How important was photography to the Civil War?

1860 Read more from
Chapter Lincoln’s Election, Southern Secession: 1860 to April 1861

During the actual conflict, the years 1861–1865, photography was seen as something of an add-on, an extra that was not completely necessary. There were, after all, plenty of watercolor and pen-and-ink artists, including the remarkable Winslow Homer, to record the war’s events. But as time passed, the power of photography became more apparent.

There was something about an actual photograph of a young soldier—Confederate or Union—lying dead in a ditch that transcended even the powers of the greatest artist. The photographs of the dead and wounded at the Battle of Antietam turned many Northern viewers into die-hard Union men and abolitionists, but they also turned some viewers into die-hard pacifists. As the war progressed, more photos emerged, sometimes with heartbreaking scenes. In fact, it might be said that the cheerier and more optimistic views of the war usually came from the artists, and the drearier and more appalling looks from the photographers. This did not mean that all, or even most, of the great Civil War photographers became rich or famous, however. Many of them were anonymous, and some were hired “photo men” from firms like that of Mathew B. Brady. The great New York City photographer was not even immune from the economic downturn that followed the war; he died in obscurity and in relative poverty in 1896.


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