When the Civil War erupted, the new medium of photography had only been in existence for a little over twenty years. The daguerreotype had emerged as the most common early photographic type, but each image was unique (a positive image rather than a negative) and proved to be a challenge to reproduce. Most of the Civil War photographers were accustomed to working with daguerreotypes; one scholar notes that "the roots of Civil War photography came out of the daguerreian era and coursed through the lives of the men who made the pictures" (Zeller 5).

By 1861, however, many photographers were using a different process, which involved the use of collodion-on-glass (wet-plate) negatives. This technique was laborious and required more than one photographer working in a mobile darkroom wagon. The process involved mixing hazardous chemicals and pouring them on a glass plate. After the chemicals had evaporated, the glass plate was immersed (in darkness) in a special solution. The plate was then ready for insertion in the camera. After the exposure of the plate, it was rushed to the darkroom to be developed. Needless to say, this was a challenging and delicate process to undertake within a dangerous war zone. Despite the arduous process of creating prints from negatives, most of the Civil War photographers recognized that this new technology could be used as a "new and powerful tool to be placed in the service of history" (Zeller 2).

A number of photographers established or solidified their reputations during the Civil War, most notably Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan. Brady is probably the most well-known, and inextricably linked to the genre of Civil War photography, but he was criticized for taking credit for photographs that he himself did not actually shoot. He employed a cadre of photographic assistants, many of whom eventually left his studio and ventured out on their own. Rather than operating as a full-time photographer himself, Brady might better be described as the "project manager" in his efforts to capture images of the Civil War. He has frequently been quoted as stating that a "spirit" in him said, "’go’, and I went." In all, Brady and his assistants were responsible for the creation of about 10,000 negatives. The entire enterprise left him in poor financial straits after the war, and upon Brady’s death, his important contribution to the history of photography was not widely recognized. His negatives were eventually purchased by the United States government and are maintained at the Library of Congress and National Archives.

Both Gardner and O’Sullivan had worked in Brady’s studio but later set out on their own. Before the war, Gardner had managed Brady’s gallery in Washington, D.C., but then left to enter the business of creating and selling cartes de visite, small photographic portraits that were used as calling cards. He later opened a studio in Washington, D.C, in direct competition with Brady. Gardner was the official photographer of the Army of the Potomac, and after the war published the Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. The work included 100 albumen silver prints. Gardner did not fail to state the names of the eleven photographers who contributed to the work. One scholar has called this work a major document in the history of American photography and notes that it evidenced "an advanced understanding of the principles of the photo essay" (William Stapp quoted in Fulton’s Eyes of Time).

O’Sullivan worked as one of Brady’s assistants during the Battle of Gettysburg, and later partnered with Gardner when he was assigned to the Army of the Potomac. He worked for four years in the field and photographed hospitals, bridges, battlefields, and encampments. His photographs of the Battle of Gettysburg were provocative and significant, but at the time, they were attributed to Brady, as O’Sullivan was still associated with Brady’s studio at that point.

Civil War photography did not capture action-packed battle scenes but instead pictured camp life, strategic sites, preparations for action or retreat, and most famously, grisly post-battle scenes of death. The photographers were authorized by the federal government to accompany Federal troops during the war and capture such images, but some of the photographs inevitably caused a sensation. By 1861, photographers had the means of mass marketing their images through mail order catalogs and dealers. Some of the photographs were published and sold as prints, and advertised for sale in catalogs. Other photographs were used as inspirations for lithographs or wood engravings in periodicals.

The Civil War images selected in this TEVA unit are all parts of the collections of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. They include numerous carte de visites, tintypes, and a stereograph, as well as numerous positive photographic prints. A significant number of the images picture soldiers stationed in Middle or East Tennessee. Several others feature train depots or other sites important to the duties of the U.S. Quartermaster. The majority of the images picture Federal soldiers, but there are several examples of Confederates, including the photographs of Arthur Willis Closter and Elijah Anderson.

Several of the photographs deserve special attention, such as the tintype of Fred Claybrook from 1861. It is noted next to the photograph that he died at Hoover’s Gap while leading his regiment to battle. Another tintype features George S. Nichols after he lost his eye during the Battle of Shiloh. These kinds of items would have been cherished family photographs that would not have been widely viewed outside of the family. In contrast, some of the cartes de visite in this collection, such as the image of Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner, would have been more widely available. Other images served a more specific purpose of documenting various aspects of the Civil War.

  • Center for Civil War Photography http://www.civilwarphotography.org/
  • Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cwp/
  • Civil War Photos https://www.civilwarphotos.net/
  • Civil War Photos: Select Audiovisual Records at the National Archives https://www.archives.gov/research/military/civil-war/photos
  • Davis, William C. The Civil War in Photographs. London: Seven Oaks: 2007.
  • Davis, William C., ed. The Embattled Confederacy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1982.
  • Frassanito, William A. Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. New York: Scribner, 1978.
  • Fulton, Marianne. Eyes of Time: Photojournalism in America. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1988.
  • Gardner, Alexander. Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. Washington, D.C.: Philip & Solomons, 1865, 1866.
  • Gardner, Alexander. Photographic Sketchbook of the War. New York: Dover Publications, 1959.
  • Katz, D. Mark. Witness to an Era: The Life and Photographs of Alexander Gardner. New York: Viking Studio Books, 1990.
  • Kelbaugh, Ross J. Introduction to Civil War Photography. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1991.
  • Russell, Andrew J. Russell’s Civil War Photographs. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.
  • Savaw, Theodore P. Brady’s Civil War Journal: Photographing the War, 1861-1865. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2008.
  • Zeller, Bob. The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.
  • Zeller, Bob. History in 3-D: The Civil War in Depth. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.