Revisiting Rights-Free: U.S. Civil War Images

The Prints & Photographs Division’s U.S. Civil War collections are impressive, spanning a number of collections. Our core bodies of material related to the Civil War are conveniently featured in one place in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

Probably the best known collection of Civil War material in the division consists of original glass plate negatives made under the supervision of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, along with related prints. These images, numbering at about 7,000, provide vivid evidence not only of the horrors of war, but also of the logistics, technology, and sheer number of people who were required to support the Union’s ultimately successful effort.

This photo shows members of Company “B” from the 170th N.Y. Infantry relaxing in a field near Petersburg, Virginia:
Union soldiers from Company B, 170th NY infantry relaxing in field near Petersburg, Va.

Company “B”, 170th N.Y. Infantry in front of Petersburg, Va. Photographed between 1861 and 1865, printed between 1880 and 1889. //

Heavy supplies required a means of transporting them, as illustrated by this photograph of soldiers standing on a small rail car with a mortar:

Soldiers with cannon on small railroad car.

Soldiers with mortar on small railroad car. Photographed between 1861 and 1865, printed between 1880 and 1889. //

The Gladstone Collection, numbering nearly 350 photographs, offers insight into the experiences of Black soldiers and children and adults, many of them formerly enslaved, proving that Civil War images are not all battle scenes. Photographs often come to us without any information about the people depicted. Thanks to a researcher tip, we think these two men may be Baldy Guy (left) and George Guy (right):
Portrait of two African American soldiers with arms around each other's shoulders.

Two brothers in arms. Between 1860 and 1870. //

One can’t help but wonder what these boys’ circumstances were, and how they came to photographed:
Two African American boys, full-length portrait, facing front.

Two African American boys, full-length portrait, facing front. Photo by J. R. Shockley, between 1860 and 1865. //

Just as compelling as the photographs, the hundreds of Civil War drawings in the collection represent eyewitness perspectives on the war and related events. This drawing by William Waud shows returned prisoners of war exchanging the worn-out clothing they arrived in for better threads:
Returned prisoners of war exchanging their rags for new clothing on board Flag of Truce boat New York.

Returned prisoners of war exchanging their rags for new clothing on board Flag of Truce boat New York. Drawing by William Waud, 1864. //

Although many Civil War images in the collection show the war from a Union perspective, this drawing by Alfred R. Waud shows Confederate soldiers moving toward Union troops:
Drawing of battle scene showing Confederate troops advancing on Union troops.

Chickamauga. Drawing by Alfred R. Waud, 1863. //

This blog provides just a small taste of the kinds of images you might find among our Civil War collections. We encourage you to explore on your own, and consult the links at the bottom of this post to learn more.


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