An Introduction to 19th Century Photographs

Modern photography was less than a quarter-century old in 1861. The 1860s were the days before film as we know it, and the process of preparing glass or metal plates to receive a photographic image was cumbersome and required great skill. Exposure times for portrait photographs demanded patience or even the use of props. Americans of 1861 were more impressed by the rapid strides that photography had made in the preceding decades. Photographic studios dotted the landscape and progress in technology made photography cheaper, simpler and widely available to more people.

Americans in the Civil War years were familiar with several different kinds of photographs, differentiated primarily between “hard” photographs and “paper” photographs. Hard images, such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, were original images developed on glass or metal. Technological breakthroughs in "wet-plate" processes in the 1850s allowed images developed from negatives onto sensitized paper and mounted on card stock of various sizes. Most importantly, this allowed mass production of photographs.  Learn More » Types of Photographs

Northern Photography

The Civil War was the first major war captured on film. Northern photographers, notably Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and George N. Barnard, traveled with the Federal armies and photographed the scenery of the war and even the gruesome aftermath of battle. An exhibit of photographs on “The Dead of Antietam” shocked the Northern public, prompting the New York Times to observe: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Confederate dead near the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.  Photo by Alexander Gardner, courtesy of Library of Congress

Southern Photography

No photographers traveled with the Confederate armies, but photographic studios were common in Southern cities, towns, and even in military camps. As a result, “Confederate” photography consisted largely of portrait photographs of soldiers and their families, and some post-mortem images.

(Left) Three members of the Sussex Light Dragoons (5th Virginia Cavalry) by an unknown Southern photographer. Museum Collection.