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.