The Civil War Battlefield Photos That Changed Everything

Then, again.
Sept. 17 2012 6:10 PM

The Battlefield Photos That Changed Everything

Alexander Gardner made these incredibly powerful images before newspapers could even print photographs.

A lone grave on the Antietam battlefield.
A lone grave on the Antietam battlefield.

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

When Alexander Gardner arrived on the bloody Antietam battlefield in 1862, with his cumbersome photography equipment, he set out to do something that no one had ever done. It was the first time a photographer attempted to document a battlefield before the dead had been cleared away. It was unclear exactly what would become of these incredibly detailed images soldiers burying the dead and bodies zig-zagging across dry fields. At that point in time, newspapers could not yet print photographs (only wood cuttings of images) and no such work had ever existed.

About one month later photographer Mathew Brady exhibited the work in his New York studio. Even all these years later the photos are still often referred to as the most powerful battlefield images of all time. It is hard to process what the experience of seeing them must been like for people who had rarely been exposed to any sorts of documentary-style photos, let alone images of war.

“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” a reporter for the New York Times wrote after a visit to Brady’s studio. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

The images did not simply reveal the crumpled dead and deflated survivors in incredible detail; many of the images did so in 3-D. Gardner employed a new photographic technique at the time—the sterograph. Two lenses captured two photographs simultaneously, which provided a three-dimensional image when seen through a viewer. In parlors across America, people stood with their viewers and processed the reality of battle in unprecedented detail.

The following images were taken during Gardner’s two trips to Antietam—the first two days after battle and the others later when he returned during President Lincoln’s visit in October.

history_gardner_02

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

The burial crew at work.

history_gardner_03

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

A group of artillery officers on the Antietam battlefield. Two lenses captured simultaneous photographs. When seen through a viewer, this image appears three-dimensional.

history_gardner_04

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

A makeshift field hospital.

history_gardner_05

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

A Federal soldier is buried, while a Confederate lays unburied. This level of realism in war imagery was unheard of at the time.

history_gardner_06

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

The dead fill what would be known as Bloody Lane.

history_gardner_07

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

The dead are readied for burial.

history_gardner_08

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

In addition to photographing the dead, Gardner carefully documented the impact on the landscape and architecture.

history_gardner_09

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

A signal tower overlooking the Antietam battlefield.

history_gardner_10

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

An ambulance drill in the field, likely taken later during Gardner’s second visit to the battlefield.

history_gardner_11

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

A picnic party at Antietam bridge on Sept. 22.

history_gardner_12

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress.

President Lincoln with Gen. George B. McClellan and group of officers on Oct. 3, 1862.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.