History

How Civil War Photography Changed War

How the Civil War photography changed the war is explained here. Learn more about how the Civil War photography changed the war in this article.

THE GIST

- Photography had been around for over 20 years before the Civil War, but its flowering began just before conflict broke out.

- Photography during the Civil War had a wide-reaching impact on the public's perception on everything from their leaders to the nature of warfare.

- Images of everyday life are also depicted for the first time in the Civil War.

We've all seen photographs of the Civil War: black-and-white images of bearded Union generals or mustachioed Confederate colonels posing to one side of the camera, dead bodies stacked on the battlefield or common soldiers around a camp tent.

Looking back 150 years to the start of the Civil War this month, what impact did photography have on the war? On the people who lived during the time? What do these images tell us today about the soldiers and their families?

Historians say that photography changed the war in several ways. It allowed families to have a keepsake representation of their fathers or sons as they were away from home. Photography also enhanced the image of political figures like President Lincoln, who famously joked that he wouldn't have been re-elected without the portrait of him taken by photographer Matthew Brady.

Intense images of battlefield horrors were presented to the public for the first time at exhibits in New York and Washington, many later reproduced by engravings in newspapers and magazines of the time.

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"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it," wrote the New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862 about Brady's New York exhibit just a month after the bloody Battle of Antietam.

Photography had been around for over 20 years before the Civil War, but new techniques and commercialization led to its flowering just before conflict broke out. Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography in Abilene, Texas, says the invention of the tintype, which was a metal image, and the ambrotype, printed on glass, allowed for mass production of small photographs usually kept by families in wooden or glass cases.

"It was their most visceral, closest link to their loved ones," Zeller said. "For girlfriends or wives at home, the only thing they had was the ambrotype."

These images were taken by small-town photographers and traveling camp photographers, which combined topped 5,000 by the time war broke out in 1861, Zeller said. More than a million such images were produced during the war.

Officers had their photos taken as well and often passed them out to the men as a morale booster. New ways to reproduce photos gave birth to cards. The Library of Congress has produced an exhibit of soldier's portraits April 12 called "The Last Full Measure," based on a private collection.

The second kind of photo was the carte de visite. The carte de visite, or cdv, was also primarily a portrait photograph, except it was made with a glass, wet-plate negative, which meant unlimited copies could be created. Prints were made on albumen paper, according to the center. These portraits of generals, statesmen, actors and other celebrities were mass produced and given out like trading cards.

Some of the Civil War photographers, including Brady, have been criticized in recent years because it appears they moved corpses to create more graphic images. But Zeller said it wasn't a common occurrence. Given that each photographer need an entire wagon worth of equipment and chemicals, he said, these post-battle photographers faced their own set of challenges.

"Each time they moved, they had to secure bottles of chemicals and plate," Zeller said. "Each time they stopped, it had to be level." Photographers also battled flies that were attracted to photo chemicals, ether that made them woozy, and the stench of death.

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"How they were able to look at the scenes of dead bodies and be calm enough to set up their equipment and try to portray reality, there is an unsung heroism there," said Alan Trachtenberg, retired professor of American history at Yale University. "It takes guts to do that."

Trachtenberg said military leaders on both sides also hired photographers to gain intelligence about enemy emplacements, roads, bridges and railroads.

Images of everyday life are also depicted for the first time in the Civil War, men playing cards, playing instruments or cleaning equipment. Black soldiers and slaves were also depicted for the first time, according to New York University professor Deborah Willis.

"The placing of the images was significant in identifying that black soldiers found their place in the war," Willis said. "They were working as soldiers and laborers. The fact is they also placed looked as if there are looking for hope."

This photograph of a scene in Antietam, Md. shows bodies, possibly moved in order to keep the church in the background. The photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner, who worked for a time as an assistant to Matthew Brady.

April 8, 2011 --

Photographer Matthew Brady and his contemporaries were the world's first true war photographers, taking advantage of a relatively new technology, tools of mass production and the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, one in which more than 620,000 lost their lives. This photograph of a scene in Antietam, Md. shows bodies, possibly moved in order to keep the church in the background. The photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner, who worked for a time as an assistant to Matthew Brady.

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While there were images taken during the Mexican War of 1847 and the Crimean War in 1854, the Civil War saw an explosion of both techniques and photographers. In fact, both armies used photography to document their own soldiers as well as to collect information about enemy forces. This photograph, also by Gardner, documents a dead Confederate sniper in Gettysburg.

New techniques and commercialization led to the flowering of photography just before the Civil War started. The invention of the tintype, which was a metal image, and the ambrotype, printed on glass, allowed for mass production of small photographs usually kept by families in wooden or glass cases. Here, John E. Cummins of the 50th, 99th and 185th Ohio Infantry regiments poses in Union uniform next to a horse.

The second kind of photo was the carte de visite. The carte de visite, or cdv, was also primarily a portrait photograph, except it was made with a glass, wet-plate negative. The negative meant unlimited copies could be created.  Prints were made on albumen paper, according to the center. These portraits of generals, statesmen, actors and other celebrities were mass produced and given out like trading cards in an effort to keep up morale. Sergeant Cornelius V. Moore of Company B, 100th New York Volunteers, a sergeant of 39th Illinois Regiment, a corporal of 106th New York Volunteers, and a private of the 11th Vermont Regiment pose in camp scene.

Then there were the battlefield photos taken by Brady, his former employee Alexander Gardner, Confederate photographer George S. Cook and the New York-based E & H.T. Anthony Co. These photographs were often taken with a two-lens camera to produce a stereo view and then printed on paper. Mathew B. Brady appears under fire with a battery before Petersburg, Va., June 21, 1864. Brady is in the foreground, standing next to the wheel of a cannon and wearing a straw hat.

In addition to after-battle shots, there are some of the first photographs of combat. There's the Savage Station field hospital photo taken by one of Brady's assistants, James Gibson in June 1862. This image shows injured Union soldiers waiting for treatment, many of whom were captured a few days after the photo was taken. It is considered by many experts to be one of the first great American war photographs.

Photography also captured a new side of African Americans. For the first time, black soldiers and laborers would be captured on film. In this image, a black servant named "John Henry" was given a uniform and boots for his service with the Union's 3rd Army of the Potomac.