Civil War Photography

The Civil War is unique for many reasons, one of which being because it was one of the first wars to be photographically documented. This not only allowed the war to be recorded for historical purposes, but it also gave people of the day a direct image of the results of war. For the first time, civilians could see the carnage of the far away battlefields. This was the first instance of photojournalism.

Living in Gettysburg my entire life, it really hit home to see a photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan put up on the projector screen in my art history class. O’Sullivan is one of the most well-known Civil War photographers and his work is hung in every museum and visitor center here in Gettysburg. Many of the images you see in textbooks or on the internet from the Civil War are by O’Sullivan. The photograph in particular we studied is titled A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, PA, July 1863.

A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, PA, July 1863

A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, PA, July 1863

Taking a photograph during the Civil War was not an easy task. Photographers had to drag an entire wagon full of equipment to the scene in order to capture an image. This included not only their large, bulky cameras, but also all of the chemicals they had to mix up by hand, AND their entire darkroom. The newest process photographers of the time were using was called wet-plate photography.

Clearly, these photographs were not taken in the heat of battle, but rather of the aftermath. In order to get the perfect composition in a shot, it is known that the Civil War photographers would often move dead bodies to rearrange them into a more impactful image.

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