Photography and The Civil War


The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history and hundreds of thousands lost their lives. This aspect of war was being depicted, for the first time, by photography which vividly showed the true horrors of war. Two famous photographers responsible for these depictions included Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan. Their photographs forever changed history in that everyone was given a realistic glimpse into the devastation that war creates. Photography had a definite impact during the Civil War and played a crucial role in revealing the true “picture” of war in all its elements.

They took many portraits of soldiers which typically showed them “loading weapons, standing in units, playing games, attending meetings, attending to the sick and wounded and burying the dead.” (Library of Congress) All in all, these portraits successfully portrayed one’s character and even displayed individuals at their bravest as well as their weakest moments. These surreal portraits may have also helped ordinary citizens become more dedicated in supporting either cause for the photos gave a realistic picture of individuals at war.


The most common photographs during the Civil War however, were the grotesque images of dead soldiers. According to Horan, a historian, “Brady and his men had the zeal to capture the Civil War on their glass plates.” (8) They wanted to show how war really is and wanted to forever remove the romanticism that dominated its portrayal for so long. The romanticism was clearly becoming obsolete and Miles Orvell, a historian and photographer, reflects on this by saying, “images viewed by the public were both fascinating and repelling- bodies twisted into grotesque shapes, bones being buried long after the flesh had been picked clean- offering a view of the harsh and bloody reality of war that had previously been hidden beneath a veil of propaganda.” (62) This veil of propaganda is referring to paintings, which usually seemed to glorify war. On this issue, Orvell also states, “paintings of the day portray, not death and disfigurement, but the heroic struggles of soldiers who, though wounded are not defeated…., we see not the maimed infantrymen lying in a ditch but the soldier being sent off to battle by his loved ones with a kiss and the respect due to a warrior.” (63) The portrayal of war, therefore, was changing and now people were in utter shock at these strange, realistic photographs that were void of any such propaganda. They saw human death and suffering portrayed in vivid, realistic photographs. The romanticism and glorification of war was forever changed.


The Civil War is said to be the bloodiest war in American history and many photographs that were taken, showed the toll that the civil war had on a nation and its people. People were affected in that many fought hard and many ultimately paid for it with their lives during bloody conflicts. Landscapes were permanently altered or destroyed by the constant bombardment of artillery. We saw the emergence of new technologies that helped during the war. But we also saw the destruction of such technologies throughout the course of the war. Camp life was sometimes chaotic due to the influx of wounded men and tired soldiers who witnessed horrific things that will have long lasting effects. Photography portrayed all these aspects in realistic, vivid images that forever erased the romanticism of war and instead has left us with the cold realization that the civil war was a bloody, destructive and devastating event in history in which there are photographs to prove it.


About thewheelworld91

My name is Mike and I recently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in history. I am disabled and afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy so I'm in a wheelchair. I have been looking for a job for over a year with no luck. However, i have some non profit experience and interned at a museum. Other than that I've been going to events for my disorder and doing fun activities such as video games and using the internet. This blog will focus on being disabled, US and international politics/affairs and video games or whatever is on my mind.
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