The Civil War Connections Blog

Capturing the War

When I was a junior and a senior in high school, I was able to take three extra elective courses in addition to my required classes. I had already filled two of these spaces with a choir class and an extra history class (there is really no exaggeration when I say I’m a history nerd), and had already ruled out most other classes. I knew I was horrible at most things artistic, yet I turned toward what I thought was a safe bet and took a photography class. All you had to do was point and shoot right? Wrong. Very, VERY wrong. While I suppose you could say I was sufficient at the pointing and shooting, I could never make it through the developing process without butchering at least half of my film. So when studying the Civil War, and learning about the photographers who captured the battlefields on film, with considerably new photograph technology, it really is no wonder I’ve given up my dream to be the next Ansel Adams.

 

In 1861, the newest photographic technique was wet-plate photography, where photographers developed their images on plates of glass with chemicals. While the plate would have been coated with the chemicals and brought to the battlefields in a light safe container, it would have to be exposed for a couple seconds in order to imprint the image, and the once again returned to the light safe container. It would then be brought back to the photographer’s dark room in order to develop the image. Not only would this have been extremely bulky and hard to maneuver around a battlefield, it would also limit the amount of images that could have been taken and the chemicals were dangerous to mix. Many times photographers would carry both their equipment and even their dark room in wagons.[1]

 

Brady's photo outfit in front of Petersburg, Va., 1864. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Brady’s photo outfit in front of Petersburg, Va., 1864. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 

The photography of the Civil War not only introduced new technology, it also introduced new opinions of the war. Battlefield photos were circulated much more widely, and the average American citizen could see the horrors of the war in clear black and white images. One of the most notable examples of this was the exhibit put together by Mathew Brady and his staff, specifically Alexander Gardner, called “The Dead of Antietam.” Gardner had arrived to the battlefield on September 19th, 1862, only two days after the battle had ended and some of the dead were still strewn across the fields. [2] While much of the credit usually goes to Brady, it was Gardner who captured these images of the battle, photographing the main areas of fighting such as the Dunker Church, Bloody Lane, Burnside Bridge and even burial crews working to remove the dead.[3]

 

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies in front of the Dunker church. By Alexander Gardner. Accessed through Library of Congress online.

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies in front of the Dunker church, photographed by Alexander Gardner. Accessed through Library of Congress online.

 

These photographs, and others taken throughout the war, changed how Americans viewed the conflict. It portrayed the blood and gore with horrifying clarity, and what idealized and romantic visions of war citizens may have had were quickly replaced with these images. It not only showed the brutal side of the war, it also showed the sheer number of those killed and provided the faceless enemy with an identity. People could see that these soldiers weren’t monsters, but men, both young and old, who looked like they could be anyone’s father, brother, uncle or son. The photography of the Civil War humanized the conflict for many Americans, and in doing so made it that much more horrendous to the nation that it was a battle of brother versus brother.

 

Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road, photographed by Alexander Gardner. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road, photographed by Alexander Gardner. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 


[1] “Photography and the Civil War: Bringing the Battle to the Homefront,” Civil War Trust, Accessed February 21, 2013. http://www.civilwar.org/photos/3d-photography-special/photography-and-the-civil-war.html

[2] Jones, Terry Lee. “The Dead of Antietam,” New York Times online, Accessed February 21, 2013. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/24/the-dead-of-antietam/

[3] “Alexander Gardner,” Civil War Trust, Accessed February 21, 2013. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/alexander-gardner.html