Matthew Brady's February 1860
photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken in New York City at the
time of Lincoln's Cooper Union speech
The American Civil War was much
seen through the cameras of a group of early photographers. The best
known was Matthew Brady. Before the war, Brady prospered by doing
portraits in his New York City studio. His most famous was his
photograph of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln before his
speech at the Cooper Union in February, 1860. Lincoln later said:
“Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me the president of the
With the coming of the Civil War,
Brady determined to outfit mobile darkrooms and send teams of
photographers to capture scenes of the war. His own first venture
was to go the Bull Run battlefield, although he did not get scenes
from that conflict. Actual battle scenes were not photographed
during this era.
However, following the horrific
battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, his photographers arrived
there and photographed scenes of the carnage. Their photos were then
displayed at Brady’s studio in New York City. Titled “The Dead of
Antietam”, it was the first photo exhibit to show the Civil War dead
in public. At the war’s end, Brady went to a devastated Richmond and
photographed the former Confederate capital and Robert E. Lee.
It was a Scottish immigrant
Alexander Gardner who took many of the photos. It was Gardner and
his assistants who also arrived after the battle of Gettysburg to
photograph the dead. Gardner was the war’s most prolific
photographer. He took what was the last photograph of President
Abraham Lincoln five days before his assassination. He then
photographed his assassins and their execution by hanging on July 7,
1865. He also photographed the execution of Henry Wirz, the
commandant of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.
Alexander Gardner's April 1865
photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken just five days before his
In 1866, he published a two-volume
anthology titled Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.
Brady sold most of his archives to the U.S. government in 1875 with
the help of James Garfield. They are housed in the National
Archives. The Library of Congress also bought a large number of
Gardner negatives in 1942 after the federal government had declined
to purchase them in 1869. They are included in its American Memory
Brady did not prosper after the
war. He died in 1896 while preparing to lecture at Carnegie Hall on
his life and work as a war photographer. Gardner became the official
photographer of the Union Pacific Railroad. He later gave up
photography to start an insurance company. He died in 1882.
Both North and South, Civil War
photographers made portraits of Civil War soldiers posing in their
studios. These photographs were then sent to their families.
Center for Civil War
Photography Civil War Trust. Photography and the Civil War:
Bringing the Battlefront to the Homefront.
William C. Davis and Bell I. Wiley,
Eds. Photographic History of the
Civil War: Fort Sumter to Gettysburg and
Vicksburg to Appomattox.