Witness to History: Civil War Photographs

Last month’s offering in this series of posts about documentary and photojournalism collections noted how the Crimean War posed an opportunity—and enormous challenges—to British photographer Roger Fenton.

Just six years later, a conflict on American soil, likewise, fueled Mathew Brady’s entrepreneurial ambitions, leading to some of the best known photographic documentation of the Civil War. At the outbreak of war in April 1861, Mathew Brady, already well established as a portrait photographer, was fired with ambition to document the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy on a grand scale. Friends tried to discourage him, citing battlefield dangers and financial risks, but Brady persisted. He later said, “I felt that I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.”

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (reading newspaper) with Mathew B. Brady (nearest tree) at Army of the Potomac headquarters. Photograph (left half of stereo negative), 1864 June 11 or 12. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.01703

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (reading newspaper) with Mathew B. Brady (nearest tree) at Army of the Potomac headquarters. Photograph (left half of stereo negative), 1864 June 11 or 12. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.01703

Brady didn’t actually take many of the Civil War photographs attributed to him but, rather, supervised a corps of traveling photographers and bought photos from private photographers fresh from the battlefield. The range of images, from portraits and camp scenes to landscapes and battle preparations and aftermath, is impressive.

Yorktown, Va., May 1862. Photograph, 1862, printed between 1880 and 1889. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33296

Yorktown, Va., May 1862. Photograph, 1862, printed between 1880 and 1889. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.33296

Brady’s enterprise earned him attention in his own time and in the decades since. In 1862 Brady shocked America by displaying Alexander Gardner’s and James Gibson’s photographs of battlefield corpses from Antietam. Brady never achieved great wealth from his enterprise, but the New York Times said that he had brought “home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” Personally, I find some of the scenes of Richmond in ruins among the most haunting from any war.

Richmond, Virginia. Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg Railroad depot. Photograph (left half of stereograph negative), 1865 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.02709

Richmond, Virginia. Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg Railroad depot. Photograph (left half of stereograph negative), 1865 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.02709

Brady’s name became popularly associated with Civil War photography, but many photographers contributed to making a lasting photographic record of the war. The Prints and Photographs Division has photographs by quite a few photographers, including Alexander Gardner, James F. Gibson, Timothy O’Sullivan and Andrew J. Russell.

Group at Commissary Depot, Acquia [i.e. Aquia] Creek Landing, Va. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, 1863 Feb. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.34243

Group at Commissary Depot, Acquia [i.e. Aquia] Creek Landing, Va. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, 1863 Feb. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.34243

Brandy Station, Va. Officers and a lady at headquarters of 1st Brigade, Horse Artillery. Photograph by James F. Gibson, 1864 Feb. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.04066

Brandy Station, Va. Officers and a lady at headquarters of 1st Brigade, Horse Artillery. Photograph by James F. Gibson, 1864 Feb. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.04066

Upper wharf, Belle Plain. Built by U.S.M.R.R. Construction Corps. Photograph by A. J. Russell, 1864 May 16. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.08301

Upper wharf, Belle Plain. Built by U.S.M.R.R. Construction Corps. Photograph by Andrew J. Russell, 1864 May 16. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.08301

The photographers’ combined efforts resulted in a multi-faceted view of the war’s participants and sites, although photographic technology at the time, as with the Fenton photographs, limited how much action a photographer could capture. The Prints and Photographs Division has more than 7,000 glass negatives made during the Civil War, all of which can be viewed as positive images online. The division also holds photographic prints that correspond to many of the negatives, as well as a photographic format that helped to bring Civil War scenes to life: stereographs enable the viewer to have a “you are there” experience when viewed through a special viewer.

Fair Oaks, Va., vicinity. Capt. James M. Robertson (third from left) and officers. Photograph by James F. Gibson, 1862 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.00164

Fair Oaks, Va., vicinity. Capt. James M. Robertson (third from left) and officers. Photograph by James F. Gibson, 1862 June. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.00164

Group, Major Robertson and friends. Photograph by James F. Gibson on stereo card, copyrighted by Alexander Gardner, 1863. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02782

Group, Major Robertson and friends. Photograph by James F. Gibson on stereo card, copyrighted by Alexander Gardner, 1863. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02782

P&P's well-used copies of William Frassanito's books Gettysburg: a Journey in Time and Antietam : the Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day

P&P’s well-used copies of William Frassanito’s books Gettysburg: a Journey in Time and Antietam: the Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day

A Research Focus

Just as researchers have explored how Roger Fenton may have shaped impressions of the Crimean War by staging photographs, the Civil War photographs have received in-depth analyses. Scholar William Frassanito, in particular, did pioneering work in closely examining photographs taken at Antietam and at Gettysburg. He turned up fascinating findings about how the photographs had been mislabeled (in one case, the same bodies are alternately described as Confederate and as Union soldiers) and how the scene that some photographs captured was altered for effect. (The “Learn More” section, below, gives full bibliographic information for the books.)

More recently, researchers from the Center for Civil War Photography have delved deeply into the content and context of the photographs, illuminating photography practice from the Civil War years, assisting in identification of the locations and scenes depicted, and taking participants in their Image of War seminars to the sites the photographers traversed more than 150 years ago. Along the way, they have informed our description of the images and provided support for ongoing scanning of the Civil War collections in the interest of sharing these images and all that they convey more widely.

Learn More

  • There is way too much to say about the Prints and Photographs Division’s Civil War collections. For starters:
Wagons and camera of Sam A. Cooley, U.S. photographer, Department of the South. Detail from photograph, between 1860 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.03518

Wagons and camera of Sam A. Cooley, U.S. photographer, Department of the South. Detail from photograph, between 1860 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.03518

  • Dive more deeply into the Civil War photographs, and explore some of William A. Frassanito’s findings in online essays, Does the Camera Ever Lie?, The Case of Confused Identity, and The Case of the Moved Body, that accompany the Civil War photographs. To read the full story, look for some of Frassanito’s most influential books: Gettysburg: a Journey in Time (New York, Scribner [1975]) [view catalog record] and Antietam: the Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day (New York : Scribner, 1978) [view catalog record].
  • Get perspective on what it took to make photographs in the field by reading the essay, Taking Photographs During the Civil War  and viewing Civil War photographs and drawings that show photographers’ equipment.
  • Follow the activities and insights of the Center for Civil War Photography through their Web site and Facebook page.
  • I was treating myself at home to some “you are there” viewing through the pages of Bob Zeller’s and John Richter’s Lincoln in 3-D (San Francisco, Calif.: Chronicle Books, 2010) [view catalog record], which I found in my local public library. The book reproduces photographs from the Civil War, including many stereograph negatives and other images from Library of Congress collections, that come to life when you don the 3-D glasses that come packaged with the volume. I couldn’t resist sharing P&P’s copy of the book in the reading room–an easy way to thrill your friends and colleagues!
Barbara Orbach Natanson and Lara Szypszak enjoying a "you are there" viewing of Lincoln in 3-D. Photo by Jan Grenci, 2017.

P&P reference staff members Barbara Orbach Natanson and Lara Szypszak enjoying a “you are there” viewing of Lincoln in 3-D. Photo by Jan Grenci, 2017.

Page from Lincoln in 3-D showing stereograph from Library of Congress collections. Photo by Jan Grenci, 2017.

Page from Lincoln in 3-D showing stereograph from Library of Congress collections. Photo by Jan Grenci, 2017.

Glass stereograph negative used for illustration above. Title from Civil War caption log: Richmond, Virginia. Group of Negroes ("Freedmen") by canal. Photograph, 1865, April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.00468

Glass stereograph negative used for illustration above. Title from Civil War caption log: Richmond, Virginia. Group of Negroes (“Freedmen”) by canal. Photograph, 1865, April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.00468

2 Comments

  1. Kelly Dowhower
    April 19, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Amazing! =)

  2. Larry Baker
    April 25, 2017 at 10:59 am

    It really makes you aware that these were real people. Looking at a photograph can put you in that place and that time. Great to have access at the Library of Congress web site.

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