Alexander Gardner and the Civil War

Referring of his work as a photographer of the American Civil War, Alexander Gardner said, “It is designed to speak for itself. As mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest.” Sadly, no one wanted to hear of this history and no one wanted to see the images of the conflict that haunted the nation. When Gardner offered his trove of images to Congress in 1869, the legislators refused to purchase this invaluable pictorial record of the war. As with all wars, the nation wanted to return to normal in the aftermath and there was little comprehension that photography might be a significant historical tool.


Plate from Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War

Image by Timothy O’Sullivan

Although Alexander Gardner’s name had not been emblazoned on the body of photographic work that examined the War and its toll, he was the individual who carried out the wishes of his employer, Matthew Brady. After viewing the strange and inconclusive encounter between the Federal and Confederate troops at the First Battle of Manassas, hoping to make a profit, Brady decided to “cover” this internal struggle for business purposes. Because Brady could be thought of as an official portrait photographer of President Abraham Lincoln, he had earned special privileges, such as the ear and the trust of the nation’s leader. Although no one knew at the time, it would be an 1864 photograph taken of Lincoln by Brady that appears on the $5 bill today. An long time associate of the President, Brady was granted permission, both by Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to move about the theater of war freely, not for an official record, but to sell the images to the public. Through Brady, who hired some twenty “operatives,” his assistant, Alexander Gardner and those who worked with him, had practically unfettered access to the war itself. Each operative was provided with a traveling darkroom, a covered wagon full of photographic equipment, pulled by a mule and called a “whatisit?” by the soldiers.


Timothy O’Sullivan. The Photographer’s Wagon (July 1862)

The result of Brady’s organization of the photographic coverage of the Civil War was a massive collection of images, of great historical value. But one hundred and fifty years ago, “history” had a different meaning and the concept of history being recorded photographically was impressive but incomprehensible to the public of the 1860s. Quick to see an opportunity, Brady was capitalized in his venture by a firm, Anthony & Company, which provided the photographic supplies. Despite his fame, Brady had to borrow the equivalent of $100,00 for the four years of the war. The gamble that the public would buy images of the war with the same eagerness shown for portraiture was a risky one and did not pay off. For years after the war, Brady, pressed by his creditors, attempted to sell his work to the government obviously the proper steward of the collection, but Congress repeatedly turned him down. It wasn’t so much lack of interest—even the New York Historical Society attempted to raise funds—it was just that to cover Brady’s debts required a large sum of money for photographs, which as single objects did not have much value. The public did not understand the evidentiary value of Brady’s work during the War. Eventually Anthony & Company obtained one of three sets of the photographs and in 1875 Congress agreed to pay $25,000 for another set. Brady never recovered financially from his investment.


Alexander Gardner

As Alexander Gardner found out, it was safer to work as a free-lance photographer, offering specialized services for particular projects. A Scottish immigrant, the full bearded Gardner must have been thinking seriously about starting his own business for he arranged to become the official embedded photographer working with the union General George McClellan as chief photographer. Indeed, shortly after the terrible battle of Antietam, Gardner, now “Captain,” parted company from Brady, who carried on without his right hand man. In 1863, he opened his own business in Washington, in direct competition with Brady’s studio. According to Roy Meredith, author of the pioneering work Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man (1946), Gardner had run the Washington branch for Brady before he became the official photographer for the Army Secret Service. Interestingly, Gardner’s famous photographs of both the Battles of Gettysburg and Fredericksburg were made while he was working on his own behalf. But off the battlefield, Gardner used the camera to copy maps so that multiple copies could be distributed among the commanders. He also had the interesting task of identifying Confederate spies by using the camera as a surveillance tool, systematically photographing campsites, looking for infiltrators—strangers—who could be identified or not by the officers. Although unsuccessful in the endeavor, this nascent photo surveillance presaged today’s closed circuit cameras mounted throughout all modern cities. Meanwhile, Gardner’s studio, which was across the street from Brady’s establishment, specialized in photographing soldiers who wanted to send images home to their families. This rather simple task was undertaken by his brother, James, allowing Gardner to undertake more jobs for the Secret Service, thanks to his colleague Allan Pinkerton.


Alexander Gardner. Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (February 1865)

The Civil War ended with the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865. No photographers were present. A few days later President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The War was ended and an old era was over, but the man who had planned to lead the nation into a new way of life without slavey and a national reconciliation was dead. Upon hearing Lincoln vow to give former slaves the right to vote, the famed actor, John Wilkes Booth, decided to murder the President. It is said that it was Lincoln himself who invited Booth to enter his box at the Ford Theater, and although once in the presence of the President, it was easy to shoot him, escaping from the pursuers was far more difficult. When Booth, hampered by a broken leg, was finally run to ground, cowering in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, the end was quick. According to Edward Doherty, the officer in charge of the pursuit and capture, Booth was attempting to fight his way out when was shot by one of the soldiers. As Doherty wrote in 1867, “..the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln. Booth asked me by signs to raise his hands. I lifted them up and he gasped, ‘Useless, useless!’ We gave him brandy and water, but he could not swallow it. I sent to Port Royal for a physician, who could do nothing when he came, and at seven o’clock Booth breathed his last. He had on his person a diary, a large bowie knife, two pistols, a compass and a draft on Canada for 60 pounds.” It would be Alexander Gardner who would witness these last sad months of national anguish.

Gardner seemed to have the ability to make connections with the right people was  given access to the assassins of the President and to their subsequent executions by hanging. The assassination of a President he had often photographed would have been a shock to the man who had recorded the aging of an anguished leader over during the war years. Although most of Gardner’s photographs (portraits) of the members of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln (and members of his cabinet) are well known and easily accessible, one of these images is missing and is nowhere to be found. According to a 2011 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Gardner and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, were summoned to the USS Montauk where the body of the chief conspirator, the actor John Wilkes Booth, had been taken. Under the direction of Stanton, one photograph was taken of the corpse for documentation and as proof that he was dead. Gardner and O’Sullivan were under constant supervision during their task and Gardner later turned the print and the plate over to the Secretary. The image, the plate and all traces of the death of the assassin have since disappeared. For some Booth was a hero and a martyr, and it is possible that Stanton was anticipating a resistance movement from more former Confederates.

Given the dramatic death of Booth, it is understandable that the government went to great lengths to document the final collapse of the last of Confederate resistance to defeat–the trial and execution of Booth’s fellow assassins. Because the careful and colorful descriptions of each individual involved indicate the hunger of the public to know what these people looked like, it is interesting the read newspaper accounts of the conspirators. The written representations of the assassins were attempts to be as precise as a photograph with, of course, editorial embellishments. In their book, Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution (2001), James L. Swanson and Daniel Weinberg noted the colorful prose of the time. David Herold, captured at Garrett’s Farm where Booth was shot was described as appearing “sullen” and as having “a pouty look.” Gardner, working for the Secret Service, under Pinkerton, photographed all the accused, except for Dr. Samuel A Mudd who treated Booth’s broken leg and Mary Surratt, owner of the boarding house where the plotters met, possibly because neither was imprisoned aboard the two ironclad vessels with the others. As Swanson and Weinberg pointed out, at that time it was believed that there was a connection between physical appearance and personal character. Therefore Lewis Powell (Paine or Payne) was written about in a strangely erotic fashion: “He was very tall, with an athletic gladiatorial frame; the tight knit shift which was his upper garment disclosing the massive robustness of animal manhood..”


Alexander Gardner. Lewis Powell (July 1864)

Gardner’s final portraits of the perpetrators were swiftly followed by a last sequence of images recording their demise. The government acted quickly and the day after the sentences were meted out the executions took place. Not all the conspirators were executed. The final selection of those who would die seems, in retrospect, a bit arbitrary: Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt. Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the United States government, is widely considered to be innocent and in a final act of gallantry, and she can be seen in one of Gardner’s photographs, being shielded from the sun with parasol. The prison yard at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. was filled with a thousand spectators, friends and relatives of the guilty, government dignitaries, and fortunate ticket holders. Gardner had a high vantage point which distanced him from the horror that was to take place below, but he was able to photograph the entire event in sequence. The resulting series of the executions included in order: empty scaffold with its four trap doors, the arrival of the condemned, the reading of the charges against them, the last prayers, the final fitting of the nooses around the necks, the moment just before the warden clapped his hands and the traps dropped beneath the feet of the prisoners, and three final images with the bodies hanging for almost a half hour to be sure all were well and truly dead. The sequence ends with a shot of the pine coffins next to the graves, which would be temporary, dug in the prison yard.


Alexander Gardner. Executions of the Assassins of Abraham Lincoln (July 1864)

Although the entire enterprise was under government contract, Gardner was allowed to retain the rights for the images. Nevertheless, despite the public’s interest in the physical appearance of the conspirators, there was little market for their final portraits, but many were eager to purchase the series recording the simultaneous hangings in the hot July of 1864 of the murders of Abraham Lincoln. Two years later, Gardner, hoping to capitalize on what was clearly a groundbreaking contribution to journalism published a very expensive “Sketchbook” of the Civil War, two volumes of fifty photographs each, containing some of the best and the most eloquent images, taken by himself and other former Brady “operatives.” Perhaps in a veiled comment about Brady, who published everything and everyone under his name, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866) carefully credited the more than ten contributors, including George Bernard and Timothy O’Sullivan.


Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War

Much has been made of the fact that the photographer moved the bodies of the dead, but this artistic activity is instructive in and of itself. The Brady project, which eventually grew to some 10,000 images, was a business enterprise, designed to illustrate or to tell the story of the war. The only models these photographers would have had to consider as a precedent was history painting, and their instinct was to provide a dramatic narrative for the viewer. It is difficult for us today to image the insensitivity of selling a disturbing photograph (often a stereograph) of the face of a dead solider, but it is likely that the faces shown were those of the Confederate fatalities. Any family members were on the other side of the battle lines and it is unlikely any Southerner viewed a dead relative thanks to Matthew Brady’s operatives.


Rearranged body from Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War. Image by Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner (July 1863)

As was often the case in the first century of photography, the public did not understand what was being offered and Gardner’s extraordinary record of the War languished unsold. Gardner had created an entire history of the bloodiest years of a terrible war and provided the finale, the true end of a desperate time: story of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the execution of his killers. The long Civil War was over. It was time to leave the blood stained battlefields of the East and head West.


The next post will discuss Gardner’s photographs of the Frontier.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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