Photography Brings Civil War to Life

Photography Brings Civil War to Life  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.

The Civil War was the first widely photographed war.  Tens of thousands of photographs of Northern and Southern soldiers, battlefields and weaponry were taken.  Shutter speed was still too slow to capture action with the big, cumbersome wet-plate cameras.  But images captured on photographic cards called carte-de-visites gave Americans a birds-eye-view of what was happening.

My work 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.
— Alexander Gardner

Mathew Brady’s photography gallery on Broadway in New York City advertised an exhibition entitled “The Dead of Antietam.”  Two of his photographers, Alexander Gardner and James Gibson arrived in Antietam two days after the skirmish.  Their photos were the first to show dead bodies.  Some of the bodies were alone in the combat zone.  Others were lined up and ready for burial in shallow graves. 

“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness 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,” said a reporter for “The New York Times.”  

The glory surrounding war seemed to dissolve with these photos. 

Staring people in the face was the reality and devastation of war.  Enterprising photographers sometimes did more than simply document the war.  Bodies were sometimes dragged and staged to create the ultimate dramatic impact. 

“[My work] 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,” said Gardner.

Two photographers like Gardner and Gibson would typically arrive at a location.  One photographer would mix chemicals and pour them onto a clean glass plate. After the chemicals evaporated, the glass plate would be sensitized and immersed, in darkness, in a bath solution.  Then it was placed in a holder.  Next the plate was inserted into the camera, which had been put in position and focused by the other photographer.

Exposing the plate and developing the photograph had to be done within minutes.  Then the exposed plate was rushed to the darkroom wagon for developing.  Each glass plate had to be treated carefully after development.  It was a difficult task on the battlefield.  

Photographers followed the armies everywhere, not only so the soldiers could send portraits home to their families but also to document as much of the war as possible.  People wanted to see what their husbands, sons and relatives were seeing.

Brady refused to give Gardener public credit for his work even though Gardner’s photos are some of the best known of the war.  Gardner’s two volume collection of 100 original prints called “Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War” was published in 1866. 

Brady petitioned Congress to buy his photographs of the war.  Gardner in turn submitted a rival petition claiming, he not Brady, came up with the idea of recording a photographic history of the war.  In reality Brady was almost blind.  He took few photos himself and relied on his assistants to do most of the work.

Congress ultimately purchased both collections. 

On Oct. 30, Skinner Auctioneers in Boston, Mass., featured a selection of Civil War photos in its Photography Collection of Rod MacKenzie sale.

Civil War Photography

Ambrotype; Union Military Officer; forage insignia on his hat; original pressed-paper/leather frame; sixth-plate;  $444.

Tintype portrait; Union Soldier; accompanied by photo of same; inscribed; Union case; quarter-plate;  $563.

Seated Young Military Officer; hand-tinted cheeks; Union case; inscribed; quarter-plate;  $1,067.

Seated Union Officer; in uniform; original pressed-paper/leather case; sixth-plate;  $1,067.

Seated Union Officer; in dress uniform; molded rosewood veneer frame; half-plate;  $2,133.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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