How pioneering Civil War cameramen such as Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner forever changed the way the world views warfare.

One day in 1897, the rap of an auction-house gavel fetched novice photo collector Frederick Hill Meserve a thick package wrapped in brown paper and string. Meserve’s successful bid of $1.10 was for a sight-unseen purchase. The auction catalog description said merely “photographs,” but for a man on a mission it was a worthy gamble. Meserve had been seeking Civil War–era photographs to illustrate the wartime memoirs of his father, Union Army veteran William Meserve. What Frederick didn’t realize was that the seemingly innocuous plain paper package held a small piece of national treasure: Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady.

“I had my first experience of the sensation of intoxication…that comes from the possession of a rare find,” Meserve said later. “I had not the knowledge necessary for full appreciation of the 100 or more exquisite salt prints that I unwrapped, soft brown in color and unglazed. But their clarity and beauty was so evident that I was stirred.”

Photography historians consider Brady’s images some of the most significant and beautiful of the many thousands created during the war. He became the best-known public face of legions of lesser-known or even anonymous cameramen of the Civil War generation, men such as Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, Andrew J. Russell, John Reekie and George Barnard in the North, and George S. Cook, Michael Miley, Julian Vannerson and A.D. Lytle in the South.

Their pioneering work made the Civil War the first armed conflict in history to be extensively documented in photographs. They liberated the camera from the narrow confines of the commercial studio, and proved photography’s usefulness in the arena of public life as a medium of information equal to that of the written word.

Soldiers and civilians of the Civil War period used photography in a variety of novel ways—in medicine, espionage and documenting official government and military activities. However, none of its uses would have a greater impact on society than the nascent art of photojournalism.

Photography arrived in America at the dawn of an era of tremendous technological change. New innovations such as the telegraph, steam power and the railroad were shrinking the average American’s world and causing faraway events to have a greater impact on daily life. As an increasingly curious public grew hungry for knowledge of the outside world, it embraced photography as one of many powerful tools for promoting the growth of knowledge and the progress of American society.

By the late 1850s, two innovations converged fortuitously to seal the marriage of journalism and photography. Introduced in 1851, a new wet-plate collodion developing process enabled photographers to reproduce an infinite number of positive images from a single negative considerably faster and less expensively than before. Mass-distribution illustrated publications such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (founded in 1855) and Harper’s Weekly (founded in 1857) arrived soon after to put photographs, copied in the form of engravings or line drawings, in front of the greatest mass audience such images had yet achieved.

Recognizing the potential communicative power of this new mass media tool in crafting a political candidacy, Abraham Lincoln sat for his portrait at Brady’s New York studio on February 27, 1860, just hours before he was to deliver his landmark speech at the Cooper Union. The photograph appeared in Harper’s Weekly as a woodcut illustration, then in the form of 100,000 cartes-de-visite (small, wallet-sized images printed on thick card stock), which Republican campaign managers distributed throughout the rest of the campaign. So great was the influence of the photograph that Brady would later report Lincoln as having said, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President.”

War followed hard on the heels of Lincoln’s election. Forward-looking American photographers were already geared up and ready to document what they intuitively grasped as a historic moment for the nation. The more ambitious among them had visions of creating an unprecedented comprehensive photographic record of war for the first time in history.

Few were more ambitious than Brady, whom prominent photo collector Philip Kunhardt has called “the first magazine photographer.” Throughout the 1840s and ’50s, Brady had established himself in popular imagination as the grand impresario of the celebrity machine of his day by setting himself up as the photographer to the rich and famous. He created a “national portrait gallery,” a permanent collection of photographs that would successfully record for future generations the celebrated faces of mid–19th century America.

The idea of making a complete photographic record of the coming conflict certainly did not occur to Brady alone. But his relentless—and successful—self-promotion and public notoriety, combined with his social connections and the business they brought, gave him the material resources needed to pull it off. It also afforded Brady a highly visible public platform for articulating his vision, giving him a significant advantage over lesser-known but like-minded photographers.

For photography to establish itself as a war-reporting medium in its own right, the first order of business would have to be a parting of ways with the romantic traditions of 19th-century military art, which emphasized heroism and ignored the horrors of war. That idealized imagery of the past continued to influence the infant medium of photography through the early years of the Civil War. Photographs from 1861 and much of 1862 show a bold, strong, heroic Union Army in dress parade mode: gallant men striking Napoleonic poses in their immaculate uniforms, showing off their gold braid and epaulets, standing proudly with their new muskets or next to their artillery pieces.

To achieve a more objective journalistic vision, war photographers would have to begin learning how to capture the realities of warfare effectively. Because few models of visual combat reporting existed, its evolution would require changes in philosophy and a fair amount of trial and error.

It also remained to be seen if taking photographs on the battlefield was even possible. An opportunity came for Brady and his assistants with the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861. Driving two portable darkroom carts (nicknamed “whatsitwagons” by Union troops) loaded with cameras, tripods, photographic plates and bottles of chemicals into the thick of the fray, they nearly lost all their equipment during the Union army’s chaotic retreat. To make matters worse, Brady got lost in the surrounding woods and spent an anxious night in his whatsitwagon before stumbling wet and bedraggled into Washington the next day. It was a rocky start, but Brady had gotten his pictures.

Slowly but surely, photographs taken prior to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 began to reveal the first glimmers of visual realism. Photographers had begun turning their cameras toward the organizational complexity of the Army, the domain of technicians, engineers, cooks and teamsters. But the dominant legacy of the photographic coverage of Antietam was its shift toward the open depiction of combat’s naked ugliness and horror. For the first time, photographers documented the dead and dying on the battlefield.

In late 1862, Brady’s New York gallery exhibit of photos by Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, titled “The Dead of Antietam,” drew large crowds who stared curiously into the faces of these anonymous casualties. Gardner and Gibson’s pictures teem with the swollen, spread-eagled, prostrate corpses of soldiers and horses, as well as open graves, Union soldiers on burial detail and other grisly scenes. A New York Times review reported that Brady’s photos 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 dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., father of the future Supreme Court justice, viewed the exhibit months after he had gone to search the Antietam battlefield for his son, who had fought in the bloody engagement. In an Atlantic Monthly article in July 1863, Holmes advised: “Let him who wishes to know what war is like look at this series of illustrations….It is well enough for some Baron Gros or Horace Vernet to please an imperial master with fanciful portraits of what they are supposed to be. The honest sunshine…gives us…some conception of what a repulsive, sickening, hideous thing it is, this dashing together of two frantic mobs to which we give the name of armies.”

Brady’s exhibit proved to be a milestone in the use of the photograph to tell the story of catastrophic public events. Not incidentally, it also demonstrated the power of photographs to simultaneously shock and fascinate—and generate profits.

In the Civil War era, as in our own times, scooping competitors by getting the big story first brought writers prestige and business. Now that the illustrated weeklies had created a profitable journalistic niche for photographers, they followed suit. When word of the immense battle in progress at Gettysburg reached Northern photographers in July 1863, the news touched off a race to beat all comers to the scene and capture the best pictures.

Gardner, along with Gibson and O’Sullivan, left Washington immediately and made it to Gettysburg first. Gardner had left the Brady stable by then to go into business for himself, taking a few former associates with him. Brady and Gardner were now competitors.

Gardner, O’Sullivan and Gibson took several pictures of dead soldiers, breastworks and some of the key battlefield locations. Unfortunately, they completely overlooked other important landmarks of the epic fight. The men did not think to acquire the services of a reliable guide, who might have identified such places for them.

When Brady arrived a week later, he did have the advantage of battlefield guides. His pictures illustrated all the important battlefield landmarks, and consequently gained exposure in the illustrated weeklies, but they lacked the dramatic impact of Gardner’s images of the dead.

Some of those pictures by Gardner, however, may constitute history’s first well-documented instance of photomanipulation by journalists. Sharp-eyed photo historians have identified one dead Confederate soldier who appears in multiple poses and locations. Apparently Gardner and his assistants dragged the soldier featured in his famous picture of the dead “sharpshooter” at Devil’s Den to the rock enclosure from dozens of yards away and, putting his knapsack under his head and his rifle against the rocks, shot a series of pictures. In another picture of a Confederate casualty, Gardner added a rifle and a severed hand as props. The doctoring of such images raised questions of ethics that are just as potent today in the age of Photoshop.

Later in the war, the maturity of visual combat reporting turned another corner with the last major turning point in the war itself: the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant as the commander of all Union armies in the spring of 1864. Grant brought a cool, no-nonsense style of leadership to his new job that departed sharply from the style of most of his predecessors. As a result, the images photographers began taking of Grant at work showed a commander seemingly unconcerned with his public image. He stood in stark contrast to men such as Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who was famous for commissioning photographs of himself in poses consciously imitative of a triumphant Napoleon Bonaparte. One memorable portrait showed a frowning Grant leaning against a tree with only two buttons holding his vest together. This image sent a critical message to the public: Here is a commander focused on nothing else but winning the war.

With this change in the attitude of Army leadership came a radical shift in Army strategy. The Union was now focused on a war of grinding attrition that would use superior resources in men and materiel to destroy the substance and morale of the Confederate Army.

The massive buildup of the materiel of war, as well as the fearful casualties and mass destruction, define the photographs of this period. There are pictures of Union depots at City Point, Va., near Petersburg bursting with supplies that contrast sharply with the images of starving undersupplied Confederates, barefoot boys lying face down in the mud where they had been killed. We see soldiers in the earthworks and bombproofs at Petersburg, the choking dusts of summer, the drenching rains that filled the trenches, and men under fire from snipers.

Less than a year later, it was all over. By April 1865, Union troops had seized a war-ravaged Richmond. Every Northern photographer who was anybody— Gardner, Brady and their associates— went down to photograph the widespread destruction wreaked upon the former Confederate capital by fleeing Rebels.

For Southern photographers, the circumstances of war starved the Confederacy of the material resources that they needed to cover the conflict as extensively as their Northern counterparts were. The blockade of Southern ports, in addition to the Confederacy’s general economic constraints, greatly restricted the number of photos made from the Rebel perspective, although some Southern photographers managed to secure supplies from blockade runners.

Many images produced by Southerners suffered the ravages of the fighting below the Mason–Dixon Line, reducing the number of extant photos even further. It is said that disappointment and disillusionment in the South at the end of the war was so strong that many Southern photographers destroyed all their negatives rather than endure the strain of brooding over them—an interesting theory, albeit unsupported by hard facts.

No photographers traveled with Confederate armies to make documentary photos in the fashion of Gardner and Brady, but photography studios were common in Southern cities, towns and military camps, just as they were in the North. Confederate photography consisted largely of ambrotype and tintype portraits of soldiers and their families, and portraits of Rebel leaders assembled as collections of cartes-de-visite in albums.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Southern photography did produce a few stars, chiefly George S. Cook. Born in Connecticut, Cook settled in Charleston, S.C., before the war. He was on hand to capture portraits of Union Major Robert Anderson during the Fort Sumter crisis in early 1861. Cook later succeeded in taking the first combat action photographs when he captured images of enemy ironclads battling in Charleston Harbor on September 8, 1863. Cook took the photos from the parapet of Fort Sumter on a day when 46 Union shells fell into the fort, and he caught one of them exploding on film. Except on that occasion and a couple of others, Cook remained in his Charleston studio during the war and did not take documentary photographs. Sometime in 1864 he lost all his massive collection of studio negatives to fire, including all his portraits of Confederate notables. However, the negatives from his trips into the field, including his combat action photographs, survived.

Despite all the efforts of Northern and Southern photographers during the war, it was the momentous event that occurred five days after it ended—the assassination of the president—that revealed the full potential of photography as a journalistic medium. Of all the events that photographers covered in the Civil War era, it was the Lincoln assassination that fused together everything that had been learned into the kernel of what we now call photojournalism.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Gardner decided to document the key locations of the incident: Ford’s Theatre (showing the swags of black muslin on the façade of the box where Lincoln was murdered); the stables of John C. Howard, where assassin John Wilkes Booth had kept his horse; the telegraph office from which the world was first informed of Lincoln’s death; and the Navy Yard Bridge across the Anacostia River that Booth had used to escape from Washington into Maryland.

Colonel Lafayette Baker, the chief of the Secret Service who had been put in charge of the murder investigation, asked Gardner on April 20 to copy previous photos he had taken of Booth, John Surratt and David Herold for use on a wanted poster.

After Booth’s death in a shootout with Federal soldiers, Gardner and O’Sullivan were commissioned by the government to take pictures of Booth’s autopsy aboard the ironclad USS Montauk, anchored at the Washington Navy Yard. According to the New York Tribune, a photograph of Booth’s body was taken on April 28. On May 13, Harper’s Weekly published an engraving possibly based on that photo.

The Booth autopsy photo was never seen again, its disappearance constituting one of the first recorded instances of government censorship of a photograph. According to instructions, the single print and single negative were delivered to Colonel Baker at the War Department later on the 28th, and then they vanished. Later, Secretary of War Stanton denied that any such picture had ever been taken. Historians have speculated that once the picture’s usefulness for identification purposes was exhausted, the government had it destroyed to prevent its general circulation, which might have made Booth a martyr.

The Booth image was not the only instance of photographic censorship at the end of the war. While Lincoln was lying in state in New York City on April 24, 1865, Jeremiah Gurney received permission to photograph the casket and body. When Stanton learned of the images through the newspapers, he angrily demanded that all negatives and prints be destroyed. At least one print, however, came into Stanton’s hands. It was apparently sent to him in an effort to try to get him to change his mind, considering the historic nature of the photographs. Stanton did not destroy that print but instead kept it in his possession for the rest of his life. Stanton’s son later sent it to Lincoln’s personal secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay. The print ended up in the Hay–Nicolay papers at the Illinois State Historical Society but remained unknown until it was rediscovered at the library on July 20, 1952, by a budding 14-year-old Lincoln scholar named Ronald Rietveld.

Later in the summer of 1865, the government brought in Gardner and O’Sullivan to photograph the July 7 execution of the assassination conspirators. They shot a series of images, beginning with the empty scaffold, then moving on to the conspirators and officials climbing up the scaffold, and ending with the hanging. It was the most extensive photographic story of an important occurence to date. It captured a complex and emotional sequence of events in images that today we would call a photo essay. Many historians believe it marked the coming of age of the photojournalistic approach.

The Civil War was over, but the work of recording history with the camera would go on. Many photographers who had cut their teeth on the battlefields in the East now headed west to document the taming of the American frontier. There would be other wars to cover. The men, and later women, who did so would be guided by the techniques of the Civil War generation and build on the foundation they laid. Post–Civil War photographers would have better, more portable, faster-shooting equipment. By the late 19th century, the half-tone process (a way of quickly and cheaply reproducing a photograph in newspapers and magazines) put the fruits of their labor in front of rapidly growing audiences.

Today news photos in print publications—and now online—are everywhere. News coverage without them is unimaginable. When we open up a newspaper or magazine to find stories told in both pictures and words, we are experiencing the legacy of the American cameramen of the 1860s.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here