American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War

American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War

Jennifer Conerly - November 6, 2017

In today’s world of mass image collecting and “selfies,” it is hard to imagine a world in which some sort of image capturing didn’t exist. Photography wasn’t invented until the 1830s, and even then, it was still in its infant stages.

The first cameras couldn’t capture movement, but one particular way that photographers of the 19th century used their skill and equipment was to document the events, people, and the aftermath of conflicts and wars of the age through still portraits and landscapes. The American Civil War was the first major conflict on American soil after the invention of photography, and the fifth war that was documented in photographs.

Photographers captured both the Union and Confederate experiences of everyday life: soldiers in uniform posing for professional photographs, manning their stations, attending mass or reading in their downtime in between battles. The photographs also showed the devastation that soldiers of the Civil War saw every day: the aftermath of the battles and shocking images of unburied dead soldiers. Photographers knew the limitations of their equipment, so they used the tools that were available to them.

Many soldiers posed for photographs that were recreations of the battles they just fought, often posing for several hours. Photographers would rearrange and pose the bodies of dead soldiers on the battlefield to give the public a visual representation of what the aftermath of battle looked like. Civil War photographs could be bought and shared by the public, creating the first example of public consciousness of the realities of war.

American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Picture Gallery Photographs. Hundreds of Photographers Provided Field Photo Services During the Civil War. Unknown Photographer. 1860s. https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/ph/original/DP265115.jpg.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Confederate Dead. Photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1861. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Fifteen Officers on Deck of a Union Monitor Warship. Unknown photographer. Photographed between 1861-1865. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Deserted Camp. Photographed by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860-1865. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
A Harvest of Death. Gettysburg, July 1863.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Battlefield of Gettysburg. Dead Confederate Sharpshooter at Foot of Little Round Top. Photographed by Alexander Gardner, July 1863. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Photograph of the field at Antietam, American Civil War. Confederate dead by a fence at the Hagerstown Turnpike, looking north; the Turnpike is to the right of the fence, the dirt lane on the left leads to the farm of David Miller. Photographed by Alexander Gardner, September 1862. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan in the general’s tent at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862. Photographed by Alexander Gardner. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Battle of Antietam. Confederate dead at Bloody Lane, looking northeast from the south bank; the Union soldiers looking on were likely members of the 130th Pennsylvania, who were assigned burial detail. Photographed by Alexander Gardner, 1862. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Signal station on Elk Mountain, overlooking battle-field of Antietam. Unknown photographer, photographed October 1862. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
A lone grave on the Battlefield of Antietam. Photographed by Alexander Gardner, 1862. Library of Congress. Pinterest.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Savage Station, Va. Field hospital after the battle of June 27. Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, the Peninsular Campaign, May-August 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, June 30, 1862. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Union soldiers entrenched along the west bank of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, Virginia. between 29 April 1863 and 2 May 1863. Photographed by Andrew J. Russell. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Sunday morning mass in camp of 69th N.Y.S.M. Photograph shows Father Thomas H. Mooney, Chaplain of the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York State Militia and Irish American soldiers at a Catholic Mass at Fort Cocoran, Arlington Heights, Virginia on June 1, 1861. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Battery, No. 4–near Yorktown, mounting 10 13-inch mortars, each weighing 20,000 pounds. Artillery Placements Outside Yorktown, Virginia. Photographed by James G. Gibson, ca. 1862. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Confederate fortifications, Yorktown, Virginia. 8 men at sand-bagged cannon emplacement; man in mid-ground seated on wreckage of cannon. Unknown photographer, unknown date. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
“Ruins in Richmond” Damage to Richmond, Virginia from the American Civil War. Photographed by Andrew J. Russell, April 1865. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Cold Harbor, Va. African Americans collecting bones of soldiers killed in the battle. Photographed by John Reekie, April 1865. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Ruins of Stone Bridge, Bull Run. Photographed by George N. Barnard, March 1862. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Dead Confederate Soldier at Fort Mahone, Petersburg, Virginia. Photographed by Mathew Brady, 1864. Wikimedia Commons.

American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Petersburg, Virginia. Mortar Dictator. Photographed by David Knox, October 1864. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Siege of Yorktown, Virginia: Confederate fortifications. Six men at sand-bagged cannon emplacement in right background. Unknown photographer, unknown date. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Federal Prisoners Captured at Battle of Bull Run, Castle Pinckney, Charleston, South Carolina, August 1861. Photograph shows Confederate soldiers above watching Union prisoners below in the yard. Unknown Photographer. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Confederate fortifications at Gloucester Point, Virginia, opposite Yorktown. Two men with cannon in foreground; ships on water in background. Unknown photographer, unknown date. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Bombproof Huts in the Front Line Before Petersburg, Virginia. August 10, 1864. Photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Unburied Dead at the Battlefield of Gaines’ Mill, Virginia. Vicinity Cold Harbor. Photographed by John Reekie between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Fort Burnham, Va., vicinity. Camp of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry near the battlefield of Oct. 29, 1864. Unknown photographer, between 1860-1865. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Old Frame House on Fair Oaks Battlefield, Pierced by Hundreds of Bullets, and Used as a Hospital by Hooker’s Division. Photographed by James F. Gibson, June 1862. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Confederate Prisoners Waiting for Transportation, Belle Plain, Virginia. Photographed by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860-1865. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Infantry regiment in camp. Probably 96th Pennsylvania Infantry at Camp Northumberland near Washington, DC, ca. 1861. Photographed by Mathew Brady. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Civil War photograph of Ft. Stevens, Washington, D.C. Officers and men of Company F, 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, in Fort Stevens. Photographed by William Morris Smith, August 1865. http://www.nps.gov/cwdw/steven2.htm. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
District of Columbia. Detachment of Company K, 3d Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, by guns of Fort Stevens. Photographed by William Morris Smith, August 1865. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Confederate fortifications around Atlanta, Georgia, in 1864. The wagon and portable darkroom of photographer George N. Barnard is visible in the photograph. Photographed by George N. Barnard, 1864. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Confederate Fortifications Around Atlanta, Georgia. Photographed by George N. Barnard, 1864. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
A Bombproof Hut in front of Atlanta, Georgia. Photographed by George N. Barnard, 1864. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
The ruins of Mills House and nearby buildings, Charleston, South Carolina, at end of American Civil War. A shell-damaged carriage and the remains of a brick chimney are in the foreground. Unknown photographer, 1865. http://www.archives.gov/research/american-cities/. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
United States Army Soldiers in Formation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photographed by Andrew David Lytle, 1863. Wikipedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Black Soldiers of the Native Guard Regiments of the Union Army at Port Hudson, Louisiana, 1862-1864. This squad is in the “Parade Rest” position. Unknown photographer. National Archives and Records Administration. Wikimedia Commons.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Commissioned officers of 19th Iowa Infantry after their exchange as prisoners of war, New Orleans, July 1865. Unknown Photographer. Library of Congress.
American Tragedy: 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War
Colonels Orlando M. Poe & Orville E. Babcock at Fort Sanders, Knoxville, Tennessee. Photographed by George N. Barnard between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress.

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