Civil War Wiki
File:Photographers lunch acw.jpg

Two photographers having lunch in the Bull Run area before the second battle, 1862.

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 the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Union photographers[]

Mathew Brady[]

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. Brady would later spend his own accumulated earnings 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, Brady organized his employees into groups, in order to spread them across the country, and to get work. Brady provided carriages, which were rolling darkrooms (to develop the photographic plates into pictures), to all his parties at his own personal expense. The total cost was about $100,000. The First Battle of Bull Run provided the initial opportunity to photograph an engagement between opposing armies. Brady was very calm during battle, as can be seen from Lt. J. A. Gardner's notes:

On July 21, 1861, Brady, the photographer, drove his light wagon out to the entrenchments. Approaching Captain Cooper, Brady politely asked if he could take a picture of the battery when just about to fire. The enemy, observing the movement of the preparations, began firing. (Note: In other words, the Confederates started bombarding Cooper's battery, where Brady was standing). Brady, seeing his camera was uninjured, recalled his assistant and took more pictures from a little to the rear.

Brady recorded more than just photographs. Commentaries found in his traveling journal are used by historians studying the war in detail. One of his commentaries recorded an event that would otherwise have been lost to history. On the night before a battle, Brady heard when the silence was broken as a Confederate soldier across the field began singing patriotic songs. Soon, a second voice was heard, followed by more voices. In no time at all, both armies were singing together in a spirit of common fellowship. Yet, they still attacked each other in the morning.

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 much higher $125,000 he asked. He once said that long after his death, his work will be appreciated. Some[who?] feel that Brady was as much a hero as the soldiers who fought. He died in 1896, in poverty and isolation.

Alexander Gardner[]

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. So, as 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 renowned pictures of the war, which he named "Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter."[1]

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 later expanded upon by the author William Frassanito, in 1975.

For a brief time following the war, Gardner 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 Gardner 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 Barnard[]

File:Atlanta roundhouse ruin3.jpg

Ruined roundhouse in Atlanta, Georgia after the Atlanta Campaign. Albumen print by George Barnard, 1866. Digitally restored.

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 known 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, D.C.

Timothy O'Sullivan[]

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 as a first lieutenant. 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 Popein 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.

Following the end of the Civil War, O'Sullivan was granted a job in the United States Geographical Survey, west of the 100th Meridian. His job was to photograph the West to help 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 the official photographer of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Treasury Department. He died at age 42, in 1882.

James F. Gibson[]

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. Photography was relatively new at the time of the Civil War. Cameras were much larger than they are today. Taking pictures was a slow and complex process.

Photographers would often follow armies into battle to get pictures of the battle scene. These included both newspaper and Army photographers. These photographers would travel by horse and wagon to different locations.

Southern photographers[]

Many photographs were taken by Southerners, but most were lost to history. According to the Photographic History of the Civil War

The natural disappointment in the South at the end of the war was such that photographers were forced to destroy all negatives, just as owners destroyed all the objects that might serve as souvenirs or relics of the terrible struggle, thinking for the moment at least, that they could not bear the strain of brooding over the tragedy.

George S. Cook[]

The most noted Southern photographer was George Cook. Born in Connecticut in 1819, he had tried, but failed. as a merchant in his home town. He moved to New Orleans and became 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 of the gradual destruction of Charleston, and Fort Sumter, by enemy action. He even photographed the naval action of ironclads at Fort Sumter. 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 charge of the studio in Charleston. In Richmond, Cook bought the businesses (and the negatives) of the photographers who were retiring or moving from the city. He thus amassed the most complete photographic collection of the former Confederate capital, held in one location. Cook remained an active photographer for 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.

Robert M. Smith[]

Confederate Lieutenant Robert M. Smith was captured and imprisoned at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. He is 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.[2]


File:Army mil-2008-08-05-123736.jpg

An unidentified American woman during the American Civil War, presumed to be a Vivandière.

The results of the efforts of all Civil War photographers can be seen in almost all of the history texts of the conflict. In terms of photography, the American Civil War is the best covered conflict of the 19th century. It presaged the development of the wartime photojournalism of 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.

See also[]

  • Thomas C. Roche
  • Panoramic photography
  • Daguerreotype
  • Calotype



External links[]

Mathew Brady[]

Alexander Gardner[]

George Barnard[]

George S. Cook[]

Timothy O'Sullivan[]


  • Hagen, Charles. "A Civil War Image Maker's Belated Recognition", The New York Times, July 31, 1992: p. C19.
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