Commercial photography began in 1839. For technical reasons, it was largely restricted to studio portraits at first. By the mid-1850s, the art had developed to the point where photographers were able to travel to the Crimean War and, under very difficult conditions, capture some campaign scenes.
These images had not however become widely known in the United States by 1861, when the American Civil War began. Photographers on the Union side started following the armies beginning in 1862. The glass plate technology used then, while heavy, cumbersome and expensive, was able, if skillfully used, to produce high-resolution large-scale images. Because of the difficulty assembling the glass plates, chemicals and so forth during wartime conditions, as well as the money necessary to finance a mobile photographic laboratory, there were few or no equivalent campaign photographers with the Confederate armies.
Mathew B. Brady (1822-1896) is perhaps the most famous photographer of the Civil War, likely on account of his portraits of Lincoln and his popular photography gallery on Broadway in New York City.
In 1862 something of a photographic revolution was carried out, and that was to capture and display photographs taken of unburied bodies on a battlefield, something which had never been done before. There were a number of reasons for this, mostly related to the fact that the Union armies in the eastern theater hadn't won any battles and were generally forced to retreat, with the photographers going along with them.
This changed on September 17, 1862, with the battle of Antietam. Its effect on the public in the North was immediate.
Very briefly, this battle happened as a result of the federal defeat at the battle of Second Manassas which occurred on on August 28 and 30, 1862. Lee, who was then only recently appointed to command the Confederate forces in Virginia, decided to gamble for high stakes by taking the southern army into Maryland, and maybe even Pennsylvania,with the hope, among other things, that by winning a victory in Northern territory, the North would give up the idea of being able to defeat the South, and perhaps France and, in particular, Britain, would recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government, opening the way to purchases of weaponry and other assistance.
Lee had counted on McClellan, the federal commander, moving at his usual snail's pace, and divided his army in an complicated campaign plan. In a weird twist of fate, somebody in the Confederate army left behind, in a abandoned southern camp, Lee's entire orders for the campaign. On September 13, 1862, these were found by the Union army, curiously wrapped around three cigars. McClellan, presented with this discovery, actually moved with considerable dispatch, and by the morning of September 17, McClellan's 87,000 men had Lee and his 40,000 men almost cornered at the town of Sharpsburg.
McClellan delayed just long enough to allow Lee sufficient time to organize a defense, and the resulting battle of Antietam became the single bloodiest one-day battle of all American history. Lee was forced to retreat on September 18, with McClellan giving ineffective pursuit.
As a result, the conditions for photography of the battle aftermath were finally present and these were taken advantage of by photographer Alexander Gardner, who arrived on the scene on September 19. Burial work begin that day, but by then the stench from the dead and rapidly decomposing bodies of 4,000 soldiers and hundreds of horses permeated the countryside and could be smelled from over a mile away.
This deterred neither Gardner nor a large number of souvenir collectors, who roamed freely over the battlefield.
along Hagerstown Pike.
William Frassanito, in his book Antietam -- The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day, has identified the near exact location of this photograph. These bodies lie along the west side of the Hagerstown pike, which is not the dirt road on the left, but ran rather is on the right, on the other side of the fence. A parallel rail fence runs down the east side of the pike.
Image 2 was taken five hundred yards north of the Dunker Church. Frassanito believed these men to be from Louisiana, of the brigade of Genl. Wm. E. Starke (1814-1862), who was killed in the same fighting. Frassito makes the point that the rail fence, seen here, was a formidable barrier to infantry attack, because it was not readily dismantled, and formed a line of defense, along which these men were killed by heavy fire from the 6th Wisconsin as well as cannon fire from federal guns posted to the north which outflanked the position.
When these and other images were placed on display, in the fall of 1862, at Brady's New York Gallery, a reporter for the New York Times wrote:
We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. The crape on the bell-pull tells us there is a death in the house, and in the close carriage that rolls away with muffled wheels you know there rides a woman to whom the world is very dark now. But you only see the mourners in the last of the long line of carriages – they ride very jollily and at their ease, smoking cigars in a furtive and discursive manner, perhaps, and, were it not for the black gloves they wear, which the deceased was wise and liberal enough to furnish. It might be a wedding for all the world would know. It attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy.
But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door, and the corpse is carried out over your own threshold – you know whether it is a wedding or a funeral then, without looking at the color of the gloves worn. Those who lose friends in battle know what battle-fields are …
Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought home bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it. …
at Cold Harbor.
Gardner took just 70 photographs at Antietam. Each one required careful composition and preparation. The technology was expensive and couldn't be wasted at random. Nor for the most part could moving objects be portrayed, at least not without blurring.
Now every soldier has a camera, rapid photographs can be made and sent around the world, and so we have events like Abu Ghraib or the recent photographs of U.S. soldiers posing with body parts of the enemy. This should not be surprising to anyone -- this is war, not a tea party. No need, and really no justification for us to be shocked like the New Yorkers of 1862.
But just as then, photography has a way of stripping off the illusions of war and exposing the reality.
Update: I am not justifying Abu Gharib or trophy photography of enemy casualties. I only point out that war will bring with it crimes and brutality, some of that will be photographed, and just like in 1862, we had better become accustomed to seeing such photographs so long as we wage war. The only alternative, to make peace, or perhaps, at least less war, doesn't seem to be likely to occur.