The American Civil War (1861–1865) was the fourth war in history to be caught on camera. The first three were the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) the Crimean War (1854–1856) and Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Mathew B. Brady, a son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1823 in Warren County,New York. Brady can be viewed as the father of photojournalism. He was the most prominent photographer of the Civil War because of his commitment and mastery of his job. He mastered the art when he was in his 20s and spent his own money to take pictures of the war. In 1844, Brady opened a private studio in New York City displaying photographs of famous Americans. He himself said, "From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers."
At the beginning of the war in 1861, he organized his employees into groups to spread themselves apart across the country and to get to work. Brady provided carriages called darkrooms to all his parties at his own personal expense. The total cost was about $100,000. The First Battle of Bull Run provided the first opportunity to photograph an engagement between opposing armies. Brady was very calm during a battle, as we can see from Lt. J. A. Gardner's notes:
Most people do not know that he recorded more than just photographs. Commentaries found in his traveling journal are used by historians to study the war in more detail. an exemplary anecdote of his good record keeping is one of the battles that would have been lost to history if Brady had not recorded the occurrence: The night before the battle, serene silence was broken suddenly when a Confederate soldier across the field began singing patriotic songs. Soon a second voice was heard, followed by a more voices. Soon both armies sang together in a spirit of common fellowship, leaving Esprit de corps high.
After the war, Brady went bankrupt and was forced to live off his friends' generosity. The government bought his collection of 5,712 plates for $25,000 rather than the $125,000 he asked. He once said that long after his death, his work will be appreciated. He was right. Some feel that Brady was as much a hero as the soldiers who fought. He died in 1896 in poverty and isolation.
Another important photographer of the Civil War was Alexander Gardner (October 17, 1821 – 1882), Brady's colleague. Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1821. He became an apprentice silversmith jeweler at the age of fourteen. In his youth, Gardner found out that his interests and talents lay in photography and journalism, not jewelry. A committed socialist, Gardner published pamphlets promoting emigration to a colony called Clydesdale in the wilderness of Iowa. Gardner persuaded many of his friends and relatives to settle in this semi-socialist "Utopia." He intended to join them but, because of an epidemic in the settlement, never did. In 1856, Brady invited and paid Gardner to come to New York to work for him. When the war began, Gardner was made the official photographer of the Union armies. He took one of the most famous pictures which he named "Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter."
Unfortunately, the most famous of Gardner's work has been proven to be a fake. In 1961, Frederic Ray of the Civil War Times magazine compared several of Gardner's photos showing Confederate snipers and realized that the same body has been photographed in multiple locations. Apparently, Gardner was not satisfied with the subject matter as it was presented to him and dragged the body around to create his own version of reality. Ray's analysis was expanded on by the author William Frassanito in 1975.
For a brief time following the war, he worked for the Secret Service and eventually, according to some, became Lincoln's favorite photographer. Gardner was known as quiet, intelligent and dour. In 1865, he was charged with photographing Lincoln's assassins. He published his classic, two-volume work Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War in 1866. Each book contained 100 hand-mounted original prints. However, it was not a sales success. Although he never found his utopia in the wild west, he unexpectedly found himself a new home in America. He stayed in Washington until his death, but he never forgot his Scottish heritage, as he was a member of Saint Andrew's Cross. When asked about his work he said, "It is designed to speak for itself. As mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest."
George N. Barnard, yet another Northern photographer, was born in 1819 in Coventry, Connecticut. During his childhood, he lived throughout the country, including the South. In New York, he opened a studio; to this day, it is not know where he learned his skill. He married Sarah Jane Hodges in 1843, with whom he had two children, a daughter, Mary Grace, and a son who died in infancy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Barnard was sent to photograph various locations in Virginia, including Harper's Ferry, Bull Run and Yorktown, as well as in and around Washington.
In December 1863, he was hired by the Topographical Branch of the Department of Engineers, Army of the Cumberland, to run the army's photographic operations based in the Military Division of the Mississippi's command headquarters in Nashville. This work involved photo-duplication of maps, plans and other materials, documenting sites and subjects as assigned, and taking portraits. He was sent to Atlanta, after the city's fall in the autumn of 1864 and consequently accompanied Sherman's troops on their march to Savannah. In 1865, he traveled to locations in South Carolina to document the aftermath of operations there. Barnard is perhaps best known for the series of photographs taken to document Sherman's Campaign, beginning in Tennessee, to Atlanta, the "March to the Sea", and concluding in South Carolina. A digitized version of his Photographic Views of the Sherman Campaign, ca. 1866 is available through the Digital Library of Georgia. He died in 1902 in New York.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan was born in 1840 in New York City. As a teenager, he was employed by Mathew Brady. When the war began, he was commissioned a first lieutenant, and over the next few years, he fought in Beaufort, Port Royal, Fort Walker and Fort Pulaski. After being honorably discharged, he rejoined Brady's team. In July 1862 O'Sullivan followed the campaign of Gen. John Pope's invasion of Virginia. In July 1863, he reached the pinnacle of his career when he took pictures of "The Harvest of Death." In 1864 following Gen. Grant's trail, he photographed the Siege of Petersburg and the siege of Fort Fisher. That brought him to the Appomattox Court House in April of 1865.
He was granted a job within the United States Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian. His job was to photograph the West and attract settlers. O'Sullivan's pictures were among the first to record the prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and pueblo villages of the Southwest. Returning to Washington, D.C., he spent the last years of his short life as official photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Treasury Department. He died at age 42 in 1882.
James F. Gibson was probably the least known of the Civil War photographers. He, too, was born in New York City. He learned the art under Brady. Gibson eventually photographed Gen. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, Seven Days Battles, Battle of Gaines' Mill, and Battle of Malvern Hill. He died in 1905.
Many photographs were taken by Southerners, but most were lost to history. According to the Photographic History of the Civil War
The most noted Southern photographer was George Cook. Born in Connecticut in 1819, he had tried but failed as merchant at home. He moved to New Orleans as a painter, but that also proved futile. In 1842, however, he began working with the newly invented daguerreotype. He finally settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where he raised his family.
He is one of the foremost Confederate. photographers, thanks to his recording the gradual destruction of Charleston and Fort Sumter by enemy action. He even photographed Fort Sumter's ironclads naval action as it happened. Unfortunately, most of Cook's photographs were lost in a fire in 1864. Cook moved his family to Richmond in 1880, and his older son, George LaGrange Cook, took over the studio in Charleston. Cook bought the negatives and businesses of other Richmond photographers who were retiring or moving, thus amassing the most complete collection of photographs of the former Confederate capital in one place. He remained an active photographer the remainder of his life. His younger son, Huestis Cook, eventually went into business with his father. After his brother George's death on November 27, 1902, Huestis took over the Richmond studio.
Confederate Lieutenant Robert M. Smith was captured and imprisoned at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. He in unique in that he was able to secretly construct a wet-plate camera using a pine box, pocket knife, tin can, and spyglass lens. Smith acquired chemicals from the prison hospital to use for the photographic process. He used the camera clandestinely to photograph other prisoners at the gable end of the attic of cell block four.
The results of the efforts of all Civil War photographers can be seen in almost all history texts of the conflict. In terms of photography, the American Civil War is the best covered conflict of the 19th century and presaged the development of wartime photojournalism in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
The number of Civil War photographs that are available contrasts sharply with the scarcity of pictures from subsequent conflicts such as the Russian wars in Central Asia, the Franco-Prussian War, and the various colonial wars before the Boer War.