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The first time war time photography emerged was during the Mexican-American War, 1846-48, and the Crimean War, 1853-56; however it wasn’t until the American Civil War, 1861-65, that photography became far more widespread. Just 20 years after the invention of photography there were already more than 5000 photographers working in America and so when the Civil War broke out they turned their equipment and skills to document the conflict.
As a result of the new photographic technologies the American Civil War was extensively documented and captured for posterity in stunning black and white images. These photographers captured the full spectrum of the war as they took portraits of the troops, generals and leading political figures; as well as visiting military camps, field hospitals, cities and battlefields to document daily life during the war.
Some of the photographers followed the Union and Confederate armies, taking photos after victories and portraits of the men which they could send home to their families. In some cases, military leaders would even hand out copies of their portraits to their men to help raise their morale!
The general public who saw these photos were absolutely captivated in a way which had never happened before. For many, it was the first time they had seen the horrors of war and the photos helped to shape public opinions of the conflict with increasing calls for its cessation.
The Evolution Of Photography During The Civil War.
In the early days of photography it was not easy to work outside of the studio. Taking photos in the field was very difficult and time consuming, nothing like the digital photography of today! Photographers needed to use horse drawn wagons to transport their cameras and equipment into the field because it was so heavy and cumbersome!
The photographers had to take everything they needed with them, including dark room facilities and all the chemicals needed to expose their images. Cameras during the Civil War Era were hard to maneuver and focus in the field, and it took several seconds to take each shot. This meant that photographers couldn’t take quick action shots and so most of the photography of the time was primarily portraits, landscapes or documentary shots.
- Daguerreotype Photography: At the start of the Civil War the main type of photographic technique was called a Daguerreotype. This was named after its inventor, Louis Daguerre, and used a copper plate that was coated with silver iodide. When the plates were exposed to light they captured the image on the plate after being fumed by a mercury vapor. The image was then set permanently by using a salt water solution! This complicated process made photography outside the studio very difficult and each shot could only be made once; limiting the distribution of these photos.
- Wet-Plate Collodion Photography: The daguerreotype technique was soon eclipsed by the newer wet-plate collodion photography; invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. This used paper that was light sensitive and when it was exposed to light it created a negative image. This negative image could be easily reproduced or made into engravings, known as woodcuts, which could then be used again and again for newspapers or other printed media. The glass plate used in this technique could also be framed in front of a black background which turned the image into a ‘positive’. This type of photo was known as an ambrotype and was the usual way that soldiers had their portraits taken. These photos could then be sent back to their families and loved ones at home.
- Stereotype Photography: Many photos taken during the Civil War were known as ‘stereoviews’. This technique was invented at the same time as the Daguerreotype technique. Stereoview photos were taken with a camera that had a twin lens. The lenses were positioned at approximately eye-width apart allowing the camera to capture the scene from two slightly different angles. These two photos were taken simultaneously and once they were developed they could be mounted together on a card. These photos were then placed in a viewing device and gave the impression of a 3D image! The stereotype image exploded in popularity during the Civil War although it’s popularity faded during the 20th century.
What Impact Did Photography Have On The Civil War?
The Civil War represented the first time in history that the public at large could see the realities of conflict in newspapers, posters and other printed media. This had a massive impact on the public perception of the conflict that divided opinions in communities all over the country. Everyday images of the troops on the frontlines were highly evocative and moving for their families to see; battlefields, dead bodies, field hospitals and military camps were clearly documented for all to see in shockingly authentic pictures.
The widespread use of photography allowed the families and wives of troops at the frontline to have a keepsake while they were away in conflict; and if they died the photograph would become a treasured family heirloom. Even to this day, many families in America have photographs of their ancestors during the Civil War!
Of course, with the new possibilities that photography afforded it quickly became an important part of the propaganda efforts of both sides of the conflict. Photography was successfully used to enhance and promote the image of major politicians, generals and other important figures of the war as well as to demonize the opposing armies.
Famous images of Abraham Lincoln, taken by Mathew Brady, were reproduced tens of thousands of times and published in newspapers, posters and were even used during his re-election campaign in 1860. The photos of Lincoln allowed people all over the country to see the face of the man who’s speeches were already legendary. In fact, Lincoln later joked that it was the photos that were taken of him during the Civil War which helped to get him re-elected!
Photography also played a major part in maintaining troop morale and motivation during the war. Not only did the photographs of their fallen comrades motivate them to fight harder but images of their commanders were also reproduced on small, baseball card sized prints. These were handed out to the troops to raise morale!
The Changing Fortunes Of War And Photography.
The earliest flourishing of Civil War photography was produced by Southern photographers, capturing the aftermaths of bombardments, troops on the frontlines and other documentary images.
However, as the Southern army’s fortunes began to wane and the Union blockade started to take effect, Southern photographers began to run out of the chemicals that they needed for photography! This meant that as the war went on less and less photos were taken in the South, however, in the North they never ran out of the chemicals and supplies required for photography. As a result, most of the documentary Civil War photography was taken in the Northern Eastern parts of the conflict.
Another lucky factor for the Northern photographers was that the conflict mostly took place in a relatively small geographic area compared to the South. This meant that it was easier for Northern photographers to follow the armies from battle to battle documenting their victories and defeats.
The American Civil War And The Birth Of Combat Photography.
Due to the difficulties of taking photos, with the heavy, cumbersome equipment and exposures that could take several seconds or more, combat photography was almost impossible. Photographs of moving subjects would be too blurred to be recognized and so only still shots could be taken. It was also far too dangerous for photographers to set up their camera on the battlefield where they would have been shot or killed by cannon fire!
However, one on occasion, both Southern and Northern photographers managed to capture pictures in Charleston Harbor, in 1863, of the ironclad battleships firing at each other. These photos were the first time in history that active combat was captured on camera.
Other photos were also taken later of troops in action during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, and although the images were very blurred they are still a haunting reminder of the realities of war.
Photography And The American Civil War.
The Civil War was a terrible episode in American history but one of the few good things that came out of the disaster was the true birth of war photography. Most of the original Civil War negatives are held for safekeeping in the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the National Archives, or else in small private collections.
These incredible photographs are priceless documents that record the people, places and battles that helped to shape the future of the nation; and remain as a valuable reminder for all time of the heroism, tragedies and personal costs of the Civil War.