The Civil War Connections Blog

The Eye of History

We have all heard the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but is it possible that some images could be worth much more than that?  As time is rewound and technology becomes sparse, images from the past are not only precious, but in many cases rare.  Throughout our nation’s history, citizens did not carry digital cameras or smart phones in their pockets; in the 19th century, recording noteworthy moments was in no way as convenient and accessible as it is in the 21st.  Thus it is no surprise that some of the most famous events in American history depend solely upon written accounts to communicate their existence and relevance to future generations.

Luckily for Civil War scholars, one man did seem to carry a camera around in his pocket; or at least, in a really large camera case.  Mathew M. Brady, along with countless employees of his photographic studio, embarked on a quest to capture both Antebellum and Civil War-stricken America through the medium of film (Youngblood et. al, 12).  From small beginnings in New York City, Brady established his first photographic studio in 1844 which eventually gained popularity and recognition from common-folk and political elites alike (Youngblood et. al, 14).  As time went on and the number of prominent clients skyrocketed, Brady opened more studios in New York and Washington D.C., eventually catching the eye of an up-and-coming Republican: Abraham Lincoln (Youngblood et. al, 14).

As secession became eminent and the Civil War began, Brady became impassioned to document the war just as he had preserved the likeness of his clients for generations to come.  After receiving the go-ahead from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Lincoln himself, Brady and his employees gained official access to battlefields, garrisons, and prominent Union officers in an effort to complete the most extensive photographic record of the Civil War (Youngblood et. al, 15).  Though the present-day public may not realize it, many of the famous photographs they have encountered from the war were snapped by Brady’s studio team; even the portrait of Lincoln which appears on the $5 bill (Youngblood et. al, 8)!

Besides portraits of prominent figures such as Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Brady’s photographers were able to record valuable images for present-day maritime historians; especially those interested in the U.S.S. Monitor and Hampton Roads area.  Below are some examples of such photographs, depicting a gun boat sailing down the James River and the crew of the Monitor posed around its turret– now raised from its watery resting place of more than one hundred years.

The beauty of Brady’s photographs does not lie solely in the techniques employed to capture such images, but in the story that each preserves.  If the opening cliché is correct, the thousands of pictures stamped with the Brady name are worth millions of words and ultimately priceless to historians.  As Brady himself proclaimed, “The camera is the eye of history” (Youngblood et. al, 12).  Without his photographs, this sesquicentennial celebration may have been rendered blind to integral moments and unforgettable figures from one of the darkest hours in our nation’s history.

Gun Boat on James River, 1864, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865: From the Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001. PHONE: 301-837-0561 ; FAX: 301-837-3621; EMAIL: [email protected]

Crew of Monitor on James River, Virginia, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865; From the Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001. PHONE: 301-837-0561; FAX: 301-837-3621; EMAIL: [email protected]

Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing by a tree in front of a tent, Cold Harbor, Va., ca. 06/1864 - ca. 06/1864: From the Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001. PHONE: 301-837-0561 ; FAX: 301-837-3621; EMAIL: [email protected]

 

Work Cited:

Youngblood, Wayne et. al. Mathew B. Brady’s Civil War. New York: Chartwell Books,

INC., 2011. Print.