GETTYSBURG, Pa. — From graphic images of the dead on battlefields to portraits of troops in between skirmishes, the Civil War was the first American military conflict captured by photographers and the first foray into photojournalism in the United States.
No camera phones. Forget Polaroids. Photography had been around for decades by the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, and most towns had a photographer. But the practice itself was laborious, at least compared to today’s instant standards and the way Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke captured images of the re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary.
So in Civil War, photographers sensed opportunity, according to John Rudy, an instructor of Civil War-era studies at Gettysburg College.
Very rarely were scenes of war taken, Rudy said, simply because the exposure time of three to five seconds was too long to capture moving action.
“These men were working for pay. They’re part-artist, part-chroniclers, but also keenly aware that their image has to sell,” Rudy says.
Renowned Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, for instance, had to load two wagonloads full of equipment before rushing to Gettysburg when he heard of the potential for a major conflict in the Pennsylvania town. Gettysburg is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle that took place July 1-3, 1863.
The first true images of the war were produced in September 1862 at Antietam, according to the National Park Service’s website for the Maryland battlefield. Gardner made to trips to Antietam, the first two days after battle, and captured grim images. Gardner made a second trip two weeks later when President Abraham Lincoln visited the battlefield.
“During both of his trips, Gardner moved across the battlefield taking advantage of another new photographic technique that increased the impact of war images — stereograph. Two lenses capture two simultaneous photographs, and when seen through a viewer, the mind creates a three-dimensional image,” the National Park Service said.
Any close-up shots that may have appeared to be taken on the battlefield were likely staged. Some men also chose to have portraits taken in camp. Such shots were very rare then — a portrait may have only been taken once or twice during an American’s lifetime then, Rudy said.
Newspapers rarely printed photos then, but major national publications did use illustrations from sketch artists to depict war scenes.
“It’s very much used as a replacement for the fact that you can’t take a photo of me moving. The sketch artist replaces the on-the-scene footage,” Rudy said. “It’s not true to life. The sketch helped bring the war to the American people, but brought it to them in a different way.”
In the 1880s, French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s cyclorama paintings of Pickett’s Charge during the third day at Gettysburg proved to be a popular attraction in its time. A cyclorama is a massive in-the-round painting that Rudy equated in modern standards to seeing the movie “World War Z” in 3-D.
Painted post-Reconstruction, Philippoteaux painted the Gettysburg cyclorama during a period when views of the war had shifted amid the rise of a veterans culture — a “romantic image of war where both sides fought valiantly for something they believed in,” Rudy said.
Motion pictures made the cyclorama obsolete by the late 1800s and the paintings quickly vanished. The only cycloramas on display in the United States are at the National Park Service visitor center in Gettysburg and one of the Battle of Atlanta, which resides in Grant Park in that city.
Here’s a gallery of images from the Civil War and now.