Civil War Photography

In 1826, the first photograph was created by French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce when he used a camera obscura to burn a permanent image of the countryside onto a chemical-coated pewter plate. He named the technique heliography, meaning sun drawing.Photography thereafter captured the fascination of scientists and inventors who would continue to improve upon the art form. In early 1839, French scientists Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre and Francois Arago created the daguerreotype, a one-of-a-kind sharply focused image captured on a silver-coated copper plate. Daguerreotypes were also the first commercially practical photographic process, allowing individuals who could not afford to have their portraits painted by a professional artist an opportunity to have their image preserved.

Details of the amazing process were announced that August and arrived in the United States in the fall of 1839, quickly spreading throughout the country. One of the first practitioners of the daguerrian art was Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of telegraphy, who learned the process from Daguerre himself. St. Louis had a permanent daguerrian by 1842, and even places like Little Rock, Arkansas, enjoyed the services of a “daguerrian gallery” as early as 1846.

But in the early 1850s, a new photographic process revolutionized photography — the wet plate. In July 1854, Bostonian James A. Cutting secured a patent for an ambrotype, a collodion image on glass, and by the following summer the ambrotype rose in popularity. Ambrotypes were even more affordable than the daguerreotype, and could be used to produce paper prints of the same image. They also did not require awkward manipulations to view the image, unlike the polished mirrored surface of the daguerreotype.

Further, in late 1855 came the first mention of the tintype, or the “ferrograph,” an image of collodion on japanned sheet iron. Hamilton L. Smith of Ohio obtained a patent on the process in early 1856, making it the first photographic process to originate in the Midwest. By 1860, the “Ferrotype,” “Melainotype,” or tintype was quite common as well.

A second photographic revolution took place in the late 1850s. Introduced by the court photographer of Napoleon III, the “carte de visite” or CDV was a very small, light, paper photograph that could be mass produced. They first appeared in America in January 1860, promoted by a Broadway photographer who advertised “The London Style — Your Photograph on a Card,” at a cost only $1.00 for 25 copies. The new photographs could be easily mailed to friends and relatives or placed in a family photo album.

With a growing population and the availability of cheap, mass produced photographs, the photography industry boomed. By the spring of 1860, there were 3,154 photographers in the United States. Photographers were more prominent in heavily populated cities and states, such as New York, where there were more customers. There were 646 photographers in New York State (83 in New York City). In contrast, there were 84 photographers in Missouri (35 in St. Louis), 19 in Arkansas, and 9 in Kansas. But even some relatively small towns in the Trans-Mississippi region, such as Lawrence, Kansas, and Springfield, Missouri, enjoyed the services of a photographer.

In addition to making their living taking family photos, photographers also made known their ability to take images of landscapes, houses, commercial establishments, livestock, or almost any other subject. They could copy documents and pictures and were willing to make house calls to photograph the infirm or even the deceased. In larger cities, photography could be a full-time job, and allowed photographers to hire assistants; in smaller locations, photographers often worked alone and were employed in second jobs. Some small settlements attracted only itinerant photographers.

The start of the Civil War in April 1861 provided an unprecedented and historic opportunity for American photographers, both to make a profit from a steady supply of willing customers and to document the most important event in American history.

Although most Americans had probably been photographed at least once by 1861, either alone, with a spouse or as part of a family group, the war demanded that the men who marched off to fight be photographed. Unlike today, there was no military requirement in either the Union or Confederate service that a warrior have his photograph taken. But like today, those going to “see the elephant” wished simply to preserve their legacy for family and friends.

Most soldiers probably had their photograph taken at some point during their service, while some were photographed numerous times. This could take place at any time–upon enlistment at home or in training camp, after months or even years of military service, after a promotion, or when money or a photographer happened to be available. The individual portrait photograph was the staple of the photographer’s art, and indeed, most surviving photographs from the war are portraits of individual soldiers, whether in the form of the simple paper CDV, or a cased ambrotype or tintype. Such photographs were relatively easy for a photographer to take and process, and were inexpensive for the average soldier.

Some ambitious photographers even ventured out of their studios to the battlefield. In the East, the fighting at Antietam, Maryland, had hardly ceased when members of famous photographer Mathew Brady’s photographic studio began taking pictures of the dead, the likes of which Americans had never seen. The photographs were then taken to Brady’s New York gallery, where, within a month of the battle, he mounted a display of many of the images.

Commenting on the exhibition, the New York Times declared that, “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. . .” Some photographers documented Trans-Mississippi battlefields as well, but few of their images survive.

The process of taking photographs on the battlefield was complex and time-consuming. Ideally, two photographers would arrive at a location. One would pour collodion on a clean glass or metal plate, then the plate would be sensitized by being immersed — in a darkroom — in a solution of silver nitrate. The darkroom often consisted of a cloth covered work area in a wagon or portable stand. Placed in a covered holder, the light-sensitive plate would then be inserted in the camera, which had been pre-positioned and focused by the other photographer. A sliding door on the holder would be opened, exposing the plate. Exposure of the plate and development of the photograph had to be completed within minutes. The exposed plate was rushed to the darkroom for developing in iron sulfate and “fixing” in sodium thiosulphate. Fragile glass plates had to be treated with great care after development — a difficult task on a battlefield.

At least 200,000 soldiers spent all or part of the war in the Trans-Mississippi, many of whom wanted their “likeness” captured. It is important to remember that family members left at home also sat for portraits, so that soldiers going off to war would have a reminder of what they were fighting for. The art of photography developed at a crucial juncture in American history, serving to promote the morale of soldiers and the remembrance of loved ones, and preserving a visual history of the war for future generations to study.