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Photographers of the American Civil War

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Photographers of the American Civil War

Two photographers having lunch in the Bull Run area before the second battle, 1862.

There were a good number of battles and other scenes of the American Civil War, and collectively they have provided the world with a visual first hand account of this otherwise fleeting period in American history. The American Civil War (1861–65) was the fifth war in history to be photographed, the first four being the Mexican-American War (1846–48), the Crimean War (1854–56), Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Second Italian War of Independence (1859).

Union photographers

Andrew J. Russell

Confederate Dead behind the Stone Wall at Mayre's Height's Fredericksburg VA May 3, 1863

Andrew J. Russell, was born 20 March 1829 in Walpole, New Hampshire, the son of Harriet (née Robinson) and Joseph Russell. He was raised in Nunda, New York. He took an early interest in painting, and in addition to executing portraiture for local public figures, he was drawn to railroads and trains.

During the first two years of the Civil War, Russell painted a diorama used to recruit soldiers for the Union Army. On 22 August 1862, he volunteered at Elmira, New York, mustering in the following month as a captain in Company F, 141st New York Volunteer Regiment. In February 1863, Russell, who had become interested in the new art of photography, paid civilian photographer Egbert Guy Fowx $300 to teach him the collodion process of wet-plate photography. Fowx was a free-lance photographer who sold many of his negatives to Mathew B. Brady, who subsequently copyrighted and published many of them under his own name.

Russell's first photographs, taken with a camera borrowed from Fowx, were used by Brigadier General Herman Haupt to illustrate his reports. Impressed with his work, on 1 March 1863, Haupt arranged to have Russell detached from his regiment and assigned to the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps, making Russell the only non-civilian Civil War photographer. In that role he photographed primarily transportation subjects for the Union, but was responsible for a few photographs of more historical and graphical interest sold to and distributed by the Mathew Brady Studios. One such was "Confederate dead Behind the Stone Wall" after the battle of Chancellorsville, May 1863.[1]

Thomas C. Roche

One of Roche's Civil War photographs, showing a dead Confederate soldier at Fort Mahone, Petersburg, Virginia April,1865.

Thomas C. Roche was a photographer for E. & H. T. Anthony & Company and while with the Union Army of the James in April 1865 made twenty-four photographs of dead Confederate soldiers killed April 2, 1865 at Fort Mahone, Petersburg Virginia.

Mathew Brady

Mathew Brady taken shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run, wearing a saber given to him for defense by New York Fire Zouaves

Mathew B. Brady, a son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1823 in Warren County, New York. Brady can be viewed as the father of photojournalism. He was the most prominent photographer of the Civil War because of his commitment and mastery of his job. He mastered the art when he was in his 20s. Brady would later spend his own accumulated earnings to take pictures of the war. In 1844, Brady opened a private studio in New York City displaying photographs of famous Americans. He himself said, "From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers." [2][3]

At the beginning of the war in 1861, Mathew Brady organized his employees into groups, in order to spread them across the country, and to get work. Brady provided carriages, which were rolling darkrooms (to develop the photographic plates into pictures), to all his parties at his own personal expense. The total cost was about $100,000. The First Battle of Bull Run provided the initial opportunity to photograph an engagement between opposing armies. Brady was very calm during battle, as can be seen from Lt. J.A. Gardner's notes:

On July 21, 1861, Brady, the photographer, drove his light wagon out to the entrenchments. Approaching Captain Cooper, Brady politely asked if he could take a picture of the battery when just about to fire. The enemy, observing the movement of the preparations, began firing. (Note: In other words, the Confederates started bombarding Cooper's battery, where Brady was standing). Brady, seeing his camera was uninjured, recalled his assistant and took more pictures from a little to the rear.[4]
Brady photo: Soldier guarding arsenal, Washington D.C., 1862

Brady was almost killed at Bull Run and in the confusion got lost for three days, eventually making his way to Washington nearly dead from starvation.[2]

Brady recorded more than just photographs. Commentaries found in his travelling journal are used by historians studying the war in detail. One of his commentaries recorded an event that would otherwise have been lost to history. On the night before a battle, Brady heard when the silence was broken as a Confederate soldier across the field began singing patriotic songs. Soon, a second voice was heard, followed by more voices. In no time at all, both armies were singing together in a spirit of common fellowship. Yet, they still attacked each other in the morning.

After the war, Brady went bankrupt and was forced to live off his friends' generosity. The government bought his collection of 5,712 plates for $25,000, rather than the much higher $125,000 he asked. He once said that long after his death, his work will be appreciated. Some familiar with Brady's efforts feel that he was as much a hero as the soldiers who fought. He died in 1896, in poverty and isolation.

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner, self-portrait

Another important photographer of the Civil War was Alexander Gardner (October 17, 1821–82), Brady's colleague. Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1821. He became an apprentice silversmith jeweller at the age of fourteen. In his youth, Gardner found out that his interests and talents lay in photography and journalism, not jewellery. So, as a committed socialist, Gardner published pamphlets promoting emigration to a colony called Clydesdale in the wilderness of Iowa. Gardner persuaded many of his friends and relatives to settle in this semi-socialist "Utopia." He intended to join them but, because of an epidemic in the settlement, never did. In 1856, Brady invited, and paid, Gardner to come to New York to work for him. When the war began, Gardner was made the official photographer of the Union armies. He took one of the most renowned pictures of the war, which he named "Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter."[3][5]

In November 1861 Gardner was appointed to the staff of General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was given the honorary rank of captain and in this capacity photographed the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and the siege of Petersburg.

Gardner also photographed David Herold, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold who were arrested for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. He also took photographs of the execution of Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold as they were hanged at Washington Penitentiary on July 7, 1865. Four months later he photographed the execution of Henry Wirz, commanding officer at the infamous Andersonville Prisoner of War camp in Georgia.

For a brief time following the war, Gardner worked for the Washington police force taking photographs of convicted criminals and eventually, according to some, became Abraham Lincoln's favorite photographer. Gardner was known as quiet, intelligent, and dour. In 1865, he was charged with photographing Lincoln's assassins. He published the two-volume work, Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, in 1866. Each book contained 50 hand-mounted original prints. However, it was not a sales success.[6] Although Gardner never found his utopia in the wild west, he unexpectedly found himself a new home in America. He stayed in Saint Andrew's Cross. When asked about his work he said, "It is designed to speak for itself. As mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest."

George Barnard

Ruined Atlanta Campaign. Albumen print by George Barnard, 1866. Digitally restored.

George N. Barnard was born in 1819, in Coventry, Connecticut. During his childhood, he lived throughout the country, including the South. In New York, he opened a studio; to this day, it is not known where he learned his skill. He married Sarah Jane Hodges in 1843, with whom he had two children, a daughter, Mary Grace, and a son, who died in infancy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Barnard was sent to photograph various locations in Virginia, including Harper's Ferry, Bull Run and Yorktown, as well as in, and around, Washington, D.C.

Timothy O'Sullivan

Timothy H. O'Sullivan was born in 1840, in New York City. As a teenager, he was employed by Mathew Brady. When the war began, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant. Over the next few years, he fought in Beaufort, Port Royal, Fort Walker and Fort Pulaski. After being honorably discharged, he rejoined Brady's team. In July 1862, O'Sullivan followed the campaign of Gen. John Pope in Virginia. In July 1863, he reached the pinnacle of his career when he took pictures of "The Harvest of Death." In 1864, following Gen. Grant's trail, he photographed the Siege of Petersburg and the siege of Fort Fisher. That brought him to the Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

Following the end of the Civil War, O'Sullivan was granted a job in the United States Geographical Survey, west of the 100th Meridian. His job was to photograph the West to help attract settlers. O'Sullivan's pictures were among the first to record the prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and Pueblo villages of the south-west. Returning to Washington, D.C., he spent the last years of his short life as the official photographer of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Treasury Department. He died at age 42, in 1882.

James F. Gibson

James F. Gibson was probably the least known of the Civil War photographers. He, too, was born in New York City. He learned the art under Brady. Gibson eventually photographed Gen. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, Seven Days Battles, Battle of Gaines' Mill, and Battle of Malvern Hill. He died in 1905.

Collodion (Wet Plate) photography had existed for around fifteen years at the time of the Civil War. Cameras were much larger than they are today. Taking pictures was a slow and complex process. Photographers would often follow armies into battle to get pictures of the battle scene. These included both newspaper and Army photographers. Portrait photographers would set up outside an encampment to photograph the soldiers. These would often be sent to loved ones as a memento. The photographing of soldiers became so popular, that in August 1864 Congress issued a $0.02 tax on each image to help pay for the Union war effort.[7] The photographers would travel by horse and wagon to different locations.

John Reekie

A Burial Party, Cold Harbor by John Reekie. April 1865
Ruins of Gaines Mill, VA. April 1865 with soldiers grave in foreground by John Reekie

John Reekie was another little known Civil War photographer. Reekie was employed by Alexander Gardner. One of his most well-known images, A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, was included in Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War and depicts African American soldiers gathering remains for reburial at the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor almost a year after the battle. This photograph is notable for being one of relatively few images depicting black soldiers' role in the war.[8]

Southern photographers

Many photographs were taken by Southerners, but most were lost to history. According to the Photographic History of the Civil War

The natural disappointment in the South at the end of the war was such that photographers were forced to destroy all negatives, just as owners destroyed all the objects that might serve as souvenirs or relics of the terrible struggle, thinking for the moment at least, that they could not bear the strain of brooding over the tragedy.

George S. Cook

Cook photograph of Ironclads firing at Forts Sumpter and Moultrie Sept 8, 1863

The most noted Southern photographer was Connecticut in 1819, he had tried, but failed, as a merchant in his home town. He moved to New Orleans and became a painter, but that also proved futile. In 1842, however, he began working with the newly invented daguerreotype. He finally settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where he raised his family.

He is one of the foremost

An unidentified American woman during the American Civil War, presumed to be a Vivandière

Confederate Lieutenant Robert M. Smith was captured and imprisoned at Johnson's Island, Ohio. He is unique in that he was able to secretly construct a wet-plate camera using a pine box, pocket knife, tin can, and spyglass lens. Smith acquired chemicals from the prison hospital to use for the photographic process. He used the camera clandestinely to photograph other prisoners at the gable end of the attic of cell block four.[9]


The results of the efforts of all Civil War photographers can be seen in almost all of the history texts of the conflict. In terms of photography, the American Civil War is the best covered conflict of the 19th century. It presaged the development of the wartime photojournalism of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The number of Civil War photographs that are available contrasts sharply with the scarcity of pictures from subsequent conflicts such as the Russian wars in Central Asia, the Franco-Prussian War, and the various colonial wars before the Boer War.

See also


  1. ^ {Other pictures from Russell Series include ; and }
  2. ^ a b "Mathew B. Brady (1822–1896)". Keya Morgan. Retrieved November 30, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b "Brady". Dickinson College, Pennsylvania. Retrieved November 30, 2010. 
  4. ^ [Note this was actually refers to Petersburg Va 1864-see Miller's "Photographic History of the Civil War" Volume 1]
  5. ^ Hagen, Charles. "A Civil War Image Maker's Belated Recognition", The New York Times, July 31, 1992: p. C19.
  6. ^ "Antietam, Maryland. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Major General John A. McClernand: Another View".  
  7. ^ "The Civil War Sun Picture Tax". Retrieved 2013-11-05. 
  8. ^ Harvey, Eleanor Jones; Smithsonian American Art Museum, N.Y.) Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York (2012). The Civil War and American art.  
  9. ^ Wes Cowan (August 21, 2006). "Civil War POW Photos; Grace Kelly Automobile; Mystery Motorcycle". History Detectives. Season 4. Episode 9. Transcript. PBS.

External links

  • Center for Civil War Photography
  • Civil War Photographs collection, Prints & Photographs division, Library of Congress
  • Selected Civil War photographs, American Memory, Library of Congress
  • Civil War photos, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
  • 3-D Photography in the Civil War: An Online Exhibit (CWPT)
  • The photographic history of the civil war... Francis Trevelyan Miller, editor-in-chief; Robert S. Lanier, managing editor. Thousands of scenes photographed 1861-65, with text by many special authorities. Publisher: New York, The Review of Reviews Co., 1911–12
  • Civil War Band Collection: 1st Brigade Band of Brodhead, Wisconsin
  • Photographic History of the Civil War An etext of the 1912 10 volume edition (Also available from Google Books at
  • Civil War Era Digital Collection at Gettysburg College Collection contains photographs of Civil War soldiers

Mathew Brady

  • American Memory
  • National Portrait Gallery

Alexander Gardner

  • Museum of Hoaxes

George Barnard

  • Library of Congress
  • Digital Library of Georgia

Timothy O'Sullivan

  • American Treasures (LOC)


  • TreasureNet
  • The United States Civil War Center
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