The Civil War Connections Blog

Alexander Gardner and Immortality

Whether I am staying at home or in my dorm room at UVa, there is a poster that I always bring with me and hang proudly on my wall.  The poster is of Abraham Lincoln shortly before he delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863, but he is not the star of the show.  Under the large image of Lincoln’s weary and ever reflecting features is the title of the exhibit in which the photo hung.  From October 20, 1991 to January 5, 1992, the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA displayed a collection of photographs taken by my favorite wartime photographer in the exhibit “An Enduring Interest: The Photographs of Alexander Gardner.”  Besides the nostalgia of owning something slightly older than myself (in which I cannot help but indulge), the poster serves as a reminder of the power of film.  The window into history that photography dramatically hurls open never ceases to amaze me as even the simplest image can force onlookers into a state of awe.  The ability to look with 21st century eyes back in time through the medium of film is the closest modern historians will ever come to the fantasized benefits of time travel.

[Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front]

Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress.

What makes Alexander Gardner stand out from other wartime photographers of his day is the utter complexity of his images.  Gardner accomplished a lot of firsts in his time including the first photographs taken of a civil war battlefield before the casualties had been removed.  On a dreary day in 1865, he captured the execution of the first woman by the United States government: Mary Surratt.  He also snapped portraits of the other Lincoln conspirators before they were hung, providing a chilling view of an infamous blot on our nation’s history.  I am sure that many of you have seen most of the images which I have included in this post, but it is necessary to bind a name with the immense contributions Gardner made to modern history books, archives, and websites across the nation.[i]

Gardner was employed by the nearly blind Matthew Brady during the war.  To say the least, he took full advantage of the access to battlefields that Brady acquired from the United States government as a result of his renowned reputation (which I discussed in an earlier post HERE).  At the conclusion of Antietam fought on September 17, 1862, Gardner descended upon the battlefield,   immortalizing the dead that covered the land.  From the images below, historians can begin to gain an understanding of the carnage that befell both the Union and Confederate forces on the bloodiest single-day battle of the war.  After totaling the killed, wounded, and missing or captured souls, Antietam claimed roughly 12,400 Union and 10, 320 Confederate casualties according to the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and the Antietam Battlefield Board.  Keep in mind as you look through the images that any caption including the words “where they fell” may not be entirely accurate.  Civil War photographers often moved or posed their subjects according to the shot they desired; an action that could lead to the scandalous publication of deceased men appearing in multiple pictures in different positions.  Whether Gardner moved any dead is unknown, but the methods of photographers are important to consider when evaluating any battlefield image. [ii]

[Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road]

Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road. Library of Congress.

Antietam, Maryland. Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell

Antietam, Maryland. Federal buried, Confederate unburied, where they fell. Library of Congress.

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies in front of the Dunker church

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies in front of the Dunker church. Library of Congress.

On July 7, 1865 at 1:26 pm, four individuals fell to their deaths with the release of a hatch.  Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt received their orders to hang on July 6, 1865 in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary.  Charged with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward, the conspirators faced both the gallows and the nation in a public hanging photographed by none other than Alexander Gardner.  Below, I have included images of the hangings as well as one of the portraits that Gardner took of each condemned prisoner.  You may wonder what the metal backdrop of the portrait is from.  The images were allegedly taken on the monitors U. S.S. Montauk and Saugus which held the conspirators for a short time before they were moved to the penitentiary. [iii]

[Washington, D.C. Adjusting the ropes for hanging the conspirators]

Washington, D.C. Adjusting the ropes for hanging the conspirators. Library of Congress.

[Washington, D.C. Hanging hooded bodies of the four conspirators; crowd departing]

[Washington Navy Yard, D.C. George A. Atzerodt, a conspirator]

Washington Navy Yard, D.C. George A. Atzerodt, a conspirator. Library of Congress.

I hope you enjoyed perusing these photographs as much as I have.  If you would like to view more of Gardner’s images from the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, please visit the National Park Service website HERE.  You can also view those photographs as well as those taken of the Lincoln conspirators by searching the image catalogues of the Library of Congress.  Happy searching!



[i] “Historic Photographs by Alexander Gardner,” National Park Service. 16 April 2012. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.

[ii] “Casualties of Battle,” National Park Service. 16 April 2012. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.

[iii] James L. Swanson, “Four Swing From Gallows,” Cato Institute. 6 Jul 2002. Web. 18 May 2012. <>; “Summary of Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Samuel Arnold, a conspirator,” Library of Congress Online. Web. 18 May 2012. <>.