The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division.
If you had to pick just one picture to represent the Battle of Antietam, which would you choose?
A photograph of a young girl wearing mourning ribbons and holding a photograph of her father could symbolize the wide-spread and lasting losses suffered after the single bloodiest day of fighting in American history. On September 17, 1862, more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded at Antietam Creek near the small town of Sharpsburg in Western Maryland.
The impact of death is also the theme chosen for the cover of Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day — a ground-breaking book by William Frassanito. But here, the scene of a grave emphasizes the soldiers who gave their lives. The photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James Gibson were the only cameramen at Antietam soon after the battle.
Among the approximately 100 photographs that Gardner and Gibson took, the graphic views of dead soldiers are the most famous. These were the first photos to show Americans killed in battle. But Gardner omitted these views when he published his famous two-volume history, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. He chose landscape scenes to represent key locations, while calling on his reader’s imagination to fill in the rest.
To convey the fierceness of the fighting, you could select an original sketch (above left) by Alfred Waud, one of the artists who actually witnessed the action at Antietam. The engraved illustrations made from their drawings and published in such newspapers as Harper’s Weekly brought the war into the homes of many people.
To emphasize military valor, or simply to attract attention through a full-color image, you might suggest a commemorative lithograph (above right) produced 25 years after the battle. The Prang Company captured the large scale of the combat with the Dunker Church in the background.
Which picture do I choose? When I hear the word Antietam, a photograph comes to mind first — the bodies of fallen soldiers and a horse near the damaged Dunker Church. Alexander Gardner summed up both the horror of the day and the effect on individual people in a single well-composed scene.
Which picture best reflects Antietam for you? The American Civil War is a major strength of the collections in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress, so be prepared for a difficult decision!
- View all images related to Antietam in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, including contemporary scenes at the national park, measured drawings documenting the structures, and several hundred historical stereograph cards, glass negatives, lithographs, and engravings.
- The iconic image of the young girl is part of the Liljenquist Family Collection, where a growing number of photographs represent the women and children directly affected by the Civil War.
- The lone grave scene is one of more than 80 photographs taken at Antietam by Alexander Gardner and preserved among the Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. For detailed information about each photo, see Frassanito’s book Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. New York: Scribner, c1978. [view catalog record]
- The full text and photographs of Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (Washington, DC: Philp & Solomons, 1865-66) can be paged through in sequence.
- More than 1,700 Civil War drawings are available online. The most heavily-represented artists are Alfred Waud and his brother William, Edwin Forbes, and James Queen. The blog post, A History Quivering with Life: Civil War Drawings, provides more information.
- Other Civil War resources at the Library of Congress range from the papers of Abraham Lincoln and slave narratives to maps, sheet music, books, and periodicals.