Our photographs are part of our everyday life. We share them with others, be it stored on our phones or on the Internet through social media. We have thousands upon thousands of them but there was a time when this was a luxury. Since the roots of Memorial Day takes us back to the Civil War, today on this holiday Nicely Done Sites will examine how the Civil War brought photography to mainstream American society and helped to make all of those photos that you have easier for you to take. 

Photography was one of the many things that became mainstream because of the Civil War and while some of them went unappreciated many of the innovations are still with us today.

Warning: There are graphic images of dead soldiers included.

Early Photography

Photography existed before the Civil War. The first successful commercial photography, the Daguerreotype was introduced by its inventor Louis-Jacues-Mande Daguerre in 1839. A sheet of copper needed to be polished, treated with chemicals to make it light sensitive and exposed to light and the subject had to remain still for upwards of 20 seconds. It would then be processed with more chemicals to reveal the image on the polished surface. 

With the Civil War and hundreds of thousands of soldiers going off to war the desire to have the image of the soldier at home or of their loved one to take with them created a booming industry. For a mere $.50 (around $15 today) 10 tintypes (an adapted Daguerreotype) could be procured. The process had changed as glass was now used rather than polished copper. The equipment was bulky and the new Wet-Plate process was time consuming, complicated and delicate. It could only be done by trained professionals. Subjects also still had to sit completely still for up to 20 seconds.

Wet-Plate Photography

This Wet-Plate process used a chemical to treat the glass plate, prepared in a dark room and inserted into the camera while in the dark room. When the subject was ready the cap on the camera was removed to expose the glass to light and imprinting the image on the plate. The cap would then be replaced and taken immediately back to the darkroom to develop the image using a chemical solution. After development the plate would be washed, dried and coated in varnish to protect the surface thus creating the negative. With the negative the image could then be printed on paper and mounted.

This process did not lend itself to action shots but more portrait shots, like are common with Abraham Lincoln and others. Photographers of the time like Matthew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner and even George Cook in the Confederacy produced photographs of the people going to war.

3D Images

Also included were stereo images, or three dimensional images of anything from a regiment or artillery battery posing while at drill to a supply depot to depict mundane army life. A twin-lens camera was used to capture the image from two slightly different angles and developed the same way, creating two images on one plate of glass. When processed they could be inserted into a special stereo viewer to for a lifelike 3-D image.

What Did War Look Like?

But the public clamored for more. War at the time had romantic notions full of honor and manliness as exhibited in the great paintings of the time. Alexander Gardner, one of Matthew Brady’s employees, decided to bring the images of war to the people. Following the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 Gardner made the short trip into Western Maryland to capture some of the most iconic images in American history. He utilized a portable studio and darkroom and since the bodies still laying on the battlefield in the aftermath of the bloodiest day in American military history were dead he would have no problem with the subject remaining still.

Once completed he put his work on display at his gallery in Washington DC calling it the Dead of Antietam. It was a commercial success but the public now saw what the aftermath of war really looked like. It was not the romantic imagery seen in paintings and drawings. To say the public was shocked was an understatement. The photos were so clear faces could be made out, faces of someone’s son, brother or husband, even if they were Rebels. Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan did the same the following summer following the Battle of Gettysburg. Photography changed the way Americans saw war.

Identifying A Dead Soldier By A Photograph

Nearly every soldier went to war with a photo of their loved ones. It was for many their most prized possession. In at least one case it helped to identify a soldier’s body. On July 1, 1863 as the Union 11th Corps retreated through Gettysburg a Union sergeant was shot. The soldier knew that the wound would be mortal and as he propped himself up in his last moments he pulled out a photograph of his three children so it would be the last thing he saw before dying. The photo was still in his hands on July 4 when Union soldiers retook the town and taken by a local girl, who gave it to her tavern-keeper father.

In those days soldiers did not wear dog tags or any identifiable information. Who was this mystery man? Following the battle as Union soldiers were buried every attempt was made to identify their bodies but this one could not be identified and he was buried in a grave marked unknown, as was hundreds of other Union and Confederate soldiers. When two men stopped into the young girl’s father’s tavern following the battle the photo came up in conversation and one of the men, a doctor from Philadelphia, asked to take it with him to try to identify the man.

The man returned to Philadelphia and had the photo copied by several other photographers producing hundreds of images about the size of a business card. The story was printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which asked that the story be spread all across the North. The photo could not be printed in the paper but a copy of the photo could be requested by a person’s local newspaper. A copy of that story eventually reached Portville, New York and Philadna Humiston and her three children, who had heard nothing of her husband since the battle. She requested the photograph and when she received a copy she was staring at the faces of her own children. Her husband had not been captured and was being held in a Confederate prison awaiting exchange but instead was dead.

Her husband, Amos Humiston had been a part of the 154th New York, part of Charles Coster’s brigade which had advanced through town to help cover the retreat of the rest of the 11th Corps after it was routed. His regiment had been smashed in the Kuhn Brickyard and many of his regiment were captured or killed. It became every man for himself and Humiston ran. He made it approximately ¼ mile before he was hit. Today a small monument on Stratton Street marks the approximate spot where his body was found.

Photo Manipulations

To try to end on a more positive note on this holiday Monday the Civil War also brought the first graphic manipulations to the public. Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln the public demanded heroic images of the martyred president to be used as a memento. No such photo or print existed but an artist named Thomas Hicks had an idea.

Hicks took a print of secessionist and slavery proponent John C. Calhoun and replaced Calhoun’s head (and a few other small things) with the head of Abraham Lincoln reversing the image to prevent people from discovering it. Hicks did a good job and the print was widely successful. He also did a good job in another regard as it took nearly a century for the manipulation to be discovered, owing only to a mole on Lincoln’s cheek that was found to on the wrong side of his face. You have seen this image, or at least part of it. Open your wallet and see if you have an older five dollar bill in there!

No Photoshop needed!

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