Photography, Civil War

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"Reportage," wrote Civil War photographic historian Will Stapp, "was understood to be one of the most significant potentials—and goals—of photography at the very beginning of its history." The photographic coverage of the American Civil War, which was conducted only two decades after the invention of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's photographic process in 1839, became direct inspiration for the more comprehensive photo-journalism that has followed. Although actual combat and scenes of action could not be captured until faster film and smaller cameras evolved, the coverage of the Civil War was the first systematic attempt to document a conflict in its entirety.

the audience for photography

Concurrent with the interest in capturing the war through photography grew the desire to circulate those images. Photographers, including the famous Civil War chronicler Mathew B. Brady, envisioned a popular appetite for images of the war. A sense of historical mission, as well as the profit motive, encouraged Brady and others to make the expensive investment necessary to cover the war. Brady estimated that he spent over $100,000 on his documentation. His project was a financial failure, however, and he ended up bankrupt, forced to sell his collection of negatives and daguerreotypes.

Photographs could not be reproduced in the pages of the press until publishers began to use the half-tone process in the early 1890s. Therefore Civil War photographs reached the public either as original images—in gallery shows, as cartes de visite (small visiting card-size portraits), and as stereocards—or transformed into engravings or lithographic illustrations for newspapers and magazines.

Photographers chose which type of photograph to produce depending on the audience for the image. To take pictures of celebrities for duplication, photographers either

used large glass plates for large prints or smaller ones for cartes de visites. Many photographers preferred reproducible stereographs when covering news events; the illusion of depth as well as the presumed photographic fidelity gave viewers the sense that they were almost eyewitnesses. For portraits of soldiers going off to war, tintypes were the cheapest and the easiest to produce. Photographers both North and South churned them out by the hundreds.

Small tintypes and cartes de visite of loved ones were cherished both by men in the field and families back home.


Perhaps as many as 400 photographers—300 in the North and 100 in the South—received special passes from the Union and Confederate military authorities to photograph the troops. In the Confederacy, supplies were always a problem. There was an interest in images from the front, but money and materials were lacking. Indeed, most photographers North and South dealt in the inexpensive tintype and carte de visite images; they set up shop near the encampments and waited for lines to form.

The military for the most part welcomed photographers. General Ulysses S. Grant not only approved photographers' access, he owned many Brady studio images. Other units also accepted photography as the document of record: Andrew J. Russell photographed many bridge spans, pontoons, and other engineering feats of the Union forces, and George Barnard, a well-known former daguerreotypist, documented General Sherman's campaign in 1863, when he was attached to the Military Division of the Mississippi.

Mathew Brady has become synonymous with Civil War photography, but his was hardly the only photographic studio engaged in documenting the war, even if he was the best known and perhaps the most gifted photographer of the era. By the time the war broke out, he was firmly ensconced as the principal photographer to American presidents and celebrities, but he was going blind and it is likely that he personally made very few of the thousands of Civil War pictures that are credited to him. Others who worked for him took the photographs, including Alexander Gardner, who managed Brady's Washington studio, and Timothy O'Sullivan, George Barnard, James Gibson, and David Woodbury. Brady's insistence on taking the credit for the images of his salaried photographers sufficiently alienated him from his employees that Gardner, O'Sullivan, Barnard, Gibson, and Woodbury left in 1863 to set up a rival studio.

technology and impact

At times during the Civil War, Brady had as many as nineteen teams of operators covering the various fronts, equipped with 16 × 20, 8 × 10, and stereograph cameras. Each team brought into the field a horse-drawn dark-room in which the glass plates were carefully prepared and then rushed to the camera, which would have been set up close by the wagon. The glass plate was exposed in the camera for three to twenty seconds and then developed immediately. Depending on the humidity, the entire process took from ten to twenty minutes.

Camera technology dictated that photographs of the war had to be of preambles and aftermaths, usually staged portraits of men before battle and reproductions of the carnage and destruction after the fighting. A relatively small number of people actually saw photographs of the war, but those who attended the shows in Mathew Brady's galleries in New York and Washington, D.C. were stunned. The photographs of Antietam, for example, taken by Alexander Gardner, captured the ignominious sprawl of the dead. As the first of that war's images of the carnage, they received greater contemporary attention than any taken later in the conflict. They were exhibited and simultaneously offered for sale at Brady's gallery, and they were reproduced as wood engravings in Harper's Weekly. Articles about them appeared in the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly.

In its review of the exhibit, the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and ernestness [sic] of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it." According to the reporter, visitors crowded the gallery in "hushed, reverend [sic] groups … bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes…. We would scarce choose to be in the gallery when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies that lie ready for the gaping trenches." For the first time, although not for the last, the photographs of war challenged the established convention that death in battle was noble and glorious.

Since the Civil War, visual images have been a major factor in influencing Americans' reactions to war.

Susan Moeller

See also:Newspapers and Magazines.