Civil War Photography

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

The American Civil War was much seen through the cameras of a group of early photographers. The best known was Mathew Brady.

Mathew Brady’s February 1860 photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken in New York City at the time of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech

Before the war, Brady prospered by doing portraits in his New York City studio. His most famous was his photograph of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln before his speech at the Cooper Union in February 1860. Lincoln later said, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me the president of the United States.”

With the coming of the Civil War, Brady determined to outfit mobile darkrooms and send teams of photographers to capture scenes of the war. His own first venture was to go to the Bull Run battlefield, although he did not get scenes from that conflict. Actual battle scenes were not photographed during this era.

Mathew Brady

However, following the horrific Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, his photographers arrived there and photographed scenes of the carnage. Their photos were then displayed at Brady’s studio in New York City. Titled “The Dead of Antietam,” it was the first photo exhibit to show the Civil War dead in public. At the war’s end, Brady went to a devastated Richmond and photographed the former Confederate capital and Robert E. Lee.

Alexander Gardner

It was a Scottish immigrant, Alexander Gardner, who took many of the photos. It was Gardner and his assistants who also arrived after the Battle of Gettysburg to photograph the dead. Gardner was the war’s most prolific photographer. He took what was the last photograph of President Abraham Lincoln five days before his assassination. He then photographed his assassins and their execution by hanging on July 7, 1865. He also photographed the execution of Henry Wirz, the commandant of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.

Alexander Gardner’s April 1865 photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken just five days before his assassination

In 1866, he published a two-volume anthology titled Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. Brady sold most of his archives to the U.S. government in 1875 with the help of James Garfield. They are housed in the National Archives. The Library of Congress also bought a large number of Gardner negatives in 1942 after the federal government had declined to purchase them in 1869. They are included in its American Memory collection.

Brady did not prosper after the war. He died in 1896 while preparing to lecture at Carnegie Hall on his life and work as a war photographer. Gardner became the official photographer of the Union Pacific Railroad. He later gave up photography to start an insurance company. He died in 1882.

Both North and South, Civil War photographers made portraits of Civil War soldiers posing in their studios. These photographs were then sent to their families.

References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

American Battlefield Trust. Photography and the Civil War: Bringing the Battlefield to the Homefront.

The Center for Civil War Photography.

William C. Davis and Bell I. Wiley, Eds. 1994. Photographic History of the Civil War: Fort Sumter to Gettysburg. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

William C. Davis and Bell I. Wiley, Eds. 1994. Photographic History of the Civil War: Vicksburg to Appomattox. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.