringly mediated by allusions to some of the surviving, grand heroes (national and local) of the battle whose related relics sit, stoically, in the forefront of the display.

Shells and ammunition like the fifty implements displayed in the above image manufactured war scenes and facilitated the crafting of photographers’ own personal or cultural narratives about the war just as Weaver’s image of the fake dead soldiers did. Both seek to appeal to a curious public which consumed news, imagery, artifacts, and even their own visual “memorabilia” of the war at a sometimes-insatiable rate from which photographers such as Weaver and Tipton sought to profit. And, though Weaver’s photograph does not truly depict the dead of Gettysburg, when paired with Tipton’s image, the two images powerfully showcase, for easy commercial collectability, both the implements of modern warfare and their consequences. Furthermore, such images provided these two native sons of greater Gettysburg with a means to craft unique, individual narratives about the national meaning and cultural legacies of the battle that left lasting scars on their local community.

Works Referenced

Frassanito, William A. Early Photography at Gettysburg. Gettysburg, Pa: Thomas Publications, 1995.

 Tipton, William H., Timothy H. Smith, and William A. Frassanito. Gettysburg’s Battlefield  Photographer: William H. Tipton: Selected Images from the Collections of the Adams County Historical Society. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Pub., 2005.

“The Case of the Moved Body:  Does the Camera Ever Lie: Articles and Essays: Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints: Digital Collections: Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress. Accessed March 22, 2022.     negatives/articles-and-essays/does-the-camera-ever-lie/the-case-of-the-moved-body/

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