WARNING: Some of the images within this article may be disturbing for a younger audience.
How did plantation owners and northern industrialists, yeoman farmers and slaves, and women and children experience the Civil War and the enormous social and political changes it wrought? Though the Civil War is the most written-about episode in American history, politicians continue to debate its legacy and historians continue to uncover rich new details and narratives. Recently a handful of scholars (perhaps influenced by studies of the impact of television on the Vietnam War) have sought to explore the relationship between the Civil War and the photographers and photographs that documented the conflict and its aftermath. This article aims to summarize and synthesize much of this material in order to elucidate how photographs influenced Americans at war and on the homefront, and how they can enrich our present understanding of the Civil War.
The Library of Congress’ extensive collection of digitized Civil War photographs can be found here. Also, check out the website of the Center for Civil War Photography and its Guide to Finding Civil War Photos!
In 1839, Louis Daguerre and Joseph Nicéphone Niépce developed the daguerreotype, which used silvered copper plates to record real-life images for the first time. Almost immediately, entrepreneurial artists saw an opportunity to create innovative art and make money. Likewise, it wasn’t long before photographers documented scenes of conflict—the Mexican-American War was the first to be photographed, though the pictures never reached the general public, and thus had almost no cultural impact. The 1850s were arguably the “golden years of the daguerreotype,” as practitioners opened hundreds of studios and honed their techniques as they documented more and more natural phenomena and major news events. The new wet plate process introduced in the 1850s reduced necessary exposure times and made replication of negatives far simpler.
As improvements in technology rapidly accelerated, popular interest in photography grew exponentially. Photographers began to produce stereoscopic view cards, which could be produced on a mass scale and came close to displaying a three-dimensional image. These became wildly popular. Aided by new mail-order catalogs, people began to collect them. The Holmes-Bates stereo viewer “created a vast new market among middle-class, nineteenth-century Americans and popularized the first media-driven form of American home entertainment.” As opposed to paintings, photographs were relatively affordable, and ordinary Americans were able to commission family portraits.
Mathew Brady was one of the first famous American photographers, and his career was representative of many of the Civil War photographers. After opening his first studio, Brady deliberately sought to capture the “famous and powerful visages of the day”—and “it didn’t take long before leaders were coming to Brady, rather than the other way around.” Not only was this a good business opportunity, but he genuinely believed that “The camera is the eye of history,” and aimed to preserve these images of the wealthy and important for posterity.
The above photograph, taken in 1860 by Mathew Brady before Abraham Lincoln was set to speak at Cooper Union, was perhaps the “first successful publicity photograph.” Lincoln himself recognized its importance, remarking, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me the president of the United States.” According to Lincoln, the “images would connect him with the electorate” and “people would read character from likeness.” Brady’s manipulations minimized Lincoln’s ungainly appearance, and instead emphasized his “rugged dignity.”
To learn more about Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech and his presidential campaign, listen to this National Public Radio interview with Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President.
When the Civil War began, Brady and other photographers—notably Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, A. J. Russell in the North, and Jacob F. Coonley, George S. Cook, J.D. Edwards, and Richard Wearn in the South—jumped into action. The American Journal of Photography insightfully declared, “Let us try to think that the good time coming is near at hand, and that we should prepare for it! If the hot-headed politicians will cry havoc! and let loose the dogs of war, let us not be distracted from our duties and our pleasures. We are told: In time of peace prepare for war, but a far more Christian maxim is: In time of adversity prepare for prosperity.” Thus, most photographers set south in pursuit of profit.
At the same time, though, perhaps even more than ordinary Americans, photographers grasped the historical significance of the conflict and the acute need to document it for the future. As critic Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation.” Alexander Gardner, one of the premier Civil War photographers, declared, “Verbal representations of such places, or scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.” Though photographs are always precisely engineered (as demonstrated by Brady’s photograph of Lincoln), their audience has long accepted them as perfectly faithful to reality. This perceived veracity made photography the ideal art form for a nation that valued “individual improvement and social progress through hard work, honesty, and faith.”
That Brady (and others) requested and received permission to follow the Union troops into battle was revolutionary. Perhaps Lincoln maintained a soft spot for the photographer who assured his ascendance to the presidency, or perhaps he and other government officials appreciated the historical value of documentary photography. Either way, the intrepid photographers were subject to much of the same mortal danger, inclement weather, and dreadful living conditions as the combatants. They developed their negative on the move, in “Whatsit Wagons” and other portable darkrooms, as in the photo above. They often operated as part of larger studios; for example, thousands of photos were marked “Photo by Brady” but were taken by his many assistants and employees—strong intellectual property laws did not yet exist.
“The romance of war lost its floss for many as they viewed the snarl from beneath overturned carriages and buggies.”
The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history—and provided the first of many pictures of “corpse-strewn fields” to match.
Only one “action shot” was taken during the Civil War, at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. The exposure times necessary for the wet plate process were too long to stop motion. Often photographers took “studio-style” portraits of soldiers, like the photo above, which they sent back to their families. In fact, from the moment Union soldiers began to congregate in Washington, D.C., photographers were swarmed with requests for cartes de visite to send home. As young men went off to war, a photograph “became an essential keepsake…for those staying at home,” as well as for the soldiers themselves. Stereo views were portable, and many combatants brought the images of loved ones with them to battle. Especially since the Christian notion of a “Good Death” mandated that men die in bed, at home, surrounded by family—an impossibility in war—they “endeavored to provide themselves with surrogates: proxies for those who might have surrounded their deathbeds at home.” Accordingly, dead men were often found clutching photographs in their hands—“denied the presence of actual kin, many dying men removed pictures from pockets or knapsacks and spent their last moments communicating with these representations of absent loved ones.”
Their seconds-long exposure times also led photographers to capture unmoving, devastated landscapes. Lincoln’s wartime policies sanctioned the “total destruction of property to financially drain and humiliate the enemy.” On William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” soldiers destroyed crops, homes, and, most importantly, civilian infrastructure and transportation systems. Photographs of the destruction only compounded the economic hardships and psychological trauma that southerners suffered at Sherman’s hands. Also, these photographs provided essential visual context. In an age when cross-country travel was rare, these images were eye-opening. The landscapes underscored the war’s profound consequences, for American citizens and American soil.
Images of dead soldiers were even more impactful. In fact, not infrequently photographs rearranged the corpses in order to create more dramatic images. In 1862, Brady opened a shocking photographic exhibition in his New York gallery, titled “The Dead of Antietam.” Civilians had never before seen photographs of wartime dead. A New York Times critic proclaimed, “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.” Bob Zeller, the founder of the Center for Civil War Photography, proclaimed, “if no other artifact of the Civil War existed, if nothing had ever been said or written about the conflict, the Antietam photographs would be enough.” Visitors flocked to Brady’s gallery in droves. Many even sought to identify their own missing loved ones in the piles of dead bodies, though most were unsuccessful.
Professor Drew Gilpin Faust’s exceptional book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War argues for the fundamental impact of the war’s enormously high death toll on American culture and society. She writes, “for Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death.” Certainly dead bodies proved useful subjects because of their stillness, but the photographers, too, were seized by a morbid fascination with this death on an unmatched scale. These photographers, though they neither killed nor died in war, became part of “the work of death” that Faust describes. Photographs of dismembered and disfigured combatants (such as the photograph above) were particularly jarring for the American public. They felt forced to question their notions of “corporeal resurrection” in the afterlife, and faced daunting philosophical questions of how limbs “related to the persons who had once inhabited them.” The above photograph of dead soldiers lying in a ditch challenged Americans’ idealized conception of honorable, noble death in war—instead, they were “in bunches, just like dead chickens”—“dehumanizing both the living and the dead through their disregard.” Likewise, photographs that showed impossibly young, otherwise perfectly healthy dead combatants seemed a “violation of assumptions about life’s proper end.”
Photography became the definitive art form of modern American culture. David C. Ward and Frank H. Goodyear, in a short essay titled “Photography and War” in an issue of the Atlantic published in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, provide an apt summary:
Just as the Civil War modernized the economy, it modernized culture, even if its effects took time to manifest themselves…It eroded Victorain habits of feeling and sentimentality. As Edmund Wilson argued, the war chastened American language, making it sharper, more concise, more pungent. The war stripped away illusions. This scourging was accelerated by a flourishing new medium: photography. Photography complemented—and competed with—old discursive methods of verbal description by bringing a visceral immediacy to an audience avid for images. Photographic images became the connective tissue binding the home front to the combat zone. And in a society anxious about its very survival, portraits of statesmen and generals provided reassuring testimony of steadfast character; Lincoln used photography to assert his leadership over a fractious polity. When Mathew Brady exhibited “The Dead of Antietam” in the fall of 1862, the horror and pit of war disoriented Americans. Sensation was replacing rationality in the public’s mind. In the writings from The Atlantic and photographs from the National Portrait Gallery in the pages that follow, one can see a people grappling to make sense of life in the cauldron of war. And one can see, in hesitant and undeveloped ways, the emergence of the modern United States of America.
Despite their morbid content, sales of war photographs actually peaked after the South surrendered at Appomattox. Many photographers published retrospectives of their work, such as Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, shown above. Others, such as A. J. Russell, joined the legions of pioneers to the West, to document more adventure and continue to further their still-young art form. Photography became “an indispensable tool of the new mass culture that took shape here after the Civil War.”
As students of history, how can we use these photographs to better understand the Civil War and its participants? The Library of Congress, among others, have made so many resources (including the Liljenquist Family Collection, above) available online. More than anything else, the photographs show us what Civil-War-era people and places looked like, and how war was fought. We are offered a glimpse at military strategy and technology. A photograph of an unidentified, very young Confederate soldier demonstrates the human cost of the southern nation’s desperation more than words ever could. We can even see how extraordinarily tall Lincoln really was relative to his peers. We see the soldiers’ encampments, weapons, hospitals, uniforms, and means of entertainment—according to Wayne Youngblood and Ray Bond, “all of these peeks into life during wartime give us glimpses of an intense period in the lives of thousands of scared and uncertain young men waiting to go to battle more than a hundred and thirty years ago.”
Furthermore, photographs showcase many more people—and more diverse people—than were ever able to write down their impressions and experiences of war. By adding more faces to the historical record, they help us expand our understanding of history and whose stories should be included. Especially since the Confederacy deliberately privileged the opinions and narratives of the wealthy, white planter class at the expense of everyone else, this endeavor becomes particularly important as a source for relics of the Civil War.
Though a photograph is a record of a time long past, it is a three-dimensional object, and its continued presence thus allows past events to be repurposed and contextualized anew. Every moment can be reconsidered in an ever-changing present. As historians uncover more and more about the Civil War, interpretations of these photographs and their significance will shift, as well, always continuing to enrich our understanding of this essential episode.