Photographing The Civil War
Henry Wysham Lanier
Cooper's Battery In Front of Petersburg
Note: This article was written in approximately 1911
Extraordinary as the fact seems, the American Civil War is the only great war of which we have an adequate history in photographs: that is to say, this is the only conflict of the first magnitude in the world's history that can be really " illustrated," with a pictorial record which is indisputably authentic, vividly illuminating, and the final evidence in any question of detail.
Here is a much more important historical fact than the casual reader realizes. The earliest records we have of the human race are purely pictorial. History, even of the most shadowy and legendary sort, goes back hardly more than ten thousand years. But in recent years there have been recovered in certain caves of France scratched and carved bone weapons and rough wall-paintings which tell us some dramatic events in the lives of men who lived probably a hundred thousand years before the earliest of those seven strata of ancient Troy, which indefatigable archeologists have exposed to the wondering gaze of the modern world. The picture came long before the written record; nearly all our knowledge of ancient Babylonia and Assyria is gleaned from the details left by some picture-maker. And it is still infinitely more effective an appeal. How impossible it is for the average person to get any clear idea of the great struggles which altered the destinies of nations and which occupy so large a portion of world history! How can a man to-day really understand the siege of Troy, the battles of Thermopylae or Salamis, Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, the famous fight at Tours when Charles " the Hammer " checked the Saracens, the Norman conquest of England, the Hundred Years' or Thirty Years' Wars, even our own seven-year struggle for liberty, without any first-hand picture-aids to start the imagination? Take the comparatively modern Napoleonic wars where, moreover, there is an exceptional wealth of paintings, drawings, prints, and lithographs by contemporary men : in most cases the effect is simply one of keen disappointment at the painfully evident fact that most of these worthy artists never saw a battle or a camp.
So the statement that there have been gathered together thousands of photographs of scenes on land and water during those momentous years of 1861 to 1865 means that for our generation and all succeeding ones; the Civil War is on a basis different from all others, is practically an open book to old and young. For when man achieved the photograph he took almost as important a step forward as when he discovered how to make fire: he made scenes and events and personalities immortal. The greatest literary genius might write a volume without giving you so intimate a comprehension of the struggle before Petersburg as do these exact records, made by adventurous camera-men under incredible difficulties, and holding calmly before your eyes the very Reality itself.
To apply this pictorial principle, let us look at one remarkable photograph, "Cooper's Battery in front of the Avery house, during the siege of Petersburg, of which we have, by a lucky chance, an account from one of the men in the scene. The lifelikeness of the picture is beyond praise: one cannot help living through this tense moment with these men of long ago, and one's eyes instinctively follow their fixed gaze toward the lines of the foe. This picture was shown to Lieutenant James A. Gardner (of Battery B, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery), who immediately named half a dozen of the figures, adding details of the most intimate interest. He stated:
I am, even at this late day, able to pick out and recognize a very large number of the members of our battery, as shown in this photograph. Our battery (familiarly known as Cooper's Battery) belonged to the Fifth Corps, then commanded by Gen. G. K. Warren.
Our corps arrived in front of Petersburg on June 17,1864, was put into position on the evening of that day, and engaged the Confederate batteries on their line near the Avery house. The enemy at that time was commanded by General Beauregard. That night the enemy fell back to their third line, which then occupied the ridge which you see to the right and front, along where you will notice the chimney (the houses had been burnt down). On the night of the 18th we threw up the lunettes in front of our guns. This position was occupied by us until possibly about the 23d or 24th of June, when we were taken further to the left.
The position shown in the picture is about six hundred and fifty yards in front, and to the right of the Avery house, and at or near this point was built a permanent fort or battery, which was used continuously during the entire siege of Petersburg.
While occupying this position, Mr. Brady took the photographs, copies of which you have sent me. The photographs were taken in the forenoon of June 21, 1864. I know myself, merely from the position that I occupied at that time, as gunner. After that, I served as sergeant, first sergeant, and first lieutenant, holding the latter position at the close of the war. All the officers shown in this picture are dead.
The movement in which we were engaged was the advance of the Army of the Potomac upon Petersburg, being the beginning of operations in front of that city. On June 18th the division of the Confederates Which was opposite us was that of Gen. Bushrod R. Johnson ; but as the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Lee, began arriving on the evening of June 18th, it would be impossible for me to say who occupied the enemy's lines after that. The enemy's position, which was along on the ridge to the front, in the picture, where you see the chimney, after ward became the main line of the Union army. Our lines were advanced to that point, and at or about where you see the chimney standing, Fort Morton of the Union line was constructed, and a little farther to the right was Fort Stedman, on the same ridge ; and about where the battery now stands, as shown in the picture, was a small fort or works erected, known as Battery Seventeen.
When engaged in action, our men exhibited the same coolness that is shown in the picture-that is, while loading our guns. If the enemy is engaging us, as soon as each gun is loaded the cannoneers drop to the ground and protect themselves as best they can, except the gunners and the officers, who are expected to be always on the lookout. The gunners are the corporals who sight and direct the firing of the guns.
In the photograph you will notice a person (in civilian's clothes). This is Mr. Brady or his assistant, but I think it is Mr. Brady himself.
It is now almost forty-seven years since the photographs were taken, yet I am able to designate at least fifteen persons of our battery, and point them out. I should have said that Mr. Brady took picture No.1 from a point a little to the left, and front, of our battery ; and the second one was taken a little to the rear, and left, of the battery. Petersburg lay immediately over the ridge in the front, right over past the man whom you see sitting there so leisurely on the earthworks thrown up.
A notice in Humphrey's Journal in 1861 describes vividly the records of the flight after Bull Run secured by the indefatigable Brady. Unfortunately the unique one in which the reviewer identified " Bull Run " Russell in reverse action is lost to the world. But we have the portrait of Brady himself three days later in his famous linen duster, as he returned to Washington. His story comes from one who had it from his own lips :
He [Brady] had watched the ebb and flow of the battle on that Sunday morning in July, 1861, and seen now the success of the green Federal troops under General McDowell in the field, and now the stubborn defense of the green troops under that General Jackson who thereby earned the sobriquet of " Stonewall." At last Johnston, who with Beauregard and Jackson, was a Confederate commander, strengthened by reenforcements, descended upon the rear of the Union troops and drove them into a retreat which rapidly turned to a rout.
The plucky photographer was forced along with the rest; and as night fell he lost his way in the thick woods which were not far from the little stream that gave the battle its name. He was clad in the linen duster which was a familiar sight to those who saw him taking his pictures during that campaign, and was by no means prepared for a night in the open. He was unarmed as well, and had nothing with which to defend himself from any of the victorious Confederates who might happen his way, until one of the famous company of " Fire " zouaves, of the Union forces, gave him succor in the shape of a broadsword. This he strapped about his waist, and it was still there when he finally made his way to Washington three days later. He was a sight to behold after his wanderings, but he had come through unscathed as it was his fate to do so frequently afterwards.
Instances might be multiplied indefinitely, but here is one more evidence of the quality of this pictorial record. The same narrator had from Brady a tale of a picture made a year and a half later, at the battle of Fredericksburg. He says:
Burnside, then in command of the Army of the Potomac, was preparing to cross the Rappahannock, and Longstreet and Jackson, commanding the Confederate forces, were fortifying the hills back of the right bank of that river. Brady, desiring as usual to be in the thick of things, undertook to make some pictures from the left bank. He placed cameras in position and got his men to work, but suddenly found himself taking a part very different from that of a non-combatant. In the bright sunshine his bulky cameras gleamed like guns, and the Confederate marksmen thought that a battery was being placed in position. They promptly opened fire, and Brady found himself the target for a good many bullets. It was only his phenomenal good luck that allowed him to escape without injury either to himself and men or to his apparatus.
It is clearly worth while to study for a few moments this man Brady who was so ready to risk his life for the idea by which he was obsessed. While the war soon developed far beyond what he or any other one man could possibly have compassed, so that he is probably directly responsible for only a fraction of the whole vast collection of pictures in these volumes, he may fairly be said to have fathered the movement; and his daring and success undoubtedly stimulated and inspired the small army of men all over the war-region, whose unrelated work has been laboriously gathered together.
Matthew B. Brady was born at Cork, Ireland (not in New Hampshire, as is generally stated) about 1823. Arriving in New York as a boy, he got a job in the great establishment of A. T. Stewart, first of the merchant princes of that day. The youngster's good qualities were so conspicuous that his large-minded employer made it possible for him to take a trip abroad at the age of fifteen, under the charge of S. F. B. Morse, who was then laboring at his epoch-making development of the telegraph.
Naturally enough, this scientist took his young companion to the laboratory of the already famous Daguerre, whose arduous experiments in making pictures by sunlight were just approaching fruition; and the wonderful discovery which young Brady's receptive eyes then beheld was destined to determine his whole life-work.
For that very year (1839) Daguerre made his "daguerreotype " known to the world; and Brady's keen interest was intensified when, in 1840, on his own side of the ocean, Professor Draper produced the first photographic portrait the world had yet seen, a likeness of his sister, which required the amazingly short exposure of only ninety seconds!
Brady's natural business-sense and his mercantile training showed him the chance for a career which this new invention opened, and it was but a short time before he had a gallery on Broadway and was well launched upon the new trade of furnishing daguerreotype portraits to all comers. He was successful from the start; in 1851 his work took a prize at the London World's Fair; about the same time he opened an office in Washington; in the fifties he brought over Alexander Gardner, an expert in the new revolutionary wet-plate process, which gave a negative furnishing many prints instead of one unduplicatable original ; and in the twenty years between his start and the Civil War he became the fashionable photographer of his day-as is evidenced not only by the superb collection of notable people whose portraits he gathered together, but by Brete Harte's classic verse (from " Her Letter ") :
Well, yes-if you saw us out driving
'Each day in the Park, four-in-hand
If you saw poor dear mamma contriving
To look supernaturally grand;
If you saw papa's picture, as taken
By Brady, and tinted at that;
You'd never suspect he sold bacon
And flour at Poverty Flat.
Upon this sunny period of prosperity the Civil War broke in 1861. Brady had made portraits of scores of the men who leaped into still greater prominence as leaders in the terrible struggle, and his vigorous enthusiasm saw in this fierce drama an opportunity to win ever brighter laurels. His energy and his acquaintance with men in authority overcame every obstacle, and he succeeded in interesting President Lincoln, Secretary Stanton, General Grant, and Allan Pinkerton to such an extent that he obtained the protection of the Secret Service, and permits to make photographs at the front. Everything had to be done at his own expense, but with entire confidence he equipped his men, and set out himself as well, giving instructions to guard against breakage by making two negatives of everything, and infusing into all his own ambition to astonish the world by this unheard-of feat.
The need for such permits appears in a " home letter " from E. T. Whitney, a war photographer whose negatives, unfortunately, have been destroyed. This letter, dated March 13, 1862, states that the day before " all photographing has been stopped by general orders from headquarters." Owing to ignorance of this order on the part of the guard at the bridge, Whitney was allowed to reach the Army of the Potomac, where he made application to General McClellan for a special pass.
We shall get some more glimpses presently of these adventurous souls in action. But, as already hinted, extraordinary as were the results of Brady's impetuous vigor, he was but one of many in the great work of picturing the war. Three-fourths of the scenes with the Army of the Potomac were made by Gardner. Thomas G. Roche was an indefatigable worker in the armies' train. Captain A. J. Russell detached as official camera-man for the War Department, obtained many invaluable pictures illustrating the military railroading and construction work of the Army of the Potomac, which were hurried straightway to Secretary Stanton at Washington. Sam A. Cooley was attached to the Tenth Army Corps, and recorded the happenings around Savannah, Fort McAllister, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Beaufort, and Charleston during the bombardment; George M. Barnard, under the supervision of General O. M. Poe (then Captain in the Engineer Corps), did yeoman's service around Atlanta.
S. R. Siebert was very busy indeed at Charleston in1865. Cook of Charleston, Edwards of New Orleans, and other unknown men on the Confederate side, working under even greater difficulties (Cook, for instance, had to secure his chemicals from Anthony in New York-who also supplied Brady -and smuggle them through ), did their part in the vast labor ; and many another unknown, including the makers of the little cartes de visite, contributed to the panorama which to-day unfolds itself before the reader.
One most interesting camera-man of unique kind was A. D. Lytle, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who made a series of views (covering three years and several campaigns-and consequently scattered through the present work) for the specific use of the Confederate Secret Service. That is to say, he was a " camera spy," and a good one, too. He secured his chemicals from the same great firm of Anthony & Co., in New York, but instead of running the blockade with them, they were supplied on " orders to trade." In many cases, for instance, the necessary iodides and bromides masqueraded as quinine. Mr. Lytle's son relates that his father used to signal with flag and lantern from the observation tower on the top of the ruins of the Baton Rouge capitol to Scott's Bluff whence the messages were relayed to the Confederates near New Orleans ; but he found this provided such a tempting target for the Federal sharpshooters that he discontinued the practice.
There are contemporary comments on the first crop of war photographs-which confirm several points already made. Humphrey's Journal in October, 1861; contained the following:
PHOTOGRAPHS OF WAR SERIES
Among the portraits in Brady's selection, spoken of in our last number, are those of many leading generals and colonels-McClellan, McDowell, Heintzelman, Burnside, Wood, Corcoran, Slocum, and others. Of the larger groups, the most effective are those of the army passing through Fairfax village, the battery of the 1st Rhode Island regiment at Camp Sprague, the 71st Regiment (New York) formed in hollow square at the Navy Yard, the Engineer Corps of the New York Twelfth at Camp Anderson, Zouaves on the lookout from the belfry of Fairfax Court House, etc., etc.
Mr. Brady intends to take other photographic scenes of the localities of our army and of battle-scenes, and his collection will undoubtedly prove to be the most interesting ever yet exhibited. But why should he monopolize this department ? We have plenty of other artists as good as he is. What a field would there be for Anthony's instantaneous views and for stereoscopic pictures. Let other artists exhibit a little of Mr. Brady's enterprise and furnish the public with more views. There are numerous photographers close by the stirring scenes which are being daily enacted, and now is the time for them to distinguish themselves.
We have seen how far Brady came from " monopolizing " the field. And surely the sum total of achievement is triumphant enough to share among all who had any hand in it.
And now let us try. to get some idea of the problem which confronted these enthusiasts, and see how they tackled it.
Imagine what it must have meant even to get to the scene of action-with cumbersome tent and apparatus, and a couple of hundred glass plates whose breakage meant failure; over unspeakable back-country roads or no roads at all ; with the continual chance of being picked off by some scouting sharpshooter or captured through some shift of the armies.
The first sight of the queer-looking wagon caused amazement, speculation, derision. "What is it? " became so inevitable a greeting that to this day if one asks a group of soldiers about war-photographs, they will exclaim simultaneously, " Oh; yes, the 'what-is-it' wagon! " It became a familiar sight, yet the novelty of its awkward mystery never quite wore off.
Having arrived, and having faced the real perils generally attendant upon reaching the scenes of keenest interest, our camera adventurer was but through the overture of his troubles. The most advanced photography of that day was the wet-plate method, by which the plates had to be coated in the dark (which meant in this case carrying everywhere a smothery, light-proof tent), exposed within five minutes, and developed within five minutes more! For the benefit of amateur members of the craft here are some notes from the veteran photographer, Mr. George G. Rockwood:
First, all the plain glass plates in various sizes, usually 8 x 10, had to be carefully cleaned and carried in dust-proof boxes. When ready for action, the plate was carefully coated with " collodion," which carried in solution the " excitants "-bromide and iodide of potassium or ammonia, or cadmium. Collodion is made by the solution of guncotton in about equal parts of sulphuric ether and 95 proof alcohol. The salts above mentioned are then added, making the collodion a vehicle for obtaining the sensitive surface on the glass plate. The coating of plates was a delicate operation even in the ordinary well-organized studio. After coating the plate with collodion and letting the ether and alcohol evaporate to just the right degree of "stickiness", it was lowered carefully into a deep " bath holder " which contained a solution of nitrate of silver about 60 for quick field-work. This operation created the sensitive condition of the plate, and had to be done in total darkness except a subdued yellow light. When properly coated (from three to five minutes) the plate was put into a " slide " or " holder " and exposed to the action of the light in the camera. When exposed, it was returned to the dark-room and developed.
Mr. Rockwood also knew all about Brady's wagon, having had a similar contrivance made for himself before the war, for taking pictures in the country. He " used an ordinary delivery wagon of the period, much like the butcher's cart of to-day and had a strong step attached at the rear and below the level of the wagon floor. . A door was put on at the back, carefully hung so as to : be, light-proof. The door, you understand, came down over the step which was boxed in at the sides, making 'it' a. sort of well within the body of the wagon rather than a true step.
"The work of coating or sensitizing the plates and that of developing them was done from this well, in which there was just room enough to work. As the operator stood there the collodion was within reach of his right hand, in a special receptacle. On his left also was the holder of one of the baths. The chief developing bath was in front, with the tanks of various liquids stored in front of it again, and the space between it and the floor filled with plates.
"With such a wagon on a larger scale, large enough for men to sleep in front of the dark-room part, the phenomenal pictures of Brady were made possible. Brady risked his life many a time in order not to separate from this cumbrous piece of impedimenta.
"On exceptional occasions in very cold weather the life of a wet plate might be extended to nearly an hour on either side of the exposure, the coating or the development side, but ordinarily the work had to be done within a very ,few minutes, and every minute of delay resulted in loss of brilliancy and depth in the negative."
Some vivid glimpses of the war-photographers' troubles come also from Mr. J. Pitcher Spencer, who knew the work intimately :
We worked long with one of the foremost of Brady's men, and here let me doff my hat to the name of M. B. Brady-few to-day are worthy to carry his camera case, even as Far as ability from the photographic standpoint goes. I was, in common with the " Cape Codders," following the ocean from 1859 to 1864 ; I was only home a few months -1862-63-and even then from our boys who came home invalided we heard of that grand picture-maker Brady, as they called him.
When I made some views (with the only apparatus then known, the " wet plate "), there came a large realization of some of the immense difficulties surmounted by those who made war-pictures. When you realize that the most sensitive of all the list of chemicals are requisite to make collodion, which must coat every plate, and that the very slightest breath might carry enough "poison" across the plate being coated to make it produce a blank spot instead of some much desired effect, you may perhaps have a faint idea of the care requisite to produce a picture. Moreover, it took unceasing care to keep every bit of the apparatus, as well as each and every chemical, free from any possible contamination which might affect the picture. Often a breath of wind, no matter how gentle, spoiled the whole affair.
Often, just as some fine result looked certain, a hot streak of air would not only spoil the plate, but put the instrument out of commission, by curling some part of it out of shape. In face of these, and hundreds of minor discouragements, the men imbued with vim and forcefulness by the " Only Brady " kept right along and to-day the world can enjoy these wonderful views as a result.
Still further details come from an old soldier and photographic expert, Mr. F. M. Rood:
The plate " flowed " with collodion was dipped at once in a bath of nitrate of silver, in water also iodized, remained there in darkness three to five minutes ; still in darkness, it was taken out, drained, put in the dark-holder, exposed, and developed in the dark-tent at once. The time between flowing the collodion arid developing should not exceed eight or ten minutes. The developer was sulphate of iron solution and acetic acid, after which came a slight washing and fixing (to remove the surplus silver) with solution of cyanide of potassium; and then a final washing, drying, and varnishing. The surface (wet or dry), unlike a dry plate, could not be touched. I was all through the war from 1861-65, in the Ninety-third New York regiment, whose pictures you have given. I recognized quite a number of the old comrades. You have also in your collection a negative of each company of that regiment.
Fortunately the picture men occasionally immortalized each other as well as the combatants, so that we have a number of intimate glimpses of their life and methods. In one the wagon, chemicals and camera are in the very trenches at Atlanta, and they tell more than pages of description. But, naturally, they cannot show the arduous labor, the narrow escapes, the omnipresent obstacles which could be overcome only by the keenest ardor and determination. The epic of the war-photographer is still to be written. It would compare favorably with the story of many battles. And it does not require much imagination, after viewing the results obtained in the face of such conditions, to get a fair measure of these indomitable workers.
The story of the way in which these pictures have been rescued from obscurity is almost as romantic a tale as that of their making. The net result of Brady's efforts was a collection of over seven thousand pictures (two negatives of each in most cases) ; and the expenditure involved, estimated at $ 100,000, ruined him. One set, after undergoing the most extraordinary vicissitudes, finally passed into the Government's possession, where it is now held with a prohibition against its use for commercial purposes. The $25;000 tardily voted to Mr. Brady by Congress did not retrieve his financial fortunes, and he died in the nineties, in a New York hospital, poor and forgotten, save by a few old-time friends.
Brady's own negatives passed in the seventies into the possession of Anthony, in default of payment of his bills for photographic supplies. They were kicked about from pillar to post for ten years, until John C. Taylor found them in an attic and bought them; from this they became the backbone of the Ordway-Rand collection; and m 1895 Brady himself had no idea what had become of them. Many were broken, lost, or destroyed by fire. After passing to various other owners, they were discovered and appreciated by Edward Bailey Eaton, of Hartford, Connecticut, who created the immediate train of events that led to their importance as the nucleus of a collection of many thousand pictures gathered from all over the country to furnish the material for this work.
From all sorts of sources, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Maine to the Gulf, these hidden treasures have been drawn. Historical societies, Government and State bureaus, librarians, private collectors, military and patriotic organizations, old soldiers and their families have recollected, upon earnest insistence, that they did have such things or once knew of them. Singly and in groups they have come from walls, out of archives, safes, old garrets, often seeing the light of day for the first time in a generation, to join together once more in a pictorial army which daily grew more irresistible as the new arrivals augmented, supplemented, and explained. The superb result is here spread forth and illuminated for posterity.
Apart from all the above considerations, these invaluable pictures are well worth attention from the standpoint of pictorial art. We talk a great deal nowadays about the astonishing advances of modern art-photography; and it is quite true that patient investigators have immeasurably increased the range and flexibility of camera methods and results. We now manipulate negatives and print to produce any sort of effect; we print in tint or color, omitting or adding what we wish ; numberless men of artistic capacity are daily showing how to transmit personal feeling through the intricacies of the mechanical process. But it is just as true as when the cave man scratched on a bone his recollections of mammoth and reindeer, that the artist will produce work that moves the be holder, no matter how crude may be his implements. Clearly there were artists among these Civil War photographers.
Probably this was caused by natural selection. It took ardor and zest for this particular thing above all others to keep a man at it in face of the hardships and disheartening handicaps. In any case, the work speaks for itself. Over and over one is thrilled by a sympathetic realization that the vanished man who pointed the camera at some particular scene felt precisely the same pleasure in a telling composition of landscape, in a lifelike grouping, in a dramatic glimpse of a battery in action, in a genre study of a wounded soldier watched over by a comrade-that we feel to-day and that some seeing eye will respond to generations in the future.
This is the true immortality of art. And when the emotions thus aroused center about a struggle which determined the destiny of a great nation, the picture that arouses them takes its proper place as an important factor in that heritage of the past which gives us to-day increased stature over all past ages, just because we add all their experience to our own.
Source: "The Photographic History of the Civil War (Volume 1)
This page last updated 05/04/05