American Photography

- Dead bodies in the Civil War -

 








 
Introduction

Photographers

Mathew B. Brady

Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Alexander Gardner

Publishing the Images

Harper's Weekly

Galleries and Books

The Dead Bodies

Harvest of Death

Bodies of Confederate

Conclusion

Sources

Internet Webpages

Literature

Introduction

The American Civil War was the most cruel, most brutal, and most painful one in American history. It was in many ways different to former wars. The young American nation fought the first modern war, a war in which father fought against son, brother against brother, and friend against friend. In the beginning people thought it would be a short war, a victory after a few weeks, but they were wrong. It was a long war, many people were killed, and even more people suffered during the war. More American people died in the Civil War than in all following wars in which America took part. Nearly everybody had lost at least one or more members of his family. Yet after four years of fighting a new nation was born. A nation that wanted the United States to be one nation and not just a union of several states, as it had been before.

The Civil War included all American people, even those on remote locations. Everyone was able to inform himself about the war. New ways of presenting information arose and developed during those four years. Newspapers like Harper's Weekly informed civilians about the war, and even showed pictures of it. Mathew B. Brady and many other photographers used the new technology of photography to display the war. They took pictures of nearly anything of interest for the remote people. The pictures covered themes like single soldiers or officers, troops, battlefields, houses, and later on destruction and death. Never before was it possible for civilians to actually see the damages war does. They were used to paintings of war, where a battle always was heroic and not dreadful.

The Civil War was the first modern war in many ways. New technologies, like gunboats, were used during the war, guns an rifles were better than before, it was not always necessary to fight man against man, if one takes the power of a gunboat into consideration. And finally new ways of reporting from war were introduced. The paintings were outnumbered by the pictures taken during the war. It was a lot easier and a lot faster to make a photograph than to draw. Many positives could be made out of one negative, which enabled a vast number of viewer to see the picture at the same time and at different places.

 

 

 

Photographers

Mathew B. Brady

Mathew B. Brady, a visionary and one of the greatest photographers of his time, lived from 1823 to 1896. He was born as a son of Irish immigrants in Warren County, New York. After he had met William Page1 in Saratoga Springs, both moved to New York City in late 1839. There Page introduced Brady to Samuel F. B. Morse2, a professor of art, painting, and design at New York University, who also was the inventor of the telegraph. Morse had just learned about Daguerre’s3 new invention of photography, the "daguerreotype"4, on his journey to Europe. Brady was fascinated, thus he took lessons from Morse which he financed with the money that he earned as a clerk.

In 1844 he finally had saved enough to open his own gallery. He photographed a large number of well-known people, which made him famous. His gallery displayed people like Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, James F. Cooper, and many others. Brady employed many people such as camera operators, chemists and makeup artists. While he was abroad in 1851, he became acquainted with the wet plate process, which was invented by an Englishman called Frederick Scott Archer5. This invention made it possible to make unlimited copies of the one picture, which was another advancement for Brady's gallery. It was even possible to make enlargements, which were sold for up to $750.

After the Civil War had broken out in 1861, Brady found himself extremely busy in his gallery. Many soldiers wanted their picture on carts de visite to show their status. Brady, however, left the management of his gallery to his employers and rushed to take pictures of the war. He was the field photographer at the first battle -- Bull Run. After the battle was over he decided to launch a full-scale war photography operation. Brady equipped his staff of photographers, including Alexander Gardner, T. H. O’Sullivan, and John Reekie, and sent them to where the army was. During the Civil War 3,500 pictures were taken bearing Brady’s name although he did not shoot all of them himself. Most of the time he was only going from one place to the other to collect the pictures made by his staff, and only a few of them got their credit after the war, when the public got to know who took them.

The Civil War project cost Brady $100,000; this was all Brady had ever possessed. After the war he tried to persuade the government to buy his pictures, but he failed in doing this. Brady had to declare bankruptcy. In the year 1875 the US Government finally decided to pay Brady. He was paid $25,000 for the Civil War negatives, which barley covered his debts. In the remaining years of his life, he lived in boarding houses most of the time, working for other photographers. Mathew B. Brady died in 1896 having been lonely in his last years.

 

 

Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Timothy O’Sullivan was probably born in Ireland about 1840. He was one of the youngest and most talented photographers in the Civil War. He began his career in 1856 or 18576 when he started to work as an apprentice photographer at Mathew Brady’s gallery. Timothy O’Sullivan was one of the photographers who were sent to the battlefields by Brady. Like other "camera operators" he wanted to keep the negatives of the pictures he had taken, but Brady would not allow this. This refusal and the fact that Brady would not permit that his photographers signed their pictures were reasons enough for O’Sullivan to break with Brady and to start to work for Alexander Gardner.

After the war O'Sullivan was one of the most experienced photographers of his time and he was hired as the official photographer to the US Army Corps of Engineers. Starting with the year 1867 he took part in several government-sponsored missions and he was one the first photographers to take a picture of the Grand Canyon.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan died of tuberculosis in the year 18827 at the age of 41.

 

 

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner was born on October 17, 1821 in Glasgow, Scotland. Around 1856 he came to the United States, where he started to work for Mathew B. Brady as a portrait photographer8. Gardner worked as Brady's assistant for seven years and he was also the manager of Brady's studio in Washington. When the Civil War broke out Gardner did as many other employees did, he went to the battlefields to take pictures of the war. Although Gardner helped Brady to take the Civil War pictures, Brady still refused to give Gardner credit for the photographs he had taken. This was reason enough for Gardner to break up with Brady. He left him in 1863 to open a portrait gallery of his own. Gardner hired some of his former colleagues among them Timothy O'Sullivan and John Reekie. In 1865 and 1866 he published Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War, which was the first published collection of Civil War photographs9. After the war he went westwards, where he photographed the buildings of the railroad as the official photographer of the Union Pacific Railroad. In the following years he lost interest in his profession and lived with his family and friends in Iowa where he had sent them many years earlier.

Alexander Gardner died in Washington in 1882 knowing that not only Brady's photographs were bought by the Congress, but also those he had taken.

 

 

Publishing the Images

Harper's Weekly

The whole nineteenth century was a period in which many periodical magazines were founded, not only in Europe but in the United States as well. Among the American magazines were the North American Review, The Atlantic, and the popular National Geographic Magazine. Many magazines were published by publishing companies such as Harper & Brothers, owned by the four Harper brothers James, John, Joseph Wesley, and Fletcher. In the year 1850 they founded Harper's New Monthly, which later on was called Harper's Magazine10. Seven years later the first issue of Harper's Weekly was printed. Harper's Weekly became very popular during the Civil War. It was a window to the war for the reader who lived in remote areas. Articles about style, literature, politics, and battles were printed in those magazines.

What made Harper's Weekly even more special and popular are the many photographs that were published in the magazine. These photographs were often taken by Mathew B. Brady and his staff or by former members of his staff such as Gardner and O'Sullivan.

Harper's Weekly ran for almost 60 years and was so popular that even nowadays one can subscribe to reprints of the original issues of the Civil War11.

 

Galleries and Books

Two more ways of publishing photographs were known in that time. One way was to display pictures in a gallery and the other was the printing of books. The former one was used by Brady in the year 1862, that is during the war time. In October of that year he opened the exhibition "The Dead of Antietam" when he put a sign on the door of his New York gallery. He displayed pictures of the battle, including many photographs showing dead bodies. This exhibition was so impressive and shocking that the New York Times said Brady had brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war"12.

The other way of presenting photographs were books. Although this was not common during the war it gained enormous popularity after 1865. Alexander Gardner published the two volumes of Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War in 1865 and 1866. The edition showed over 100 original prints. Both, Brady's and Gardner's collections of negatives were later bought by the government.

Many years later, in 1912, Benson's book A History of the Civil War was published posthumously. The book is based on Brady's photographs and reflects the history of the Civil War using the images he took during the war.

 

 

 

The Dead Bodies

Harvest of Death

Gettysburg: this is the location where one of the cruelest fights of the Civil War took place. Witnesses of the cruelty of the Civil War are pictures like The Harvest of Death by T. H. O'Sullivan. This picture shows dead Union soldiers. The bodies are lying all over the hill, killed during the fight before. Personal odds and ends on the ground next to the bodies show that the soldiers were probably running down the hill when confederate bullets shot them down. Only one face is visible, that of the body in the foreground. The expression on the face reflects the dreadful fight and the barbaric way of dying during that war. The soldier in the foreground does not wear any shoes or boots, nor do all bodies around him. They were stolen by retreating Confederates who had a desperate need for footwear13. After the fight the surviving and healthy soldiers, and medical orderly looked for injured comrades. Two of them can be seen only as silhouettes in the background of the picture. They are part of the scenery but not very interesting for the photographer.

It was very common that photographers moved bodies around with the purpose to get a better picture. In this case there is only one evidence that O'Sullivan might has done this. The fact that only one face can be seen, is not very likely on a battle field with so many dead soldiers. O'Sullivan probably turned the faces of the others away but left the bodies where they were killed.

The title of the picture is also very suitable for this picture. The random position of the bodies looks like a field with many straw bales after the harvest; the harvest of Death himself.

 

 

Bodies of Confederate

The battle of Antietam was the first that was made visible to the public. Mathew B. Brady showed pictures of the battle in his exhibition in New York in 1862. He called the exhibition where he displayed many pictures of dead soldiers The Dead of Antietam. Among these was Bodies of Confederate gathered for burial by Alexander Gardner. James F. Gibson14 and Alexander Gardner took all pictures of Antietam; pictures showing war like no civilian had seen before15.

Unlike The Harvest of Death, this picture does not reflect the brutality of war by showing the bodies lying around on the battle field. Bodies of Confederate gathered for burial basically shows what the title implies, a row of bodies. In this case there is no need for the viewer to see a face. The row of an uncountable number of bodies is sufficient to present the senseless killing of masses of human beings, and to create anger and sadness about what had happened during the American Civil War in the second half of the 19th century. The fact that barely any vegetation - only two trees and a few bushes - and no person alive can be seen, supports this impression. Even in this case it is very likely that Alexander Gardner had changed the position of the bodies to get a 'better' picture of the pile of bodies.

 

 

 

Conclusion

Mathew Brady, was he, or was he not the first modern newspaper photographer? He probably was, and he definitely had a vision. He wanted to show America the war from a new perspective, a perspective different to the one painters give. He showed the whole range of a war mostly using pictures his staff took during the war. Many of the images showed dead soldiers. Soldiers killed only a few hours before the pictures were taken. Never before death was so present among the civilians in remote farms, villages, or cities. It was the first time people could see the victims of war. Though that was not enough, reality was not dreadful, not cruel, and not brutal enough. Many photographers changed the position of the bodies to even increase those emotions.

After the pictures were taken and developed, Brady collected them and published them either in his gallery or in newspapers such as Harper's Weekly. Was this different to the way is works today? Basically not, today photographers or reporters present their images live, using new technologies like TV, Fax, e-mail, Internet and so on. The purpose is still the same. The reporter wants to bring news close to the viewer, he wants to do this fast, effective and he usually wants to show the truth. But is it the truth or reality when a photographer changes the position of the bodies he wants to take a picture of? In war it certainly is. No picture, no painting, nor a story can show the whole range of brutality of a war how it really is, so why not change the position of the bodies. After all this was still a step on the way to give a true and fully report of the Civil War.

Mathew B. Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, and many others have prepared the way for all following reporters. The need for truth and evidence is still present, as it was in the 19th century, especially today.

 

 

Sources

Internet Webpages

Mathew Brady:

Alexander Gardner

Timothy O'Sullivan

Harper's Weekly

Others

 

Literature

Lossing, Benson J (ed.). Mathew Brady's Illustrated History of the Civil War (Avernel, New Jersey, 1996). (order now)

Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War - An Illustrated History (New York, 1990). (order now)

Trachtenberg, Alan Reading American Photographs (New York, 1990). (order now)

Galassi, Peter (ed.) American Photography 1890-1965 (New York, 1995). (order now)