Photographing the Civil War

This entry is part 7 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

220px-BloodyLaneAntietamThe American Civil War was the first American war to be extensively photographed. Not only were the soldiers photographed in studio environments but they were also photographed on the battlefield. Most of the civil and military leaders on both sides were also photographed. Today, many of these images have thankfully been preserved for later generations to view. They can be seen here, here and here just to link to a few places.

Photography was in its early phase. Nearly every Civil War soldier had his photograph taken by one of the more than 5,000 American photographers active at the time, and a select group of documentary photographers took thousands of images on the battlefields and in the army camps, often in 3D with the use of anaglyph 3D glasses.

Like any newfound pioneering work, the process of taking photographs during the Civil War proved to be complex and time-consuming. Photography was still in its infancy. Many photographers were older than the technology. It was Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre who simplified the process and reduced the exposure time to less than thirty minutes that made it adaptable for battlefield conditions in the future.

The Daguerreotype method became popular in New York City, and by then, several studios had been setup. The methods continued to be fine-tuned, and by the start of the Civil War, a cheaper and more practical system of photographing was developed. A new processing system developed by Henry Fox Talbot used the modern-day positive-negative process, thus making it possible to have several copies of the same picture.

The invention of the tintype, which was a metal image, and the ambrotype, printed on glass, allowed for mass production of small photographs Carte de Visite of Jefferson Davisusually kept by families in wooden or glass cases. Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography in Abilene, Texas says that “It was their most visceral, closest link to their loved ones. For girlfriends or wives at home, the only thing they had was the ambrotype.” More than a million such images were produced during the war.

The second kind of photo was the carte de visite. The carte de visite, or cdv, was also primarily a portrait photograph, except it was made with a glass, wet-plate negative, which meant unlimited copies could be created. Prints were made on albumen paper. These portraits of generals, statesmen, actors and other celebrities were mass produced and given out like trading cards.

During the Civil War two men were required to take a picture. The photographer’s assistant would mix the chemicals necessary and pour them on to a photographic glass plate. After the chemicals evaporated, it would be sensitized in a bath solution, all while in the dark. Meanwhile, the photographer would be setting up the camera equipment and focusing it. The plate would be placed in the camera, quickly exposed and then rush to the wagon or dark room to be developed.

Photography on the battle field would have a terrific visual impact for public understanding of the savagery of the war. The first major battlefield to be photographed extensively was Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Matthew Brady, the preeminent Civil War photographer, staged an exhibition of photographs of the Antietam battlefield in his New York studio shortly after the battle.

Brady’s exhibit, entitled “The Dead of Antietam” are still powerful today. Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions”.

Brady’s first popular photographs of the conflict were at the First Battle of Bull Run, in which he got so close to the action that he barely avoided capture. He employed Alexander Gardner, James Gardner, Timothy H. O’SullivanWilliam PywellGeorge N. BarnardThomas C. Roche, and seventeen other men, each of whom was given a traveling darkroom, to go out and photograph scenes from the Civil War.

Brady generally stayed in Washington, D.C., organizing his assistants and rarely visited battlefields personally. This may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that Brady’s eyesight had begun to deteriorate in the 1850s.

President Lincoln visiting AntietamAlexander Gardner began the war as Matthew Brady’s chief photographer but soon left his employ, primarily because Brady published all of his studio’s photographs as “Photographed by Brady”. Gardner had been Brady’s chef contact with Abraham Lincoln through his relationship with Allan Pinkerton. Gardner photographed the Battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. He also documented the Siege of Petersburg.

Gardner would photograph Lincoln on a total of seven occasions while Lincoln was alive. He also documented Lincoln’s funeral, and photographed the conspirators involved (with John Wilkes Booth) in Lincoln’s assassination. Gardner was the only photographer allowed at their execution by hanging, photographs of which would later be translated into woodcuts for publication in Harper’s Weekly.

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.

Images of everyday life are also depicted for the first time in the Civil War, men playing cards, playing instruments or cleaning equipment. Black soldiers and slaves were also depicted for the first time. All of these images combined to make the war more real for the public on both sides of the conflict. 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.



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