Bringing the war home: Re-discovering Alexander Gardner’s photos of the carnage of Antietam

Bringing the war home: Re-discovering Alexander Gardner’s photos of the carnage of Antietam

By Bob Kozak

Best Defense bureau of Civil War imagery

By the start of the Civil War, portable wet-plate technology made it possible for photographers to follow army campaigns. While long exposure times precluded action photos, the aftermath of battle could be documented. Two days after the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), which to this day is still the single worst day for the American military — with over 23,000 killed or wounded — Alexander Gardner began photographing the carnage. By the time he and his assistant James Gibson left, they had taken approximately 100 images on the battlefield. Less than a month later Gardner’s boss, Mathew Brady, had twenty of the images, referred to as the "Dead of Antietam" displayed in his New York City Gallery. As the New York Times reported on October 20th 1862:

"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."  

Starting this Friday, October 5th, for the first time since 1862, you will have the chance to see this exhibition. We have reproduced the photos to their original form using high resolution Library of Congress digital files of the negatives and have recreated the display with clues from 1862 accounts. We have five originals in the display. And, since Gardner took most of these photos using stereoscopic cameras, we also have a 3-D theatre to see them in their intended format.

But for us who have organized the show — a partnership of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Hood College, and the Frederick Maryland Civil War Roundtable — just having a chance to see these images is not enough. We have also produced commentary on the images for your consideration.

We start with the moral and visual context at the start of the Civil War and introduce viewers to 1862 responses to the photos written in light of President Lincoln’s release of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Information is presented on the evolution of war image censorship in response to the availability of high quality mass produced photo images throughout the 20th and 21st century. We conclude with the present, where a single image of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan, an image that would not be out of place with Gardner’s, causes the Secretary of Defense Gates to say:

"Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right — but judgment and common decency."

We don’t provide answers with this exhibit. But we do hope that visitors will consider some of the questions that voices in the exhibition, including those of fathers and mothers of war fighters ask about the role of war time images and when war is moral.

Bob Kozak is the director of the exhibit, which will be on display at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum at Antietam National Battlefield from October 5 to December 1, 2012. For more information, click here.