Why Are There No Combat Photographs From the Civil War?

Chemistry of Early Photography Was an Obstacle to Action Shots

Union Square rally following Fort Sumter
1861 New York rally showing Fort Sumter flag waving in the breeze. Library of Congress

There were many thousands of photographs taken during the Civil War, and in some ways the widespread use of photography was accelerated by the war. The most common photos were portraits, which soldiers, sporting their new uniforms, would have taken in studios.

Enterprising photographers such as Alexander Gardner traveled to battlefields and photographed the aftermath of battles. Gardner's photographs of Antietam, for instance, were shocking to the public in late 1862, as they depicted dead soldiers where they had fallen.

In nearly every photograph taken during the war there is something missing: there is no action.

At the time of the Civil War it was technically possible to take photographs that would freeze action. But practical considerations made combat photography impossible.

Photographers Mixed Their Own Chemicals

Photography was not far from its infancy when the Civil War began. The first photographs had been taken in the 1820s, but it wasn’t until the development of the Daguerreotype in 1839 that a practical method existed for preserving a captured image. The method pioneered in France by Louis Daguerre was replaced by a more practical method in the 1850s.

The newer wet plate method employed a sheet of glass as the negative. The glass had to be treated with chemicals, and the chemical mixture was known as "collodion."

Not only was mixing the collodion and preparing the glass negative time-consuming, taking several minutes, but the exposure time of the camera was also lengthy, between three and 20 seconds.

If you look carefully at studio portraits taken at the time of the Civil War, you’ll notice that people are often seated in chairs, or they are standing next to objects upon which they can steady themselves. That is because they had to stand very still during the time the lens cap had been removed from the camera. If they moved, the portrait would be blurred.

In fact, in some photographic studios a standard piece of equipment would be an iron brace that was placed behind the subject to steady the person’s head and neck.

Taking "Instant" Photos Was Possible By the Time of the Civil War

Most photographs in the 1850s were taken in studios under very controlled conditions with exposure times of several seconds. However, there had always been a desire to photograph events, with exposure times short enough to freeze motion.

In the late 1850s a process using faster reacting chemicals was perfected. And photographers working for the E. and H.T. Anthony & Company of New York City, began taking photographs of street scenes which were marketed as “Instantaneous Views.”

The short exposure time was a major selling point, and the Anthony Company amazed the public by advertising that some of its photographs were taken in a fraction of a second.

One “Instantaneous View” published and sold widely by the Anthony Company was a photograph of the enormous rally in New York City’s Union Square on April 20, 1861, following the attack on Fort Sumter. A large American flag (presumably the flag brought back from the fort) was captured waving in the breeze.

Action Photographs Were Impractical In the Field

So while the technology did exist to take action photographs, Civil War photographers in the field did not use it.

The problem with instant photography at the time was that it required faster-acting chemicals which were very sensitive and would not travel well.

Civil War photographers would venture out in horse-drawn wagons to photograph battlefields. And they might be gone from their city studios for a few weeks. They had to bring along chemicals they knew would work well under potentially primitive conditions, which meant the less sensitive chemicals, which required longer exposure times.

The Size of the Cameras Also Made Combat Photography Next to Impossible

The process of mixing chemicals and treating glass negatives was extremely difficult, but beyond that, the size of the equipment used by a Civil War photographer meant that it was impossible to take photographs during a battle.

The glass negative had to be prepared in the photographer’s wagon, or in a nearby tent, and then carried, in a lightproof box, to the camera.

And the camera itself was a large wooden box that sat atop a heavy tripod. There was no way to maneuver such bulky equipment in the chaos of a battle, with cannons roaring and with Minié balls flying past.

Photographers tended to arrive at the scenes of battle when the action had been concluded. Alexander Gardner arrived at Antietam two days after the fighting, which is why his most dramatic photographs feature dead Confederate soldiers (the Union dead had mostly been buried). 

It's unfortunate that we don't have photographs portraying the action of battles. But when you think of the technical problems faced by Civil War photographers, you can't help but appreciate the photographs they were able to take.

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McNamara, Robert. "Why Are There No Combat Photographs From the Civil War?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/combat-photographs-from-the-civil-war-1773718. McNamara, Robert. (2020, October 29). Why Are There No Combat Photographs From the Civil War? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/combat-photographs-from-the-civil-war-1773718 McNamara, Robert. "Why Are There No Combat Photographs From the Civil War?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/combat-photographs-from-the-civil-war-1773718 (accessed June 6, 2023).