The American Civil War Photo Essay

The Case of the Moved Body

Like other Civil War photographers, Alexander Gardner sometimes tried to communicate both pathos and patriotism with his photographs, reminding his audience of the tragedy of war without forgetting the superiority of his side's cause. Sometimes, the most effective means of elevating one's cause while demeaning the other was to create a scene -- by posing bodies -- and then draft a dramatic narrative to accompany the picture.

Compare the photographer's 1865 narratives with a contemporary analysis:

Sharpshooter's Last Sleep | Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter | Analysis

Sharpshooter's Last Sleep

By Alexander Gardner
Text for Plate 40 in Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War, published, 1865-66.

A burial party, searching for dead on the borders of the Gettysburg battle-field, found, in a secluded spot, a sharpshooter lying as he fell when struck by the bullet. His cap and gun were evidently thrown behind him by the violence of the shock, and the blanket, partly shown, indicates that he had selected this as a permanent position from which to annoy the enemy. How many skeletons of such men are bleaching to-day in out of the way places no one can tell. Now and then the visitor to a battle-field finds the bones of some man shot as this one was, but there are hundreds that will never be known of, and will moulder into nothingness among the rocks. There were several regiments of Sharpshooters employed on both sides during the war, and many distinguished officers lost their lives at the hands of the riflemen. The first regiment was composed of men selected from each of the Loyal States, who brought their own rifles, and could snuff a candle at a hundred yards. Some of the regiments tried almost every variety of arms, but generally found the Western rifle most effective. The men were seldom used in line, but were taken to the front and allowed to choose their own positions. Some climbed into bushy trees, and lashed themselves to the branches to avoid falling if wounded. Others secreted themselves behind logs and rocks, and not a few dug little pits, into which they crept, lying close to the ground and rendering it almost impossible for an enemy to hit thim. Occasionally a Federal and Confederate Sharpshooter would be brought face to face, when each would resort to every artifice to kill the other. Hats would be elevated upon sticks, and powder flashed on a piece of paper, to draw the opponent's fire, not always with success, however, and sometimes many hours would elapse before either party could get a favorable shot. When the armies were entrenched, as at Vicksburg and Richmond, the sharpshooters frequently secreted themselves so as to defy discovery, and picked off officers without the Confederate riflemen being able to return the fire.

Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter

By Alexander Gardner
Text for Plate 41 in Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War, published, 1865-66.

On the Fourth of July, 1863, Lee's shattered army withdrew from Gettysburg, and started on its retreat from Pennsylvania to the Potomac. From Culp's Hill, on our right, to the forests that stretched away from Round Top, on the left, the fields were thickly strewn with Confederate dead and wounded, dismounted guns, wrecked caissons, and the debris of a broken army. The artist, in passing over the scene of the previous days' engagements, found in a lonely place the covert of a rebel sharpshooter, and photographed the scene presented here. The Confederate soldier had built up between two huge rocks, a stone wall, from the crevices of which he had directed his shots, and, in comparative security, picked off our officers. The side of the rock on the left shows, by the little white spots, how our sharpshooters and infantry had endeavored to dislodge him. The trees in the vicinity were splintered, and their branches cut off, while the front of the wall looked as if just recovering from an attack of geological small-pox. The sharpshooter had evidently been wounded in the head by a fragment of shell which had exploded over him, and had laid down upon his blanket to await death. There was no means of judging how long he had lived after receiving his wound, but the disordered clothing shows that his sufferings must have been intense. Was he delirious with agony, or did death come slowly to his relief, while memories of home grew dearer as the field of carnage faded before him? What visions, of loved ones far away, may have hovered above his stony pillow! What familiar voices may he not have heard, like whispers beneath the roar of battle, as his eyes grew heavy in their long, last sleep!

On the nineteenth of November, the artist attended the consecration of the Gettysburg Cemetery, and again visited the "Sharpshooter's Home." The musket, rusted by many storms, still leaned against the rock, and the skeleton of the soldier lay undisturbed within the mouldering uniform, as did the cold form of the dead four months before. None of those who went up and down the fields to bury the fallen, had found him. "Missing," was all that could have been known of him at home, and some mother may yet be patiently watching for the return of her boy, whose bones lie bleaching, unrecognized and alone, between the rocks at Gettysburg.


This analysis is based upon the pioneering work of the historian William Frassanito in his book Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975, pp. 186-192).

Frassanito studied six photographs of this dead soldier made by the photographers Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan at the Gettysburg battlefield in July 1863. Geographic features place four of the six photographs at the southern slope of Devil's Den (top) and two at what Gardner called the "sharpshooter's den" (bottom). Frassanito argues that the original location of the body was the southern slope of Devil's Den, suggesting that the soldier was probably an infantryman, killed while advancing up the hillside. After taking pictures of the dead soldier from several angles, the two photographers noticed the picturesque sharpshooter's den -- forty yards away -- and moved the corpse to this rocky niche and photographed him again. A blanket, visible under the soldier in another version of the sharpshooter's den image (not shown here), may have been used to carry the body.

The type of weapon seen in these photographs was not used by sharpshooters. This particular firearm is seen in a number of Gardner's scenes at Gettysburg and probably was the photographer's prop. The amount of time expended photographing this one body indicates that this may have been one of the last bodies to be buried and Gardner may have felt that he was running out of subjects.

In his text in the Sketch Book, Gardner recalls seeing the body again about four months after the battle, when the Gettysburg cemetery was dedicated in November 1863. Frassanito points out that the body would not have been left unburied that long, nor would the rifle have survived the hordes of relic hunters who swarmed over battlefields. But Gardner's story succeeded in transforming this soldier into a particular character in the drama, a man who suffered a painful, lonely, unrecognized death.

WARNING: Some of the images within this article may be disturbing for a younger audience.

How did plantation owners and northern industrialists, yeoman farmers and slaves, and women and children experience the Civil War and the enormous social and political changes it wrought? Though the Civil War is the most written-about episode in American history, politicians continue to debate its legacy and historians continue to uncover rich new details and narratives. Recently a handful of scholars (perhaps influenced by studies of the impact of television on the Vietnam War) have sought to explore the relationship between the Civil War and the photographers and photographs that documented the conflict and its aftermath.  This article aims to summarize and synthesize much of this material in order to elucidate how photographs influenced Americans at war and on the homefront, and how they can enrich our present understanding of the Civil War.

The Library of Congress’ extensive collection of digitized Civil War photographs can be found here. Also, check out the website of the Center for Civil War Photography and its Guide to Finding Civil War Photos!

In 1839, Louis Daguerre and Joseph Nicéphone Niépce developed the daguerreotype, which used silvered copper plates to record real-life images for the first time. Almost immediately, entrepreneurial artists saw an opportunity to create innovative art and make money.  Likewise, it wasn’t long before photographers documented scenes of conflict—the Mexican-American War was the first to be photographed, though the pictures never reached the general public, and thus had almost no cultural impact. The 1850s were arguably the “golden years of the daguerreotype,” as practitioners opened hundreds of studios and honed their techniques as they documented more and more natural phenomena and major news events.  The new wet plate process introduced in the 1850s reduced necessary exposure times and made replication of negatives far simpler.

As improvements in technology rapidly accelerated, popular interest in photography grew exponentially. Photographers began to produce stereoscopic view cards, which could be produced on a mass scale and came close to displaying a three-dimensional image. These became wildly popular. Aided by new mail-order catalogs, people began to collect them.  The Holmes-Bates stereo viewer “created a vast new market among middle-class, nineteenth-century Americans and popularized the first media-driven form of American home entertainment.”  As opposed to paintings, photographs were relatively affordable, and ordinary Americans were able to commission family portraits.


Mathew Brady was one of the first famous American photographers, and his career was representative of many of the Civil War photographers. After opening his first studio, Brady deliberately sought to capture the “famous and powerful visages of the day”—and “it didn’t take long before leaders were coming to Brady, rather than the other way around.”  Not only was this a good business opportunity, but he genuinely believed that “The camera is the eye of history,” and aimed to preserve these images of the wealthy and important for posterity.


The above photograph, taken in 1860 by Mathew Brady before Abraham Lincoln was set to speak at Cooper Union, was perhaps the “first successful publicity photograph.”  Lincoln himself recognized its importance, remarking, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me the president of the United States.”  According to Lincoln, the “images would connect him with the electorate” and “people would read character from likeness.”  Brady’s manipulations minimized Lincoln’s ungainly appearance, and instead emphasized his “rugged dignity.”

To learn more about Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech and his presidential campaign, listen to this National Public Radio interview with Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President.

When the Civil War began, Brady and other photographers—notably Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, A. J. Russell in the North, and Jacob F. Coonley, George S. Cook, J.D. Edwards, and Richard Wearn in the South—jumped into action. The American Journal of Photography insightfully declared, “Let us try to think that the good time coming is near at hand, and that we should prepare for it! If the hot-headed politicians will cry havoc! and let loose the dogs of war, let us not be distracted from our duties and our pleasures. We are told: In time of peace prepare for war, but a far more Christian maxim is: In time of adversity prepare for prosperity.”  Thus, most photographers set south in pursuit of profit.

At the same time, though, perhaps even more than ordinary Americans, photographers grasped the historical significance of the conflict and the acute need to document it for the future. As critic Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation.”  Alexander Gardner, one of the premier Civil War photographers, declared, “Verbal representations of such places, or scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.”  Though photographs are always precisely engineered (as demonstrated by Brady’s photograph of Lincoln), their audience has long accepted them as perfectly faithful to reality. This perceived veracity made photography the ideal art form for a nation that valued “individual improvement and social progress through hard work, honesty, and faith.”


That Brady (and others) requested and received permission to follow the Union troops into battle was revolutionary. Perhaps Lincoln maintained a soft spot for the photographer who assured his ascendance to the presidency, or perhaps he and other government officials appreciated the historical value of documentary photography. Either way, the intrepid photographers were subject to much of the same mortal danger, inclement weather, and dreadful living conditions as the combatants.  They developed their negative on the move, in “Whatsit Wagons” and other portable darkrooms, as in the photo above.  They often operated as part of larger studios; for example, thousands of photos were marked “Photo by Brady” but were taken by his many assistants and employees—strong intellectual property laws did not yet exist.





“The romance of war lost its floss for many as they viewed the snarl from beneath overturned carriages and buggies.”






The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history—and provided the first of many pictures of “corpse-strewn fields” to match.




Only one “action shot” was taken during the Civil War, at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. The exposure times necessary for the wet plate process were too long to stop motion.  Often photographers took “studio-style” portraits of soldiers, like the photo above, which they sent back to their families. In fact, from the moment Union soldiers began to congregate in Washington, D.C., photographers were swarmed with requests for cartes de visite to send home.  As young men went off to war, a photograph “became an essential keepsake…for those staying at home,” as well as for the soldiers themselves.  Stereo views were portable, and many combatants brought the images of loved ones with them to battle. Especially since the Christian notion of a “Good Death” mandated that men die in bed, at home, surrounded by family—an impossibility in war—they “endeavored to provide themselves with surrogates: proxies for those who might have surrounded their deathbeds at home.”  Accordingly, dead men were often found clutching photographs in their hands—“denied the presence of actual kin, many dying men removed pictures from pockets or knapsacks and spent their last moments communicating with these representations of absent loved ones.” 


Their seconds-long exposure times also led photographers to capture unmoving, devastated landscapes. Lincoln’s wartime policies sanctioned the “total destruction of property to financially drain and humiliate the enemy.”  On William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” soldiers destroyed crops, homes, and, most importantly, civilian infrastructure and transportation systems. Photographs of the destruction only compounded the economic hardships and psychological trauma that southerners suffered at Sherman’s hands. Also, these photographs provided essential visual context. In an age when cross-country travel was rare, these images were eye-opening. The landscapes underscored the war’s profound consequences, for American citizens and American soil.


Images of dead soldiers were even more impactful. In fact, not infrequently photographs rearranged the corpses in order to create more dramatic images.  In 1862, Brady opened a shocking photographic exhibition in his New York gallery, titled “The Dead of Antietam.” Civilians had never before seen photographs of wartime dead. A New York Times critic proclaimed, “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”  Bob Zeller, the founder of the Center for Civil War Photography, proclaimed, “if no other artifact of the Civil War existed, if nothing had ever been said or written about the conflict, the Antietam photographs would be enough.”  Visitors flocked to Brady’s gallery in droves. Many even sought to identify their own missing loved ones in the piles of dead bodies, though most were unsuccessful.


Professor Drew Gilpin Faust’s exceptional book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War argues for the fundamental impact of the war’s enormously high death toll on American culture and society. She writes, “for Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death.”  Certainly dead bodies proved useful subjects because of their stillness, but the photographers, too, were seized by a morbid fascination with this death on an unmatched scale. These photographers, though they neither killed nor died in war, became part of “the work of death” that Faust describes.  Photographs of dismembered and disfigured combatants (such as the photograph above) were particularly jarring for the American public. They felt forced to question their notions of “corporeal resurrection” in the afterlife, and faced daunting philosophical questions of how limbs “related to the persons who had once inhabited them.”  The above photograph of dead soldiers lying in a ditch challenged Americans’ idealized conception of honorable, noble death in war—instead, they were “in bunches, just like dead chickens”—“dehumanizing both the living and the dead through their disregard.”  Likewise, photographs that showed impossibly young, otherwise perfectly healthy dead combatants seemed a “violation of assumptions about life’s proper end.”

Photography became the definitive art form of modern American culture. David C. Ward and Frank H. Goodyear, in a short essay titled “Photography and War” in an issue of the Atlantic published in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, provide an apt summary:

Just as the Civil War modernized the economy, it modernized culture, even if its effects took time to manifest themselves…It eroded Victorain habits of feeling and sentimentality. As Edmund Wilson argued, the war chastened American language, making it sharper, more concise, more pungent. The war stripped away illusions. This scourging was accelerated by a flourishing new medium: photography. Photography complemented—and competed with—old discursive methods of verbal description by bringing a visceral immediacy to an audience avid for images. Photographic images became the connective tissue binding the home front to the combat zone. And in a society anxious about its very survival, portraits of statesmen and generals provided reassuring testimony of steadfast character; Lincoln used photography to assert his leadership over a fractious polity. When Mathew Brady exhibited “The Dead of Antietam” in the fall of 1862, the horror and pit of war disoriented Americans. Sensation was replacing rationality in the public’s mind. In the writings from The Atlantic and photographs from the National Portrait Gallery in the pages that follow, one can see a people grappling to make sense of life in the cauldron of war. And one can see, in hesitant and undeveloped ways, the emergence of the modern United States of America.

Despite their morbid content, sales of war photographs actually peaked after the South surrendered at Appomattox.  Many photographers published retrospectives of their work, such as Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, shown above. Others, such as A. J. Russell, joined the legions of pioneers to the West, to document more adventure and continue to further their still-young art form. Photography became “an indispensable tool of the new mass culture that took shape here after the Civil War.”

As students of history, how can we use these photographs to better understand the Civil War and its participants? The Library of Congress, among others, have made so many resources (including the Liljenquist Family Collection, above) available online. More than anything else, the photographs show us what Civil-War-era people and places looked like, and how war was fought. We are offered a glimpse at military strategy and technology. A photograph of an unidentified, very young Confederate soldier demonstrates the human cost of the southern nation’s desperation more than words ever could. We can even see how extraordinarily tall Lincoln really was relative to his peers. We see the soldiers’ encampments, weapons, hospitals, uniforms, and means of entertainment—according to Wayne Youngblood and Ray Bond, “all of these peeks into life during wartime give us glimpses of an intense period in the lives of thousands of scared and uncertain young men waiting to go to battle more than a hundred and thirty years ago.”


Furthermore, photographs showcase many more people—and more diverse people—than were ever able to write down their impressions and experiences of war. By adding more faces to the historical record, they help us expand our understanding of history and whose stories should be included. Especially since the Confederacy deliberately privileged the opinions and narratives of the wealthy, white planter class at the expense of everyone else, this endeavor becomes particularly important as a source for relics of the Civil War.

Though a photograph is a record of a time long past, it is a three-dimensional object, and its continued presence thus allows past events to be repurposed and contextualized anew. Every moment can be reconsidered in an ever-changing present. As historians uncover more and more about the Civil War, interpretations of these photographs and their significance will shift, as well, always continuing to enrich our understanding of this essential episode.

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform, unidentified woman, and unidentified baby] / Newcomer’s Gallery, 508 No. 2nd St., Phila. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

Two soldiers identified as Wesly Scott and L.P. Nash in Union uniforms and Ohio Volunteer Militia belt buckles with muskets. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 .

Unidentified African American soldier in Union corporal’s uniform. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 .

African American soldier in Union infantry sergeant’s uniform and black mourning ribbon with bayonet in front of painted backdrop. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with wife and daughters holding saxhorn between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

Unidentified boy holding 34-star flag. ninth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 7.5 x 6.4 cm (case). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 .

African American soldier in Union uniform. Between 1863 and 1865. LOC.


Serena Covkin is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States history. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in History. In 2013, her U.S. History Scene article on Civil War photography was cited in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court.

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