How Photography Helped Document The American Civil War

The Stunning Use Of Photography Helped Document The American Civil War

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Time For Some Fascinating American Civil War Photography – In Pictures

Let's go rewind a few years, in fact, back to the 19th Century.

american civil war photography
Image by DB-Foto

Mathew Brady, known as the father of photojournalism, was born in 1822, is an American Civil War photographer and probably the greatest American photo historian of the 19th century.
He has taken photographs of important historical personalities including Abraham Lincoln.
Most of Brady’s work were daguerreotypes (first commercially successful photographic process (1839-1860) in the history of photography, named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre) for which he won many awards.
He later developed ambrotype photography (also known as a collodion positive in the UK, is a positive photograph on glass made by a variant of the wet plate collodion process) which became very popular in the 1850s and was mostly used in the American Civil war photography.

What Did Brady Capture?

The American civil war was documented through one medium, that is photography and thousands of war scenes and portraits of generals and politicians were captured by Brady and his associates who photographed the battlefields, camp life, towns, war preparations, moments before and after the battle and the people affected by the war.
What you see here are examples of American Civil War Photography (1861-1865) in the Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.).

Gen. John J. Abercrombie and staff of eight Gen. John J. Abercrombie and staff of eight – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes. Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Group of officers, U.S. Sanitary Commission Group of officers, U.S. Sanitary Commission – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Deck of a Monitor. Enlisted men on deck Deck of a Monitor. Enlisted men on deck – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Officers at headquarters Officers at headquarters – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

"Pine Cottage", Soldiers' winter quarters “Pine Cottage”, Soldiers' winter quarters – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865
Did you know about the humongous effort that was put into taking these photographs?
Taking photographs during the American Civil War era was a complex process where photographers had to mix their own chemicals and prepare their own wet plate glass negatives. These negatives had a timeframe within which they had to be prepared, exposed and developed, all before the emulsion dried. In addition to the above, the hot and cold weather conditions needed to be taken into account too.
The wet plate process involved coating a clean sheet of glass with collodion in a darkroom and immersing the plate in silver nitrate solution to make it sensitive to light.  After the above sensitizing process, the wet negative had to be placed in a light tight holder (dark slide) and inserted on to a camera that has already been set up for the correct frame and focused.
To expose the plate, the dark slide that protected the negative from light and the lens cap will be removed and the negative exposed for the required amount of time (a few seconds depending on the available light). Once exposure is complete, the dark slide is inserted back to the plate holder to stop more light from falling on to the plate.
This is then taken to a darkroom immediately, developed, washed in water and dried. In most cases, the plates are coated with varnish to protect them. These photographs can later be printed on paper and mounted.
If you wish to see how this is done, check out Photographer Honza Hronek's – The Wet Plate Collodion Process or Quinn Jacobson's Wet Plate Collodion process
Dry plate negatives were introduced in the 1880s that did not need to be developed immediately after the exposure.

Wounded soldiers in hospital Wounded soldiers in hospital – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Infantry on parade Infantry on parade – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Regimental drum corps Regimental drum corps – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Deserted winter quarters Deserted winter quarters – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Officers of Keystone Battery Officers of Keystone Battery – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Confederate Trenches. Fascine Trench Breastworks, Petersburg, Va. Confederate Trenches. Fascine Trench Breastworks, Petersburg, Va. – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Scene at hospital Scene at hospital – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865
Brady had to finance this project himself and had to bring his own photographic studio to the battlefields. Brady took personal and financial risk in documenting the war and has henceforth earned a name in history.
When asked about this, Brady said, “A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.” He also employed more than twenty other men as associates who were each given a traveling darkroom to go out and capture scenes from the civil war. It is said that Brady due to his poor eyesight did not frequently go to the battlefields himself  to document the war but was the director who selected the locations and scenes to be photographed.
Although not confirmed, many images in the Brady’s collections are believed to be of his assistants’ and it seems that Brady took credit for their work. Most of the photographs in his collection lack information on who the photographer is and the location. Since the assistants worked for Brady and his studio as associates, it could be one reason why he took credits for those photos, but there was a lot of criticism around this during that time.

Officers on board monitor "Mahopac", James River, Va., 1864 Officers on board monitor “Mahopac”, James River, Va., 1864 – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Dutch Gap Canal in 1865 Dutch Gap Canal in 1865 – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Pontoon bridge, Deep Bottom, James River, Va Pontoon bridge, Deep Bottom, James River, Va – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Camp scene showing winter huts and corduroy roads Camp scene. Showing winter huts and corduroy roads – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Officers' winter quarters Officers' winter quarters – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Officers of 119th Penn. Inf Officers of 119th Penn. Inf – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Officers of 153rd N.Y. Inf Officers of 153rd N.Y. Inf – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865
Since technology was very limited at that time, in the sense that only still objects could be captured, the live battle scenes could not be captured. Brady put his life into documenting this historical war that he went without food for three days, nearly dead from starvation. The famous television series ‘The Civil War’ was made with the help of Brady’s photographs through which the world was able to witness the war and its heroes.

Soldiers' winter quarters Soldiers' winter quarters – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gen. Joseph Hooker and horse Gen. Joseph Hooker and horse – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Hospital near Washington, D.C. Hospital near Washington, D.C. – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gen. Rufus Ingalls. Col. Ames Webster, and group Gen. Rufus Ingalls. Col. Ames Webster, and group – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Pontoon bridge across Blackburn's Ford, Bull Run, Va Pontoon bridge across Blackburn's Ford, Bull Run, Va – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gun squad at drill Gun squad at drill – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Army wagons and forge, near City Point, Va Army wagons and forge, near City Point, Va – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gunboat "Agawan", Officers and crew Gunboat “Agawan”, Officers and crew – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Confederate prisoners awaiting transportation, Belle Plain, Va Confederate prisoners awaiting transportation, Belle Plain, Va – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865
Brady has also photographed the American presidents, and many senior union officers in the war. His photograph of Abraham Lincoln is used in the $5 bill and Lincoln penny.

Hon. Gideon Welles, Conn Hon. Gideon Welles, Conn – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Hon. James Harlan, Iowa Hon. James Harlan, Iowa – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Hon. William P. Fessenden, Me Hon. William P. Fessenden, Me – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

President Abraham Lincoln and Tad Lincoln President Abraham Lincoln and Tad Lincoln – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

President Abraham Lincoln President Abraham Lincoln – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gen. George H. Thomas Gen. George H. Thomas – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gen. Jacob D. Cox Gen. Jacob D. Cox – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gen. Emory Upton Gen. Emory Upton – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Gen. George Morrell Gen. George Morrell – From Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, Photographer: Brady, Mathew, 1823 (ca.) – 1896 Coverage Dates: ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 Subjects: American Civil War, 1861-1865

Some Further Background Reading

After the Civil War, Brady ran out of money and it is believed that he spent over $100,000 to create more than 10,000 photographic plates and therefore eventually ran into debt as the government did not buy his photographs as he had predicted.
Brady had to sell his photos to the New York City studio and thereafter went into financial crisis. A broke photographer!
After a street accident in January 1896, Brady was admitted to a Charity ward in Presbyterian Hospital. He was very ill, not cared for and lived alone during his last days and during this time, when talking about his photographs, he said,
“No one will ever know what they cost me; some of them almost cost me my life.”
Brady died of complications from his accident on the January 15th, 1896.
After Brady's death his nephew Handy who was also an American Photographer, acquired Brady’s remaining photographic files.
Some of Brady’s civil war negatives were acquired by the photographic supply company E. and H.T Anthony as payment towards Brady’s debt to that company, which were later purchased by the library of congress in 1943.


Further Resources

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About the author

Dahlia Ambrose

Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

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