Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Photography and the Civil War, 1861–65

On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called up 75,000 militiamen to put down an insurrection of southern states. Mathew B. Brady secured permission from Lincoln to follow the troops in what was expected to be a short and glorious war; he saw only the first engagement, however, and lost his wagons and equipment in the tumult of defeat. Deciding to forgo further action himself, Brady instead financed a corps of field photographers who, together with those employed by the Union military command and by Alexander Gardner, made the first extended photographic coverage of a war.

The terrible contest proceeded erratically; just as the soldiers learned to fight this war in the field, so the photographers improvised their reports. Because the battlefields were too chaotic and dangerous for the painstaking wet-plate procedures to be carried out, photographers could depict only strategic sites (33.65.352, .391), camp scenes, preparations for or retreat from action, and, on rare occasions, the grisly aftermath of battle (1970.537.4).

The war photographers worked with collodion-on-glass (wet-plate) negatives, which required delicate and laborious procedures even in the studio. When the photographer was ready for action, a sheet of glass was cleaned, coated with collodion, partially dried, dipped carefully into a bath containing nitrate of silver, then exposed in the camera for several seconds and processed in the field darkroom tent—all before the silver collodion mixture had dried. Given the danger of their situation and the technical difficulty of their task, front-line photographers rarely if ever attempted action scenes.

Although it is still popularly believed that Brady produced most of the surviving Civil War photographs, he actually made few field photographs during the long war. Instead, he focused his energies on acquiring and publishing (over his own imprint) negatives made by his ever-expanding team of operators, including Gardner (his Washington gallery director), Timothy H. O’Sullivan (2005.100.502.1(37)), and numerous others.

At the outbreak of the war, Gardner had been appointed to General George McClellan’s staff with the honorary rank of captain. Initially, he and a small corps of photographers copied maps and charts for the Secret Service, which were distributed as photographic prints to both field and division commanders. For two years, while he retained his position as manager of Brady’s Washington, D.C., studio, Gardner worked as a field photographer. He left Brady in November 1862 and established his own business, taking with him many of Brady’s most experienced staff.

Timothy O’Sullivan was one of the many photographers who began their careers as apprentices to Brady. When the early events of the Civil War suggested no immediate resolution of the conflict, O’Sullivan abandoned the Washington, D.C., gallery for four years in the field. He worked constantly, producing outstanding views of bridges, encampments, hospitals, and battlefields that he sent back to Washington, first to Brady and then to Alexander Gardner, whose studio he joined officially in the winter of 1862–63.

At the end of the Civil War, Gardner published a two-volume opus, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1865–66). The publication, which includes 100 albumen silver prints, is egalitarian. Deeply offended by Brady’s habit of obscuring the names of the field operators behind the deceptive credit “Brady,” Gardner specifically identified each of the eleven photographers in the publication. The Sketch Book still serves as a salutary model for photographic volumes, as does Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign (1866) by George N. Barnard (1970.525(1–61)). Produced with the support of William Tecumseh Sherman, this volume documents the progress of the general’s famous and brutal campaign from Tennessee to Georgia in 1864 and 1865.