Alexander Gardner, Civil War Photographer

The world of photography was changed profoundly by Alexander Gardner when he raced to the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in September 1862 and took shocking photographs of Americans who had been killed in combat. Photographs had been taken in earlier conflicts, especially in the Crimean War, but other photographers had concentrated on shooting portraits of officers.

During the Civil War the cameras used could not capture action. But Gardner sensed that the dramatic effect of capturing the aftermath of a battle would be captivating. His photographs from Antietam became a sensation, especially as they brought the horrors of the battlefield home to Americans.

Alexander Gardner, Scottish Immigrant, Became an American Photography Pioneer

Gardner's Gallery
Gardner's Gallery, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress

The American Civil War was the first war to be widely photographed. And many of the iconic images of the conflict are the work of one photographer. While Mathew Brady is the name generally associated with Civil War images, it was Alexander Gardner, who worked for Brady’s company, who actually took many of the best-known photos of the war.

Gardner was born in Scotland on October 17, 1821. Apprenticed to a jeweler in his youth, he worked at that trade before changing careers and taking a job for a finance company. At some point in the mid-1850s he became very interested in photography and learned to use the new “wet plate collodion” process.

In 1856 Gardner, along with his wife and children, came to the United States. Gardner made contact with Matthew Brady, whose photographs he had seen at an exhibition in London years earlier.

Gardner was hired by Brady, and in 1856 he began running a photographic studio Brady had opened in Washington, D.C. With Gardner’s experience as both businessman and photographer, the studio in Washington prospered.

Brady and Gardner worked together until about the end of 1862. At the time, it was standard practice for the owner of a photographic studio to claim credit for all the images shot by photographers in his employ. It is believed that Gardner became unhappy about that, and left Brady so photographs he took would no longer be credited to Brady.

In the spring of 1863 Gardner opened his own studio in Washington, D.C.

Throughout the years of the Civil War, Alexander Gardner would make history with his camera, shooting dramatic scenes on battlefields as well as evocative portraits of President Abraham Lincoln.

Civil War Photography Was Difficult, But Could Be Profitable

Civil War Photographer's Wagon
Photographer's Wagon, Virginia, Summer 1862. Library of Congress

Alexander Gardner, while running Matthew Brady’s Washington studio in early 1861, had the foresight to prepare for the Civil War. The great numbers of soldiers flooding into the city of Washington created a market for souvenir portraits, and Gardner was ready to shoot portraits of men in their new uniforms.

He had ordered special cameras which took four photographs at once. The four images printed on one page would be cut apart, and soldiers would have what were known as carte de visite photographs to send home.

Aside from the booming trade in studio portraits and carte de visites, Gardner began to recognize the value of photographing out in the field. Although Mathew Brady had accompanied federal troops and had been present at the Battle of Bull Run, he is not known to have taken any photographs of the scene.

The following year, photographers did capture images in Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign, but the photos tended to be portraits of officers and men, not scenes of battlefields.

Civil War Photography Was Very Difficult

Civil War photographers were limited in how they could work. First of all, the equipment they used, large cameras mounted on heavy wooden tripods, and developing equipment and a mobile darkroom, had to be carried on a wagon pulled by horses.

And the photographic process used, wet plate collodion, was difficult to master, even while working in an indoor studio. Working in the field presented any number of additional problems. And the negatives were actually glass plates, which had to be handled with great care.

Typically, a photographer at the time needed an assistant who would mix the required chemicals and prepare the glass negative. The photographer, meanwhile, would position and aim the camera.

The negative, in a lightproof box, would then be taken to the camera, placed inside, and the lens cap would be taken off the camera for several seconds to take the photograph.

Because the exposure (what today we call shutter speed) was so long, it was virtually impossible to photograph action scenes. That’s why almost all Civil War photographs are of landscapes or people standing still.

Alexander Gardner Photographed the Carnage Following the Battle of Antietam

Dead Confederates at Antietam
Alexander Gardner's Photograph of Dead Confederates at Antietam. Library of Congress

When Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River in September 1862, Alexander Gardner, who was still working for Mathew Brady, decided to photograph in the field.

The Union Army began to follow the Confederates into western Maryland, and Gardner and an assistant, James F. Gibson, left Washington and followed the federal troops. The epic Battle of Antietam was fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, and it is believed Gardner arrived in the vicinity of the battlefield either the day of the battle or on the following day.

The Confederate Army began its retreat back across the Potomac late on September 18, 1862, and it’s likely that Gardner began taking photographs on the battlefield on September 19, 1862. While Union troops were busy burying their own dead, Gardner was able to find many unburied Confederates on the field.

This would have been the first time a Civil War photographer was able to photograph the carnage and destruction on a battlefield. And Gardner and his assistant, Gibson, began the complicated process of setting up the camera, preparing chemicals, and making exposures.

One particular group of dead Confederate soldiers along the Hagerstown Pike caught Gardner’s eye. He is known to have taken five images of the same group of bodies (one of which appears above).

Throughout that day, and probably during the next day, Gardner was busy photographing scenes of death and burials. In all, Gardner and Gibson spent about four or five days at Antietam, photographing not only bodies but landscape studies of important sites, such as the Burnside Bridge.

Alexander Gardner's Photographs of Antietam Became a Sensation in New York City

Alexander Gardner's Photograph of the Dunker Church
Alexander Gardner's Photograph from Antietam of the Dunker Church, With a Dead Confederate Gun Crew in the Foreground. Library of Congress

After Gardner returned to Brady’s studio in Washington, prints were made of his negatives and were taken to New York City. As the photographs were something entirely new, images of dead Americans on a battlefield, Mathew Brady decided to display them immediately in his New York City gallery, which was located at Broadway and Tenth Street.

The technology of the time didn’t allow photographs to be reproduced widely in newspapers or magazines (though woodcut prints based on photographs appeared in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly). So it wasn’t uncommon for people to come to Brady’s gallery to view new photographs.

On October 6, 1862, a notice in the New York Times announced that photographs of Antietam were being displayed at Brady’s gallery. The brief article mentioned that the photographs show “blackened faces, distorted features, expressions most agonizing…” It also mentioned that the photographs could also be purchased at the gallery.

New Yorkers flocked to see the Antietam photographs, and were fascinated and horrified.

On October 20, 1862, the New York Times published a lengthy review of the exhibition at Brady’s New York gallery. One particular paragraph describes the reaction to Gardner's photographs:

"Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard, 'The Dead of Antietam.'
"Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action. Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them.
"You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes.
"It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But so it is."

As Mathew Brady's name was associated with any photographs taken by his employees, it became fixed in the public mind that Brady had taken the photographs at Antietam. That mistake persisted for a century, though Brady himself had never been to Antietam.

Gardner Returned to Maryland to Photograph Lincoln

Lincoln Meeting With McClellan
President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan, western Maryland, October 1862. Library of Congress

In October 1862, while Gardner’s photographs were gaining fame in New York City, President Abraham Lincoln visited western Maryland to review the Union Army, which was encamped following the Battle of Antietam.

The main purpose of Lincoln’s visit was to meet with General George McClellan, the Union commander, and to urge him to cross the Potomac and pursue Robert E. Lee. Alexander Gardner returned to western Maryland and photographed Lincoln several times during the visit, including this photograph of Lincoln and McClellan conferring in the general’s tent.

The president's meetings with McClellan did not go well, and about a month later Lincoln relieved McClellan of command.

As for Alexander Gardner, he apparently decided to leave the employ of Brady and start his own gallery, which opened the following spring.

It is generally believed that Brady receiving accolades for what were actually Gardner’s photographs of Antietam led to Gardner leaving Brady’s employ.

Giving credit to individual photographers was a novel concept, but Alexander Gardner adopted it. Throughout the remainder of the Civil War he was always scrupulous in crediting photographers who would work for him.

Alexander Gardner Photographed Abraham Lincoln on Several Occasions

Gardner Portrait of Lincoln
One of Alexander Gardner's Portraits of President Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress

After Gardner opened his new studio and gallery in Washington, D.C. he again returned to the field, traveling to Gettysburg in early July 1863 to shoot scenes following the great battle.

There is controversy associated with those photographs as Gardner obviously staged some of the scenes, placing the same rifle next to various Confederate corpses and apparently even moving bodies to put them in more dramatic positions. At the time no one seemed bothered by such actions.

In Washington, Gardner had a thriving business. On several occasions President Abraham Lincoln visited Gardner’s studio to pose for photographs, and Gardner took more photographs of Lincoln than any other photographer.

The portrait above was taken by Gardner at his studio on November 8, 1863, a few weeks before Lincoln would travel to Pennsylvania to give the Gettysburg Address.

Gardner continued to take photographs in Washington, including shots of Lincoln’s second inauguration, the interior of Ford’s Theatre following Lincoln’s assassination, and the execution of the Lincoln conspirators. A Gardner portrait of the actor John Wilkes Booth was actually used on a wanted poster following Lincoln’s assassination, which was the first time a photograph was utilized in that way.

In the years after the Civil War Gardner published a popular book, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War. The publication of the book gave Gardner a chance to take credit for his own photographs.

In the late 1860s Gardner traveled in the west, taking striking photographs of Indigenous people. He eventually returned to Washington, working at times for the local police devising a system for taking mugshots.

Gardner died December 10, 1882, in Washington, D.C. Obituaries noted his renown as a photographer.

And to this day the way we visualize the Civil War is largely through Gardner’s remarkable photographs.

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McNamara, Robert. "Alexander Gardner, Civil War Photographer." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, October 2). Alexander Gardner, Civil War Photographer. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Alexander Gardner, Civil War Photographer." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).