Through the Lens of History: American Civil War Photography

In today's age, billions of photographs are uploaded to the internet. We're accustomed to it. It's the norm. However, like anything on this planet, it started somewhere and some time. Photography was invented in 1822, 39 years before the opening shots of the American Civil War. Digital photography made its appearance 48 years ago. Comparing this, you can say digital photography has been barely a thing even though it's something that's such a staple in today's world. But to those that lived in the mid-19th century, photography was a thing of magic. 

We've all seen them. Flipping through history textbooks in school. Photographs from the American Civil War have become iconic. However, when you learn that the conflict was the first to utilize this medium, it's almost hard to believe. After all the American Civil War, seemed like a long time ago. So with that, photography has been around since a long time ago. But at the time, it was in its infancy and this war, pitting the Union against the Confederacy, not only marked a turning point in American society but also played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of photography. For the first time in history, photographers ventured to the battlefields, capturing scenes of the war and its aftermath, forever changing the way the world would perceive war. 

Among the many historical figures who played a crucial role in preserving the war's legacy was Matthew Brady, a pioneering photographer known for his exceptional documentation of the conflict. Brady's contribution to the visual record of the Civil War was groundbreaking. Often referred to as the "Father of Photojournalism," Brady and his team of skilled photographers were granted permission by President Abraham Lincoln to document the war effort. Brady's dedication and passion for preserving the historical record led to some of the most iconic images of the war.

The photographs taken by Brady and others such as Alexander Gardner, during the Civil War had a significant impact on public opinion, both within the United States and abroad. Until then, war had been depicted through illustrations and paintings, which often portrayed heroic scenes rather than the stark realities of combat. The introduction of photography changed this narrative, offering an unvarnished and unfiltered look into the horrors of war.

Much like today's photojournalists, these pioneers of photojournalism humanized the individuals fighting the conflict. People saw the faces of the young men leaving their homes to fight, and the portraits of weary soldiers showed the toll of that war. Their photographs challenged the glorification of war that was common at the time. Instead of idealized portrayals of battlefield heroism, the public was confronted with the harsh reality of life and death on the frontlines. And finally, they provided a visual historical record that went beyond words. These images became invaluable resources for future generations and provided historians and educators with the resources to paint a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of this pivotal period. 

The American Civil War was the first conflict to be extensively photographed, thanks to the pioneering work of photographers like Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. And in the video above, brought to you by the American Battlefield Trust, you can get a quick 4-minute introduction to this birth of photojournalism.

Michael Rudzikewycz's picture

Michael is an amateur photographer currently living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A Long Islander by birth, he learned how to see with a camera along the shores of the island that he will forever call home.

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"When you learn that the conflict was the first to utilize this medium" -- what about the photographers of the Crimean War of the 1850s?

They definitely were. I should’ve mentioned the Crimean War. But those photographers mostly avoided photographing the reality of the conflict. Brady and others photographed the war in an uncensored way. Yes, some photos were staged or scenes were altered. But the public saw the ACW for what it was. Thanks for reading. I’m new to sharing through the written word, so I’ll definitely hit some bumps in the road now and then.