Photography and the War
The Civil War was not the first war to be photographed, but it was the first in which the camera played an important role. Photography was invented in the late 1830s in Europe, and introduced in America in the 1840s. The medium was only twenty years old when the Civil War began. Because it produced vivid records of camp life and battlegrounds, it forever changed the way people thought about what soldiers were going through.
Interestingly, it was not images of actual fighting that made such impressions on the population. Taking a picture in the field was a difficult project. Photographers, or “operators” as they were called, had to go through an elaborate ritual—the “wet-plate” process—just to get their glass plates ready to put in the camera. This was done in a wagon that held all of the required chemicals. Because cameras were large and difficult to move, and the necessary exposure time for a photograph was so long, it was impossible for photographers to capture battles as they happened because the images would be blurry. Furthermore, it was simply too dangerous to take pictures during the action of battle. But as seen in Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter by Alexander Gardner, this new medium powerfully documented the aftermath of battles. Photographs of the dead made clear the destructiveness and scale of Civil War battles, and startled any viewers who might still have clung to the idea that war was filled with “glory.”
The New York Times focused on the shocking effect of such images in its review of photographer Mathew Brady’s pictures of Antietam, another battlefield. The reviewer wrote that Brady “has 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.”
War photography had other, less gruesome purposes, too. Units sometimes posed for photographs while performing drills, as in O’Sullivan’s Incidents of the War: Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery in Action. More Americans viewed photographs that were portraits of their loved ones than photographs of soldiers in the field. Thousands of portraits of individual soldiers were produced over the course of the Civil War. New kinds of photographs such as the tintype and the carte-de-visite were small and flat and could be mailed home, put into family albums, or framed.