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See the Civil War Through the Lens of Its First Photographer

Mathew Brady and the photographers he hired were the first to photograph a war zone

An infantry unit with bayonets marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in May 1865. They are followed by three ambulances. (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

Mathew Brady was an early American adopter of the daguerrotype, the first commercially viable form of photography, which was brought to America by Samuel Morse. When the Civil War started, he became the first photojournalist.

Brady was born on this day in 1822 in Warren County, New York. Little is known about his early life, according to the Civil War Trust, but as a young man he met Morse and moved to New York City. While there, he had a business making cases for portraits and became an accomplished daguerrotypist himself. As he became well known, he also began photographing portraits of well-known Americans, among them Edgar Allan Poe.

Then came the Civil War. When it broke out, writes the Trust, Brady was the first to see what role photography could have in documenting the war. “At his own expense, he organized a group of photographers and staff to follow the troops as the first field-photographers,”  the Trust writes. “Brady supervised the activities of the photographers...preserved plate-glass negatives, and bought from private photographers in order to make the collection as complete as possible.”

The photographers, Brady included, were present for many historic battles, such as the First Battle of Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg. Back in his New York studio, images taken by Brady's photographer Alexander Gardner “shocked the nation,” the Trust writes, with the first photographs from the battle of Antietam.

After the war, the United States government bought his collection for $25,000. Today, much of that collection has been preserved online by the Library of Congress. Here are just a few images from it:

Dead Confederate soldiers lie in a ditch in Antietam, Maryland. Images from this battle “received more media attention at the time of the war than any other series of images during the rest of the war,” according to the Trust. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)
Dead Confederate soldiers lie beside Union graves in Antietam. The photographer of Antietam, Alexander Gardner, took more photographs of the war than any other single photographer, according to Michael Ruane for The Washington Post. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)
Inflating a balloon named Intrepid to scope out the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862. The Civil War photographers also captured scenes of the war outside the dead and battlefields. (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)
Three Confederate soldiers captured at Gettysburg (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)
A deserted camp and a wounded Union soldier photographed in 1865 (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)
About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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