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Civil War Trust

1861 in 3D

The Civil War's First Year in 3D

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A Spark in Charleston Harbor | Lincoln Comes to Town | Trouble in Maryland | Enemies Across the Potomac | Contrabands | Bull Run - The First Great Battle | Leaders of 1861 | Camp Capital | The Dawn of Photojournalism


In retrospect, the Civil War's first year may seem quaint -- merely the prelude to the long, bloody struggle -- and people with naive personalities.  The upheaval of the conflict, however, cannot be overstated.  The Union was torn asunder, and questions about the conflict, the Constitution, and contraband property became national issues.  Americans prepared to wage war on an unprecedented scale; the engagement fought along the banks of Bull Run was the largest American battle up to that time.

For the first time, technology had advanced to allow "photographic artists" to record events soon after they happened.  As a result, thousands of outdoor, documentary images were captured on glass plates and distributed to a public hungry for scenes of the great adventure.  Most of these images were recorded in 3D using stereoscopic cameras designed to bring the full depth of subjects directly to viewers.  This is how Civil War photographers intended their works of art to be seen.

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The likelihood of civil war was greatly increased on December 20, 1860, when the South Carolina legislature, meeting in Charleston's Institute Hall (center), voted to secede from the Union, forever changing the building's popular name to Secession Hall.

 

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Ironically, the year after the building hosted the fiery rhetoric of the secession debate, it was consumed by a fire that swept through downtown.  The ruins offer little inkling of the site's monumental significance.

 

 

 

A Spark in Charleston Harbor     

Less than one week after South Carolina seceded, Major Robert Anderson moved his force of 84 soldiers from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, built on a man-made island guarding the Charleston Harbor.  South Carolina's governor demanded that Anderson withdraw, but the Union officer refused, even as six more states seceded from the Union and his position was surrounded.  On April 12, 1861, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter, beginning the Civil War.

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The coming conflict demanded heroes, and the Union found its first in Major Robert Anderson.  The public clamored for images of the resolute major.

 

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After bombarding Fort Sumter and forcing the surrender of the Union forces inside, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard became the first bona fide Confederate hero.

 

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Fort Sumter sustained significant damage from the 34-hour artillery barrage.  After Confederates occupied the fort, they made repairs with reinforced wicker baskets called gabions, seen here in this 1865 photo.


Lincoln Comes to Town     

No president-elect has ever arrived in Washington under more trying circumstances than Abraham Lincoln.  Seven states had already left the Union, and talk of a coming civil war increased daily.  Not even his capital city was secure.  By reputation a "Southern city," and surrounded by the slave-holding states of Maryland and Virginia, Washington was home to plenty of anti-Union sentiment.  The fervor was so intense that Lincoln, his advisors fearing violence, was spirited into the city secretly by train, a move than many called an ignominious beginning to his administration.

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Before he occupied the White House, Lincoln stayed at Willard's Hotel with his family and assistants.  Nathaniel Hawthorne once called the gathering spot "more the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House."

 

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When Lincoln's inaugural procession travelled down Pennsylvania Avenue, the route was lined with plain clothes detectives and snipers to ensure that the president-elect would actually live to be sworn in.

 

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The Lincolns occupied a White House in need of care and repair.  Indeed, the same could be said about the entire capital city.


Trouble in Maryland     

Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, and joined the Confederacy soon after.  Like Virginia, Maryland was a slave state and by no means certain to remain loyal to the Union.  If Maryland seceded, Washington would be surrounded and Lincoln was justifiably concerned.  He suspended Habeas Corpus and numerous outspoken anti-Unionists were arrested.  Ultimately, Maryland did not secede but furnished troops to both sides.  Maryland, especially Baltimore, was filled to the brim with tension in 1861.

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On April 19, 1861, a hostile mob attacked a Union regiment marching through part of Baltimore en route to Washington.  As news reached faraway towns, such as Cumberland, Maryland, shown here, crowds gathered at news depots and telegraph offices for information on the War's first bloodshed.

 

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The following month, Union soldiers occupied Baltimore and martial law was declared.  Key rail points outside the city were fortified, none more important than the Thomas Viaduct at Relay, Maryland.

 

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Baltimore was occupied by Federal troops for the remainder of the war and camps sprouted up around the city.  In small groups, soldiers gathered to have their "likenesses" taken by the camera.


Enemies Across the Potomac     

With the war underway, Washington was separated from the 'enemy' by only the Potomac River.  From the White House President Lincoln could see Confederate flags across the river with his telescope.  One large flag in Alexandria particularly irked him and his friend, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, commander of the 11th New York Infantry, offered to take his troops and remove it.  The Union was about to get its first martyr.

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The 11th New York entered Alexandria without incident and Ellsworth personally climbed to the top of the Marshall House and tore the large flag down.  On his descent, he ran headlong into the muzzle of proprietor James Jackson's shotgun.  Ellsworth, shot in the chest and killed, became an instant Union martyr.

 

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As Ellsworth lay in state in the White House, relics from the storied event became precious.  The Great Metropolitan Sanitary Fair proudly displayed his bloodied coat and pants.

 

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In 1861, slave ownership was still legal in the capital city as it was across the river in Virginia.  This image shows the exterior of an Alexandria slave pen that had been recently turned into a prison.


Contrabands     

In addition to the daily expected wartime challenges of assembling troops, military strategizing and funding the entire operation, both opposing governments faced questions about America's 'peculiar institution' -- slavery.  If slaves from Confederate territories slipped behind Union lines as a means of escape and liberation, were Union commanders supposed to return them to their masters?  What would that mean for the slave-holding border states still in the Union?  Ultimately, these escaped slaves were deemed 'contraband of war' and various laws and directives were put in place to secure their position .  Contrabands working for the army were paid for their labor.

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Before blacks were able to take up arms, contrabands -- like these with the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry at Camp Brightwood near Washington -- made invaluable contributions to camp life.

 

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Black and white images can fail to convey the vibrancy of a scene, leading some artists to hand-color their work.  Here, contrabands at Cumberland Landing, Virginia, May 14, 1862.

 

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In a sentiment both honest and disturbing, this image's original caption speaks volumes about the times in which the war was fought: "The innocent cause of the war. Little Nig."


Bull Run -- The First Great Battle     

Famed photographer Mathew Brady followed the Union army toward Bull Run with his photo-developing equipment loaded in a wagon, hoping to secure images of the battlefield.  When the Confederates defeated and then forced the Union army into hasty retreat, Brady was caught in the rush and left the area without securing a single image.  The battlefield was behind Confederate lines until March, 1862.  When the Southerners left, photographers George Barnard and James Gibson secured the first-known images of the Civil War's first great battlefield.

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The Union army crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford and successfully massed on the Confederate flank.  This image, one of several taken in March 1862 at Bull Run, shows two youngsters in Confederate uniforms at the nearby crossing of Catharpin Run.

 

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The battle's most intense fighting centered around the home of elderly widow Judith Henry, who was morally wounded during the battle.  Confederates dismantled the remainder of her badly damaged home for building materials and firewood.  All that really remained by March 1862 was part of the chimney.

 

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In 1861, most Americans agreed that the war would be short and nearby residents on both sides were anxious to see what might be the war's only battle.  Excursionists like these may have heard the boom of cannon and seen the rising smoke of battle, but were some distance from actual combat.  Still, many were caught in the confusion of the Union retreat.


Leaders of 1861     

While the primary political leaders of each side remained largely constant, the military leadership of 1861 was vastly different from that of 1865.  When the war began, few officers had experience leading thousands of soldiers in combat.  Only through bitter trial and error were effective leaders elevated to command positions.

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Abraham Lincoln, like the rest of his countrymen, had no experience with a war of the magnitude of what was to come.  Mathew Brady's February 24, 1861 studio portrait was Lincoln's first Washington sitting.

 

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While Union armies in the east had little cause for celebration in 1861, the story was different in the Western Theater.  General Henry "Old Brains" Halleck received credit for early successes and became the Union general-in-chief in 1862.

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While Confederate President Jefferson Davis had fought in the Mexican War and served as Secretary of War in the administration of Franklin Pierce, it is debatable if this left him better prepared for the job of wartime executive.  There are no known 3D images of Davis during the war, but he posed with his family at their Mississippi home, Beauvoir, about two decades after the war.

 

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Although he had a successful pre-war career in the U.S. Army, 1861 -- with a failed campaign in western Virginia and almost-impossible assignments in the Carolinas -- was not a good year for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  Soon, however, he rose to become the undisputed military hero of the South.


Camp Capital     

At the outset of the war, Washington seemed surrounded, even permeated, by hostile forces.  Throughout the year, a military presence radiated outward from the capital, as extensive fortifications were built to ring the city.  Starting in 1861, Washington became home to tens of thousands of soldiers.  Eventually, it became perhaps the most heavily fortified city in the world.

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Simple fields, like those at Queen's farm near Fort Slocum, northeast of the city, became sprawling military camps teeming with soldiers and, occasionally, their families.

 

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Army life was known to be 99 percent boredom, and soldiers, like these 90-day volunteers in the 7th New York, made an effort to enjoy their time camped around the capital.

 

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Others had more serious work to do, such as these men, posed in the act of examining a pass to gain entry into the capital city.  This image was taken on Mason's Island, now know as Theodore Roosevelt Island, across from Georgetown.


The Dawn of Photojournalism     

War photography was not entirely new in 1861; a few photographs were recorded in 1846 at the end of the Mexican War, and a few hundred in Crimea in 1855, among a smattering of others.  But the sheer number of Civil War documentary photographs -- estimated at 10,000 or more -- coupled with their widespread distribution, made the Civil War the first military conflict to be documented in photojournalistic fashion.  The reality of camp and battlefields was brought home to the public as never before.

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The war's first year was but a testing ground for the photojournalistic advances made in 1862.  George Barnard's March 1862 photograph of Confederate graves on the Bull Run battlefield provided the public's first glimpse of Civil War battlefield graves.

 

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Photographers inched closer to showing the devastation wrought by war in this view of a field hospital at Savage's Station just three months later.

 

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In August 1862, a photographer managed to capture dead horses on the field at Cedar Mountain, but that feat was eclipsed the following month.  Images of dead soldiers as they fell on the battlefield at Antietam forever shattered any remaining myths of war's glory.

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