Photography in the 1860s exposed many American families to the realities of war for the first time. It’s not that cameras weren’t present at earlier conflicts. You can find soldier portraits and some miscellaneous views from the Mexican American War (1846-1848), and Roger Fenton — a British citizen who is widely considered to be the first wartime photographer — documented the Crimean War on film during May and June of 1855.
But the Civil War was different. Battlefield images in crisp, clear photographic detail brought death into our ancestors’ homes. Distinguished portraits created icons out of presidents and generals. Never before had the American public seen such striking photographs. The war changed the way a generation interacted with photography. Families treasured the portraits their soldiers sent back from the war front, and they hoped not to see dead relatives in battlefield views.
In 1862, the New York Times reviewed an exhibit of Antietam battlefield photos at Mathew Brady’s studio, remarking that Brady had “done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets he has done something very like it.”
But Civil War photographers weren’t interested only in capturing the carnage. Brady’s team of photographers, which included Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, were on the lookout for scenes that would appeal at home, such as soldiers playing cards or relaxing during encampment. They captured family and town life along with ruined buildings and landscapes.
As many as 300 people received passes to photograph the Federal army in action. These military photographers took pictures of maps and wartime engineering. Their job was to document the war, including bridges, buildings and field fortifications. The US Army Military Medical Department photographed the casualties of war. After the conflict, the photos were published in the six-volume Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.
Another 1,000 to 1,500 photographers followed the troops without passes. These entrepreneurs set up mobile studios to fill the large demand for portraits of individual soldiers. The Bergstresser Brothers spent two years trailing troops and they took an estimated 160 portraits a day, charging a dollar each.
The images of the war — portraits of soldiers in uniform, battlefield scenes, home front views and pictures taken for propaganda — fueled patriotism on both sides of the conflict and made photography part of the fabric of the Civil War. As you’ll see on these pages, the photos are still moving, 150 years later.
These photos were collected from the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Fairfax County Public Library.
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