In October 1862, a shocking and unique photo exhibition opened at Mathew B. Brady’s Broadway Gallery in New York City.
A small sign at the door read “The Dead of Antietam” and, as The New York Times reported on October 20, “crowds of people are constantly walking up the stairs,” attracted by the “terrible fascination” to see gruesome photographs of swollen corpses of soldiers as they fell in battle on the Antietam battlefield during the war. civil war.
The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, is the bloodiest day in American history. More than 22,700 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured during the battle, which took place in the fields and woods outside the small town of Sharpsburg, in western Maryland. It is also the first battle where American war dead have been photographed. What to some had remained a distant and abstract war suddenly – and viscerally – came to life. The reactions to the photographs reflected the intensity of their content.
“Sir. Brady has done something to make us understand the terrible reality and gravity of the war,” the Times reported. “If he didn’t bring bodies and put them in our doors and on the streets, he did something very similar.”
Harper’s Weekly, the quintessential news weekly, devoted the first page of its October 18, 1862 issue to images of the dead in Antietam. Although the technology did not yet exist to reproduce actual photographs in newspapers and news weeklies, the periodical published woodcuts of eight photos, six of which showed the dead.
Civil War photo breakthrough
Brady and his photographers, along with others, followed the armies to capture scenes from the battlefronts. Together, they have produced as many as 10,000 documentary images, if not more, of the camps, the battlefield and the home front. Some, like “The Dead of Antietam”, introduced the American public to the horrific realities of war.
From the start, photographers were keen to capture dramatic images of war. At least two southern photographers took photos of the damage caused by the April 1861 bombing of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which sparked the conflict. Brady personally followed the Union Army to Virginia in July 1861, but had to flee to Washington without battlefield photos after the army routed at the Battle of First Bull Run.
During the Peninsula Campaign in June 1862, photographer Brady James Gibson photographed a remarkable scene of vast suffering: wounded Union soldiers strewn across the floor of a makeshift field hospital in Savage Station, in Virginia. After the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia in August 1862, photographer Brady Timothy O’Sullivan captured an image of horses killed in battle.
But the Union du Potomac army continued to lose battles early in the war. Until Antietam, Brady’s men had not had the opportunity to take their cameras to a battlefield still littered with dead.
WATCH: Civil War Combat: Antietam on HISTORY Vault
Alexander Gardner photographs two days after the end of the battle
The photographer who captured “The Dead of Antietam” was Alexander Gardner, a burly Scottish immigrant with a round face and long beard who ran Brady’s gallery in Washington.
On September 19, 1862, two days after the battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee withdrew his army to Virginia, leaving the battlefield in Union hands. That afternoon Gardner took his first images. They showed a road below, soon known as “Bloody Lane,” still partially filled with dead Confederates who fought there.
The next day, Gardner made his way around the central part of the battlefield, taking photos as Union burial teams worked to bury the dead in long, shallow mass graves. The whole countryside reeked of death.
Gardner took glass plate negatives that were to be created and developed in place while they were still wet. Considering the primitive technology, it took photos at a breakneck pace that day and may have run out of glass plates. The next morning, September 21, at 10 a.m., he was able to use the military telegraph to send brief news of his accomplishment to the Washington Gallery along with an urgent request “as soon as possible”: “Send a drink. four by ten. You have 45 battle negatives.
Gardner used the four-by-ten-inch plates in his stereoscopic camera. The 20 photos of Antietam’s dead were taken in stereo. The negatives produced stereo views offering a 3D photographic viewing experience, the closest thing to American Civil War video. “The mind makes its way into the depths of the image,” wrote essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, an enthusiastic collector of stereographs and co-inventor of the first practical handheld viewer.
Photos testify to the horrors of war
Back in Washington, Gardner and his team made prints from the negatives and mounted them on stereo sight cards and single-image “Album Gallery Cards”. Each image had a label on the back with a title or caption and a number. Brady’s first Civil War photographs, including images from Antietam, are among the earliest numbered collectible cards in history, arriving on the American scene decades before baseball cards.
Brady and others sent copies of their latest stereo views to Holmes because he wrote about the photograph in The Atlantic monthly. But for Holmes, the stereo images of Antietam’s dead were all too real. “Whoever wants to know what war is, look at this series of illustrations,” he wrote in the July 1863 issue..
Holmes’ son, future Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., had been shot in the neck and seriously injured in the battle. Holmes immediately traveled to Maryland to search for his son and toured the battlefield on September 21 before eventually finding him in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Gardner’s photos, Holmes writes, “testified” to the “terrifying reality” of what he himself had seen: it was almost like visiting the battlefield to contemplate these sights, when all the emotions aroused by the real sight of the sordid scene, strewn with rags and wreckage, came back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our study as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead which they represented too vividly.
Civil War photos sold well
Gardner and Brady knew they were capturing history with their cameras, but the main reason they took pictures of the battlefield was because they knew they would sell. And sell they did. Civil War photos and stereo views sold well during and after the war. Their popularity is evidenced by the dozens of original views available today on online auction sites or at antique photography dealers.
Brady’s stereograms and Album Gallery Cards cost 50 cents each during the war. That’s $ 10.67 in 2020 dollars, which puts them in the same general price range as a CD today. Views of the war were more expensive than panoramic stereograms of, say, Niagara Falls or the Hudson River Valley, which sold for 25 cents apiece.
There is no evidence that Antietam’s photos turned people against the war, as TV coverage of the Vietnam War helps Americans stand up against this conflict. Yet the photos shocked, fascinated and saddened those who saw them. And to this day, they reign among the most graphic images of American war casualties ever released.