The Dead of Antietam: Photography in the Civil War


This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Mathew B. Brady (May 18, 1822 – January 15, 1896) was one of the earliest photographers in American history, best known for his scenes of the Civil War.

At first, the effect of the Civil War on Brady’s business was a brisk increase in sales of cartes de visite to departing soldiers. Brady readily marketed to parents the idea of capturing their young soldiers’ images before they might be lost to war by running an ad in The New York Daily Tribune that warned, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.” However, he was soon taken with the idea of documenting the war itself.

Brady’s efforts to document the American Civil War on a grand scale by bringing his photographic studio onto the battlefields earned Brady his place in history. Despite the dangers, financial risk, and discouragement by his friends, Brady was later quoted as saying “I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.”

Many of the images in Brady’s collection are, in reality, thought to be the work of his assistants. Brady was criticized for failing to document the work, though it is unclear whether it was intentional or due simply to a lack of inclination to document the photographer of a specific image. Because so much of Brady’s photography is missing information, it is difficult to know not only who took the picture, but also exactly when or where it was taken.

In October 1862 Brady opened an exhibition of photographs from the Battle of Antietam in his New York gallery, titled The Dead of Antietam. Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs, as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions.”

The New York Times published a review on October 20, 1862, describing how, “Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness.” But crowds came to the gallery drawn by a “terrible fascination” to the images of mangled corpses which brought the reality of remote battle fields to New Yorkers. Viewers examined details using a magnifying glass. “We would scarce choose to be in the gallery, when one of the women bending over them should recognize a husband, a son, or a brother in the still, lifeless lines of bodies, that lie ready for the gaping trenches.”

Activity

Examine the following photographs by Matthew Brady and his photographers.  Look at all of them, then choose one to analyze more closely, using the following chart to do so.

1. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown Road
2. 
Bodies of Confederate dead gathered for burial
3. 
The Dunker Church. Here, both Union and Confederate dead lie together on the field.
4. Keedysville, Md. Smith’s barn used as a hospital after the battle of Antietam.
5. 
President Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan in the general’s tent.
6. Bloody Lane, Antietam.
7. United  States Colored Troops on a picket.
8. Dead Soldier, Antietam.
9. 
President Lincoln, Gen. George McClellan and a group of officers.

Photographic Analysis Chart
Objective
Observation

Describe the physical details of the scene.

Subjective
Observation
Describe the feelings and emotions elicited
by the image.

Prior
Knowledge

Describe relevant historical information you
have learned from your teacher.

Deduction

Put it all together – write an appropriate caption
for the image.

The Bottom Line

  1. What questions does this photograph raise? What else would you need to know?
  2. What are the possible pros and cons of civilians seeing images from the battlefield? 
  3. Should the government censor war-related photographs that show dead bodies?  Troops committing acts of violence?  Coffins coming home from war?
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