Photography profoundly changed the way wars were covered and viewed. Any grandeur and sweetness of an aftermath of a victorious battle, which was once up to a painter to portray, all of a sudden became uninterpretable. Losing its subjectivity, the true terror of war could not be hidden anymore. Americans for the first time saw the vividly horrific photographs of maimed and dying fellow Americans in agony slowly withering away on a battlefield far away from their homes. Astonishment and shock -- not toward the cruelty of war as much as to the newly innovated barbaric weapons of war -- left Americans bewildered. As newspapers did not yet have the technology or equipment for making half-tone blocks, magazines across the land published cadaverous pictorial representations of the worst of humanity. Those scenes of pillage and shame were captured by men like George Barnard, Mathew Brady and many more.
In order to better comprehend Civil War photography, we have to look at the origins of photography itself. In 1827 on one beautiful, sunny, day, history was made when, after eight hours of industrious work, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce developed the first fixed image. However, it was Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre who simplified the process. After reducing the exposure time to less than thirty minutes, the first permanent photograph was made. This method became known as a daguerreotype. It eventually became popular, and by the 1850s seventy daguerreotype studios had been opened in New York. Just before the start of the Civil War, a cheaper and more practical system of photographing was developed by Henry Fox Talbot. It was the first system to use the positive-negative process, thus making it possible to have several copies of the same picture.
A basic camera is a combination of optics, mechanics and chemical processes. It does not need any electricity whatsoever to function. The lens is the optical part; it transmits light into the camera and forms an image. The mechanical components are typically the shutter and focus controls. The chemical factor is introduced by the plate on which an image is recorded. All put together, that is what makes photography possible. If it were not for these early pioneers of photography, our concept of 19th-century history would have been quite different.
Mathew B. Brady, a son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1822 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 and spent his own money 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."
At the beginning of the war in 1861, he organized his employees into groups to spread themselves apart across the country and to get to work. Brady provided carriages called darkrooms to all his parties at his own personal expense. The total cost was about $100,000. The First Battle of Bull Run provided the first opportunity to photograph an engagement between opposing armies. Brady was very calm during a battle, as we can see from Lt. J. A. Gardner's notes:
Most people do not know that he recorded more than just photographs. Commentaries found in his traveling journal are used by historians to study the war in more detail. To illustrate the importance of his good record keeping, we can point to an important occurrence in one of the battles that would have been lost if Brady did not record it. The night before a battle, serene silence was all of a sudden broken when a Confederate soldier across the field began singing patriotic songs. Soon a second voice was heard and a third and a fourth. Soon both armies sang together in a spirit of common fellowship. Esprit de corps was so high that one is left to wonder how could they battle those same men come 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 $125,000 he asked. He once said that long after his death, his work will be appreciated. He was right. Some feel that Brady was as much a hero as the soldiers who fought. He died in 1896 in poverty and isolation.
Another important photographer of the Civil War was Alexander Gardner (October 17, 1821 – 1882), Brady's colleague. Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1821. He became an apprentice silversmith jeweler at the age of fourteen. In his youth, Gardner found out that his interests and talents lay in photography and journalism, not jewelry. 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 famous pictures which he named "Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter."
Unfortunately, the most famous of Gardner's work has been proven to be a fake. In 1961, Frederic Ray of the Civil War Times magazine compared several of Gardner's photos showing Confederate snipers and realized that the same body has been photographed in multiple locations. Apparently, Gardner was not satisfied with the subject matter as it was presented to him and dragged the body around to create his own version of reality. Ray's analysis was expanded on by the author William Frassanito in 1975.
For a brief time following the war, he worked for the Secret Service and eventually, according to some, became Lincoln's favorite photographer. Gardner was known as quiet, intelligent and dour. In 1865, he was charged with photographing Lincoln's assassins. He published his classic, two-volume work Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War in 1866. Each book contained 100 hand-mounted original prints. However, it failed to sell, perhaps because Americans wanted to forget this terrible experience, not remember it. Although he never found his utopia in the wild west, he unexpectedly found himself a new home in America. He stayed in Washington until his death, but he never forgot his Scottish heritage, as he was a member of 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 N. Barnard, yet another Northern photographer, 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, we do not know 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.
In December 1863, he was hired by the Topographical Branch of the Department of Engineers, Army of the Cumberland, to run the army's photographic operations based in the Military Division of the Mississippi's command headquarters in Nashville. This work involved photo-duplication of maps, plans and other materials, documenting sites and subjects as assigned, and taking portraits. He was sent to Atlanta, after the city's fall in the autumn of 1864 and consequently accompanied Sherman's troops on their march to Savannah. In 1865, he traveled to locations in South Carolina to document the aftermath of operations there. Barnard is perhaps best known for the series of photographs taken to document Sherman's Campaign, beginning in Tennessee, to Atlanta, the "March to the Sea", and concluding in South Carolina. A digitized version of his Photographic Views of the Sherman Campaign, ca. 1866 is available through the Digital Library of Georgia He died in 1902 in New York.
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 a first lieutenant, and 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 of 1862 O'Sullivan followed the campaign of Gen. John Pope's invasion of Virginia. In May of 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 of 1865.
He was granted a job within the United States Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian. His job was to photograph the West and attract settlers. O'Sullivan's pictures were among the first to record the prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and pueblo villages of the Southwest. Returning to Washington, D.C., he spent the last years of his short life as official photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Treasury Department. He died at age 42 in 1882.
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.
Many photographs were taken by Southerners but many of them were lost in history. The Photographic History of the Civil War might better explain:
However, there was one noted Southern photographer named George S. Cook. Cook was born in 1819 in Connecticut. He first tried to make it in the mercantile business but was unsuccessful. He went to New Orleans to become a painter, but that soon proved futile. Eventually, he started working with daguerreotypes in 1842. Cook settled in Charleston, South Carolina, to raise a family.
During the Civil War, he was one of the foremost Confederate photographers and became famous by recording the gradual deterioration of Charleston and Fort Sumter. He photographed Fort Sumter ironclads action in and around Charleston. Most of Cook's photographs were destroyed in a fire in 1864. When he moved his family to Richmond, in 1880, his older son, George LaGrange Cook, took over his studio in Charleston. In addition to his active studio, Cook bought the negatives and businesses of other Richmond photographers who were retiring or moving. In doing so, he amassed the most complete collection of photographs of the city in one studio. George Cook remained an active photographer all his life. During the 1880s, his younger son, Huestis, became interested in photography and eventually went into business with his father. After George's death on November 27, 1902, Huestis took over the Richmond studio.
The results of the efforts of all Civil War photographers can be seen in almost all history texts regarding the conflict. In terms of photography, the American Civil War is probably the best covered conflict of the 19th century and presaged the development of wartime photojournalism in World War II and the Vietnam War.
The number of Civil War photographs that are available contrasts sharply with the scarcity of pictures available from subsequent major conflicts such as the Russian wars in Central Asia, the Franco-Prussian War and various colonial wars up until the Boer War.