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Civil War Photographs

by Bill Friedheim, Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York

The Civil War was the first major conflict to be photographically documented, leaving behind a unique visual record which affects how the war is remembered. However, early photographic processes were subjecct to technological constraints which require the researcher to remain aware of both the usefulness and limitations of these photographs as sources. This activity is designed to introduce students to the collection of Civil War photographs displayed at the Library of Congress/National Digital Library collection “American Memory” website in order to increase visual literacy and critical thinking skills. It seeks to help students use photographs as historical evidence and to understand photographic production during the Civil War.

GOAL: Using photographs as historical evidence. Visual literacy.

Overview: The selection of Civil War photographs included in the American Memory represents a portion of the collection of Civil War Views housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. The center of that collection are the negatives produced under the supervision of Matthew B. Brady — photographer and studio owner — whose name is most notably credited with Civil War imagery. The Brady collection traveled through the hands of a number of private collectors who increased the collections volume of mid-19th century photographic memorabilia, with additional glass plate negatives, stereoscopes, and other visual aid material. In 1916, the images were published in a ten-volume work, “The Photographic History of the Civil War.” The Library of Congress acquired the collection from storage in 1943, when the collection now totaled 7,500 original glass plate negatives and about 2,500 copy glass and film negatives, providing a total of about 3,750 different views and about 2,650 different portraits.

The American Memory Civil War Photographs site has arranged the images chronologically by campaign in three areas of the United States: 1) the main eastern theater, 2) the Federal Navy and the seaborne expeditions against the Atlantic coast of the Confederacy, and 3) the war in the west. This assignment asks students to examine photographs produced during the Civil War as a means of understanding the technological process which posed both possibilities and limitations in production. How can photographs be used as evidence to represent a given time period in American history?


American Memory Civil War Photographs


Timing: this activity can take place in two or more class sessions.


To get you thinking about Civil War photography we first want you and your partner to consider some general questions about documentary photojournalism. Consider the specific contexts for these Civil War photographs:

Are photojournalistic pictures the same as facts?
Are photographs historical documents?
How can photography be used to affect social change?
How are photographic images used by the media?
Why is it important to know who the photographer is and why they’re taking the picture?

1. With your partner, go to the Selected Civil War Photographs(http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwdes.html)collection in the Library of Congress American Memory Project. Scroll down the page and select the hotlink,“Taking Photographs at the Time of the Civil War.”; Read the text and take notes on the content covered in this short essay.

2. Given what you know about the process and technology of photography at the time of the Civil War, write a page of observations on the kinds of photographs you would expect to find in the selection of Civil War images on display for the American Memory Project (i.e. people, landscapes, objects, events,studies, action, etc.). With your partner, discuss your observations, reflections and whatever conclusions you draw to formulate your thinking.

3. Using the BACK button at the top of your page, return to the Civil War Photographs home page. Scroll down and click on Browse the Subject Index(http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwarsubjindex1.html). Review the links found on this page for twenty minutes looking for a variety of photographs. Are there any surprises? What do the images selected tell you about the intended audience? About the aims, assumptions and purposes of the photographers? Take notes on what you find.

4. Select eight photographs: two photographs that represent four subjects/themes that you find most interesting about the Civil War photographs you have browsed in this collection. Compare the images you have selected in each category. If you were a museum curator with the task of writing a brief commentary on each set of paired photographs, what would you say? You might want to consider these questions:

What are the similarities/differences of these two photographs?
How does the photographer get the message across in each picture?
Is the style the same or different? In what ways?
Are the pictures taken by the same photographer? Why do you think so?

You should pay particular attention to the background and foreground of the photograph. What do you know about the subject based on the information you see in the picture? What clothing, facial expression, pose, or activity is taking place. What direction is the light coming from? Look at the point-of-view of the photograph. Where did the photographer take the shot? (From below, above, the side, or at an angle?)

Be prepared to share your observations in a small group discussion.