How Photography Impacted the Civil War and Vice Versa

Having been invented just 20 years prior, photography changed the American Civil War as well as set a tone for how war was seen and reported on thereafter. Thanks to the development of new techniques, such as tintype and carte de visite, the medium of photography boomed in the years leading up to the conflict. These newly invented techniques, which produced small images on metal or glass, respectively, made mass production of photos possible, thus broadening the consumer base massively. Mass-production allowed for the vast distribution of the famous actors, celebrities, and political figures. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln even jokingly credited his re-election to Matthew Brady’s portrait of him.

Photography brought the gruesome scenes from the battlefield to forefront of the public’s attention. Because photos captured the objective reality of a battle’s aftermath, no longer could the public be ignorant to the nature of war. Exhibitions showcasing these photos in major cities such as New York City and Washington D.C., presented the intense images of war for the first time, which later led to the circulation of such images in popular publications like the New York Times.

“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,” wrote the New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862 about Brady’s New York exhibit a month after the Battle of Antietam.[1]

Over the years, thousands of soldiers had their photos taken and given as keepsakes for their families and providing the closest link to their loved ones while separated. While the memories of the countless men that died over the course of the war could be immortalized by such portraits, photos of the battlefield presented a vastly different image of the men on either side. We know that certain photographers manipulated after-battle scenes by moving corpses into particular positions for greater effect. One example in which historians suspect such a practice was employed is the famous photo below.

Dead Confederate Artillerymen, photographed by Alexander Gardner in front of Dunker Church after the Battle of Antietam, September 1862.[2]


This impactful image and others like it were circulated around the country in newspapers, in magazines, and on cards and used to further elucidate the graphic outcome of war. The occurrence of moving bodies or items into place for a photograph does not seem to have been commonplace, however one can assume that it certainly effected how the public responded to the event.

Memory as we understand it today is fickle and is subject to change fairly easily. Modern psychological research has shown that every time an individual recalls a memory it can be subjected to alteration, especially for emotional memories. Emotion can partially improve memory for events and details by enhancing consolidation. Quevedo and colleagues (2003) showed that when individuals were shown neutral and emotionally-arousing images, while being subjected to a stressor, individuals recalled the emotionally-arousing images more than the neutral images.[3]

Further research has found that, in society today, taking photos tend to help us remember details about a particular object/scene when asked about it later. Some of these conclusions are of course is predicated on the fact that the individual being asked to remember is also the one who took the photograph.[4] However, could these data have implications on how photos of major events in the Civil War and of those who fought during the conflict impacted how Americans remembered battles and the dead?

Alexander Gardner, Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, 1863

The advent of photography changed the way that people regarded the American Civil War as well as concepts like death, trauma, and memory. With photographs, the American people were provided access to the realistic, gory, and traumatic side of war. From here on, the realities of fighting could no longer be masked by paintings or other romanticized portrayals. These photographs were easily distributed to the masses through media, especially newspapers, and inspired awe, horror as well as backlash through realistic images of injured and dead soldiers and the gruesome battlefield. These images such as the one below, show dead, nameless soldiers forgotten in the war between North and South, symbolizing a “battle-worn and badly injured American nation,” and helped to create the Civil War identity of suffering.[5] Reactions to these images by the American people can be described as a “terrible fascination”. This expression captures an important quality of these gruesome images; they were shocking and horrifying, yet at the same time they were captivating in their awfulness.[6] Access to these type of atrocious images may have inspired those to combat war efforts, advocate for the end of the fighting and pursue a peaceful resolution.

Timothy O’Sullivan, A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, PA, 1863

However, photography was not only used to depict the horror and death of the war, but also allowed for families to hold keepsakes of their loved ones on the battlefield and to commemorate those who had died. Photography represented a versatile artistic form, and in particular, portrait photography served as an affordable and reproducible way for soldiers to cement their image and name in order to be remembered by their families and the history books. They would send letters back home, writing about their fears and accomplishments, with portrait images of themselves to serve as sentimental mementos. Similarly, soldiers would carry portraits of family members, sweethearts, or national figures (such as President Lincoln) to inspire and motivate them through the brutality of fighting and help maintain their morality.[7]

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw

Portrait of Lincoln, 1800s

Portrait photography also allowed soldiers to establish identity and preserve a record of their service, which would transcend their painful and impersonal deaths. A single photograph could reflect and individual’s unique personality, social standing, intellect, etc. through tools such as pose, expression, and props. The ability of the, “body and of one’s own individualism crafted an identity, consequently elevating and christening photography as ‘an art of the person’”. The bleak future of war, violence hunger, and disease haunted soldiers prescribed a greater significance to their photographic portraits, because the photo would probably outlive the sitter. Death on the battlefield meant that many of the soldiers would not be given individual recognition, therefore soldiers took it upon themselves to preserve their own memory and transcend their own death (Tintype Stares). The ex-soldiers in these photographs reestablish their own personal identity and presumably could not easily be reduced to anonymous individuals (Shooting Soldiers).

The Civil War allowed a bruised America nation to claim a, “new, official respect for the nobility of all men,” and elevated the public and national respect for the individual soldier. Photography helped to self-memorialize these soldiers and demonstrated the importance of remembrance after death (Tintype Stares). However, photography also presented a more realistic portrayal of war and death, which both fascinated and terrified the American people. These type of images have numerous ethical implications, which we will explore next.

Although many people consider photographs of the civil war as keepsakes of their loved ones, the psychological perspective shows exactly how these photographs can affect people and how they remember such events. Thus, one of the most important aspects to consider about this war photography are the ethical principles which question whether or not photography of war is necessary and/or inconsiderate. One of the main arguments for the necessity of civil war photography stemmed from people who felt it was necessary to show the reality of war in order to open the public’s eyes to the cruelties of such war. Others however, questioned if these photographs were in fact legitimate, and if not, were concerned with how these photographs came to have been taken. One of the most famous photographers of the time, Mathew Brady, was known for staging his civil war photography photos in order to “stage a more dramatic image.”[8] Although civil war photography is said to be used for remembrance of war, and to show the harsh realities of it, one can only question what was actually real when presented with photos such as those taken by Mathew Brady. These photographs also then bring up the issues of how these bodies had to be treated in order to capture such dramatic images. They must have had to been moved, used as props, staged for a picture, and then finally discarded just for a photographer to be able to capture a “realistic” war moment.

The staging of these dead bodies for a photo-op have also brought up other questions as to the intentions behind such photographs. Photojournalism is said to be meant to document and remember tragedies in order to learn from them, but many disagree with the reasoning, claiming instead that photojournalism was created as a form of entertainment. One of the most disturbing and prominent examples of the entertainment aspect of photojournalism were the postcards and other mementos depicting the lynchings of Black Americans during the Civil War. These photographs were taken while Black Americans were killed and painted on ever popular postcards to send to others. Here, one individual states “Murder was celebrated in postcards. These were ‘I was there’ moments”.[9]

The body of George Meadows, lynched near the Pratt Mines in Jefferson County, Alabama, on January 15, 1889[10]

So, if civil war photojournalism was meant to commemorate and document the cruelties of the war, and was used in a respective manner, why did so many postcards of lynchings exist? Where they trying to send a message, was it for documentation, or was it simply for entertainment. As we have learned by now, photography of war can greatly affect the way that an event is remembered. Thus, many believe that these postcards were created to depict the Black American as a disposable tool within the war.

Some could argue that the meaning of photojournalism has itself changed and thus, makes civil war photography seem like a tool which was merely used with malignant intentions instead of documenting reality. In an NPR interview with Greg Marinovich, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, he talks about the experiences that photojournalists face in today’s fieldwork. “Just someone — especially a mother over a young child— and that look they give you as you come to photograph them, while you’re kind of apologizing about photographing…it’s disturbing”[11] 

Marinovich offers an insight into the real ethical issues surrounding photojournalism, especially in cases of war. It seems as though the journalist stands by and idely watches as havoc occurs all around them. Today, this is one of the most pressing ethical issues involved in photojournalism. However, during the time of the Civil War, this photography was viewed in a much different way. At the time of the war, photography supplies was difficult to acquire and use. Photographs were usually taken before or after a battle, but never during, as long exposure was required. So then, how has technology changed the ethics of photojournalism? Has it helped in speeding up the photography process in order to better respect those fighting, or has it merely created more ethical issues by allowing journalists to take photographs in the midst of it all?

Researchers today have begun to focus more on this change in ethics in regards to photojournalism, and how this can change the photojournalism as well. In a journal article by Chouliaraki, she explains how there has been a “ historical shift” of photojournalism, one that continues to drive towards an “increasingly explicit visualisation of war”. These changes have added more emphasis to the emotional aspect of the war rather than the physical aspect which Civil war photographers used as motivation for their documentation. Chouliaraki believes that this shift in photojournalism has itself changed the context of war from a war of national sovereignty to the “contemporary political context of humanitarian wars fought to alleviate suffering”. During the Civil War this photojournalism, in essence, occurred in a separate world, adjacent to the war, it seemed more like an afterthought or a veiled reality. Today however, photojournalism is an integrated part of this documentation, which also affects how we view photographic documentation and how we evaluate that which occurred in the era of the Civil War. Overall, many people believe that the means by which photojournalism occurs have affected the ethics of photojournalism itself. Whether this makes it more or less ethical, it is up for the individual to decide. In the end, the advent of photography changed the way wars were depicted and viewed by the public. The Civil War was one of the first times that photographs were used to depict the gruesome realities of battle, which helped to develop photojournalism in the future.

Photography helped lead to advances in photo-journalism in subsequent wars, and changed the way that battles were reported. Depicting the realities and horrors of wars helped to shift many people’s opinions towards more peaceful resolutions. In addition, photography developed over the years to include color photography and then towards advancements in film. For instance, during World War II, film was used to to show everyday life in the trenches, battle in motion, and even bombings.[12]

In the end, the advent of photography changed the way wars were depicted and viewed by the public. The Civil War was one of the first times that photographs were used to depict the gruesome realities of battle, which helped to develop photojournalism in the future.



By: Elizabeth Seipp, Mark White, Araceli  Arteaga



[1] Eric Niiler, “How Civil War Photography Changed War,” Seeker, November 27, 2012, , accessed April 07, 2019.


[2] Gardner, Alexander, Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, Gardner, Alexander, photographer. Completely silenced! Dead Confederate artillery men, as they lay around their battery after the Battle of Antietam. Antietam Maryland United States, ca. 1862. Photograph.


[3] João Quevedo et al., “Differential Effects of Emotional Arousal in Short- and Long-Term Memory in Healthy Adults,” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 79, no. 2 (2003): 132–35,


[4] Roberto Cabeza et al., “Brain Activity during Episodic Retrieval of Autobiographical and Laboratory Events: An FMRI Study Using a Novel Photo Paradigm” 16, no. 9 (2004): 1583–94,



[5] Connor, J.T.H., and Michael G. Rhode. 2003. “Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Images, Memory, and Identity in America.” Invisible Culture, no. 5 (Winter): 1-20.


[6] Godbey, Emily. 2012. “Terrible Fascination: Civil War Stereographs of the Dead.” History of Photography 36 (Summer): 265-274.

[7] Stankovic, Isadora. “Tintype Stares and Regal Airs.” Military Images 33, no. 4 (October 2015): 53–57.


[8] “Civil War Photography,” Civil War Saga, August 10, 2018, , accessed April 07, 2019,


[9] Paul Sorene, “Lynching USA: Photos and Tales of When Blacks Were Always the Usual Suspects,” Flashbak, December 27, 2015, , accessed April 07, 2019,


[10] L. Horgan, Jr., “George Meadows, “murderer & Rapist,” Lynched on Scene of His Last Alleged Crime. George Meadows Was Lynched at Pratt Mines (in Jefferson County) Alabama January 15 1889,” Wikimedia Commons, , accessed April 07, 2019,


[11] Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, “Two War Photographers On Their Injuries, Ethics,” NPR, April 20, 2011, , accessed April 07, 2019,


[12] 30 Nov 2009. “Heart Pounding WWII Footage.” Accessed April 07, 2019.



Brooks, Rebecca B. “Civil War Photography.” Civil War Saga. August 10, 2018. Accessed April 07, 2019.

Cabeza, R., Prince, S. E., Daselaar, S. M., Greenberg, D. L., Budde, M., Dolcos, F., … Rubin, D. C. (2004). Brain Activity during Episodic Retrieval of Autobiographical and Laboratory Events: An fMRI Study using a Novel Photo Paradigm. 16(9), 1583–1594.

Chouliaraki, Lilie. “The Humanity of War: Iconic Photojournalism of the Battlefield, 1914–2012.” SAGE Journals. Accessed April 09, 2019.

Connor, J.T.H., and Michael G. Rhode. 2003. “Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Images, Memory, and Identity in America.” Invisible Culture, no. 5 (Winter): 1-20.

Horgan, L., Jr. “George Meadows, “murderer & Rapist,” Lynched on Scene of His Last Alleged Crime. George Meadows Was Lynched at Pratt Mines (in Jefferson County) Alabama January 15 1889.” Wikimedia Commons. Accessed April 07, 2019.

Godbey, Emily. 2012. “Terrible Fascination: Civil War Stereographs of the Dead.” History of Photography 36 (Summer): 265-274.

Marinovich, Greg, and Joao Silva. “Two War Photographers On Their Injuries, Ethics.” NPR. April 20, 2011. Accessed April 07, 2019.

Niiler, Eric. “How Civil War Photography Changed War.” Seeker. November 27, 2012. Accessed April 07, 2019.

“Photography That Changed the Way We View War.” CBS News. July 08, 2013. Accessed April 09, 2019.

Sorene, Paul. “Lynching USA: Photos and Tales of When Blacks Were Always the Usual Suspects.” Flashbak. December 27, 2015. Accessed April 07, 2019.

Stankovic, Isadora. “Tintype Stares and Regal Airs.” Military Images 33, no. 4 (October 2015): 53–57.

Quevedo, J., Anna, M. K. S., Madruga, M., Lovato, I., de-Paris, F., Kapczinski, F., … Cahill, L. (2003). Differential effects of emotional arousal in short- and long-term memory in healthy adults. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 79(2), 132–135.

30 Nov 2009. “Heart Pounding WWII Footage.” Accessed April 07, 2019.




  1. I found this article quite intriguing, as I think it’s an interesting concept to think of how photography and photo-journalism has effected war and vice versa. I have to agree that there are many ethical questions that arise in the use of photo-journalism during the act of war itself. I do think however, it’s a good thing for the public to be able to see the true effects of war as I believe often times we try to distance ourselves from it when we shouldn’t.

    While I appreciated the viewpoint from the Civil War, I would have loved to have seen more of a comparison between photography and photo-journalism of the Civil War era and the wars of today. In regards to photography in war today, I believe all, if not most, of the branches of the military have MOSs (jobs) that are specifically for combat photography. Which raises the question of just how important this aspect of documenting war has become over the decades. Also, photo-journalism in war in the era of today brings to mind Sebastian Junger, who famously spent time embedded within a military unit in the Korengal Valley. His time spent there resulted in a documentary entitled ‘Restrepo’. I think Junger’s work can help show everyday Americans the struggles service members face while at war and the impact war has on them when they go home. Which in turn, can possibly help us better figure out how to help service members transition back to civilian life.

  2. Kendall Bradley

    April 23, 2019 at 11:03 am

    It was interesting to learn that the public having to confront the gruesome nature of war didn’t happen until the Civil War; I would have thought that shift happened much sooner, especially since the US spent a large percentage of its first ~80 years in battle. That said, the idea of portrait photography being very significant and sentimental to soldiers and their families makes a lot of sense, as most communication with loved ones was unavailable. This reminds me of the movie The Lucky One, where a soldier literally believes that a photograph of a woman he doesn’t even know is what keeps him alive, so much so that he tracks her down. If a photograph can be this powerful in the war context with two strangers, I can only imagine what it meant to soldiers and their dearest loved ones.

    I agree with the comment above that it would have been neat to see a bit more of a thread to how these happenings set us up for photography and war’s intersection in modern culture, but it’s also totally fair that that’s not what you decided to focus on. Cool idea!

  3. This article is really fascinating to me because I think that photography use during this critical time in history could be one of the main starting points of the use of photojournalism, as mentioned, as well as sparking a new sense of patriotism. Because soldiers were able to take and use pictures in their uniforms, it enabled a concrete reminder of their purpose in the war for themselves and for their families.

    Another interesting point from this article was the coining of the term “terrible fascination” with the images of death. Not only did this make the impact of war more real for the people not directly experiencing it, but it shaped a new form or crude entertainment that photography and film could embellish on. Horror films and graphic media outlets serve as a large source of entertainment in theatres today. Given the gruesome theatre was a form of entertainment long before photography, this form of media served as a blank palette for displaying death and its impacts.

  4. The topic of photography in the Civil War has always been very interesting to me, so it was really intriguing to read a post that analyzed it from different angles and tied it into other topics. It was fascinating to read about how photography impacted contemporary opinions on the Civil War and compare them to how photography influences our opinions of war today. The parts about Matthew Brady and the quote from Greg Marinovich also served to highlight the debates surrounding the topic of photography that I might not have thought of otherwise. The one big question I still have is does wartime photography and photographs of death make us want peace or heighten our sense of morbid curiosity? This is such a layered topic I’m not sure I can think of an answer for it now, but I think it would be interesting to delve more into this and learn more about it.

  5. Before reading this piece, I was unaware of the existence of photography surrounding the Civil War. From previous knowledge, I knew that soldiers who passed away during the Civil War were frequently buried in mass grave sites, where their identity remained anonymous. However, I was unaware that some soldiers carried portrait photographs of themselves so that they would be given recognition for their involvement in the war and would be able to preserve their own memory. I had never considered the idea of “transcending death” through a photograph but the concept is fascinating.

    Photography as a way of keeping the public from feigning innocence over the current societal conditions is an interesting concept that has been used frequently throughout history. In this post, the Civil War photographs were used to inform the public what the conditions of war were like, in an attempt to end the war. During the 1880s in New York, Jacob Riis took pictures of the conditions of tenement houses, which were mostly occupied by impoverished immigrants. Similarly, he published these photographs in a collection titled, “How the Other Half Lives”, for the purpose of informing the public about the current conditions of the impoverished communities in New York. Photographs of the Civil War and Photographs of the conditions of tenement houses were both successfully used to influence the public through their staggering and harsh demeanor, in order to institute a change.

  6. Having studied the photography of Matthew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan, I was interested to read what you all had to say about the impacts which their media had. I found the way you all researched the intersectionality of war, death, and photography to be so fascinating! I particularly appreciated the way in which you showed multiple angles of how photography changed the experience of the civil war in America– it made the soldiers come alive in portraits and made their deaths stark in battle photography. With this kind of public exposure to death, America’s conception of war was forever changed. I also find it interesting that, while disturbing, neither the public nor the photographers shied away from such graphic images of their war-torn countrymen.

  7. Photography is a powerful way of conveying a message. Photography in the civil war must have been extra powerful as it was considered a cutting edge technology of the time. Photographing the realities of war must have painted a sobering and gruesome picture of what occurs on the battlefield. What must the families of those who lost loved ones thought when seeing this imagery? how did they feel knowing they were the first to experience these feelings? Your analysis on the lynching postcards is interesting as well. Asking ourselves why civil war photos were sobering and lynchings were seen as acceptable paints a new picture of the realities of the time.

  8. This article stemmed the question, does it violate the photojournalist’s ethics to engage with the subject, or does it violate the photojournalist’s ethics to not engage? This being that it can be difficult to stand and take powerful images during times of anguish without having an urge to step in, while the general ethics of photojournalism in itself find it unethical to engage with the subject and disrupt the natural process. This article made me think of the iconic photo of the vulture eating a kid in the Sudan desert. The photojournalist didn’t engage and left the vulture to eat the kid. The photojournalist felt so much ethical turmoil and guilt for not stepping in that he ultimately killed himself.

    This was a very interesting post as I had no idea the effects of photojournalism on the civil war and human perception of war. Living in the age of technology, I couldn’t imagine a time where I wasn’t aware of what is going on in the world – and the harsh images that come with it. It is hard sometimes to remember that times were different and communication was difficult. It must have been shocking to see these images if someone had never seen war before, it also must have brought some clarity to those who have not seen war and were trying to sympathize with those who had.

  9. Your post opened the concept of war without visuals to primarily a generation of people who have 1) grown up during a time of constant war and 2) have been exposed to images of wars past and present, which is an important and difficult feat.

    I loved the quote that said, “The Civil War allowed a bruised America nation to claim a ‘new, official respect for the nobility of all men,’ and elevated the public and national respect for the individual soldier.” However, do you think that photography in war has the same effect today, perhaps a similar or different altogether effect? Furthermore, does current war photography have the same goal of evoking emotion or trying to direct an agenda?

    Your discussion of how photography, on one hand, preserved the memory of those at war to foster American spirit, and on the other, became a tool of “malignant intentions instead of documenting reality,” was engaging and very in-depth. With the posing of bodies in a war zone, is there a truly “accurate” portrayal of war or just a theatrical representation with the Civil War? If so, do you think this has set precedent for how photography in warfare should be? You discuss a shift in photojournalism towards “increasingly explicit visualization of war,” as I imagine most people aren’t posing victims of war today, but perhaps try to capture more dramatic images instead of focusing on what’s present in reality.

    I found your post to be very engaging and informative. Overall, great job!

  10. You mention the “ethical issues surrounding photojournalism”, where “it seems as though the journalist stands by and idely watches as havoc occurs all around them”, and you also say there has been an “increasingly explicit visualisation of war”.

    I wanted to say that this is not common to only war. Even when documenting poor living conditions like hunger and poverty, the photojournalist takes their pictures, removed from the situation, and doesn’t necessarily do anything to change the situation.
    An example of this such an explicit visualization is: ‘The vulture and the little girl’
    In this case, the photojournalist actually regretted that they failed to help the girl get help; he committed suicide soon after.

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