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Antietam: Can One Picture Tell the Story?

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Unidentified Girl in Mourning Dress . . . .
Unidentified Girl in Mourning Dress Holding Framed Photograph of Her Father. . . . Tintype, 1861-1870.

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.

A Lone Grave, Antietam, Maryland. Glass negative by Alexander Gardner, 1862.
A Lone Grave, Antietam, Maryland. Glass negative by Alexander Gardner, 1862.

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.

Waud Antietam
Burning of Mr. Muma's (sic) houses and barns at the fight of the 17th of Sept. Drawing by Alfred R. Waud, 1862.
Battle of Antietam. Chromolithograph by Prang, 1887.
Battle of Antietam. Chromolithograph by L. Prang & Co., after a painting by Thure de Thulstrup, 1887.

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.

Bodies of Confederate artillerymen near Dunker church. Photo by Alexander Gardner, 1862,
Bodies of Confederate artillerymen near Dunker church. Photo by Alexander Gardner, 1862.

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!

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Comments (4)

  1. Somehow that tree with the five soldiers under it best reflects the Battle of Antietam for me. On a somewhat related personal note, it was another large tree in a small photograph that my husband and I used as a focal point to locate a cemetery on a hill near the Baptist Valley crossroads community in Tazewell County, Virginia. Then, in deep undergrowth, we somehow found the grave marker of his great great great great grandfather Hezekiah Whitt who served in the Revolutionary War.

  2. Thank you for this incredible post.

  3. Really great post. Thanks for this.

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