Documentary Photography Comes of Age on the Peninsula

Civil War Photography


By the spring of 1862, photographers had yet to capture great Civil War documentary images.  While Southern photographers had secured the first Civil War photos at Fort Sumter and Northern photographers had recorded numerous camp scenes as well as soldiers on the battlefield of Bull Run, true photojournalism, at least as we know it today, had not been achieved.

The opportunity finally seemed at hand in the spring of 1862 when at least three photographers traveled to Virginia to capture scenes related to what we now call the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles.

Battery Number 4 Yorktown, Virginia, by James Gibson, May 1862. (Library of Congress)

James Gibson was among the more prolific yet obscure Civil War photographers.  Gibson arrived in April 1862 and through June captured more than 100 documentary photos including at least sixty at Yorktown, where Union forces besieged the famed colonial town for nearly a month.  Views of heavy siege guns and scenes around the enormous Camp Winfield Scott comprised most of Gibson's series yet it is likely that he also recorded portraits for soldiers.

fort richardson
Fort Richardson, Fair Oaks, Virginia, by George Barnard, June 1862. (Library of Congress)

Where Union General McClellan went, so went Gibson (along with fellow photographer George Barnard, apparently serving as Gibson's assistant) to Cumberland Landing to White House Landing and to within sight of the spires of Richmond.  There, Gibson and Barnard exposed numerous plates at the recent battlefield of Fair Oaks, also known as Seven Pines, May 31 - June 1, 1862.  Victory, or in the case of Fair Oaks, not being driven away, was a crucial element in the recipe for securing battlefield scenes - if the enemy won, photographers from the losing side lacked access to the scene of conflict.  Gibson took photos on both sides of the Chickahominy River recording, among other things, Union balloon operations.

slaves cabin
Slaves at Dr. William Gaines' house, by George Houghton, 1862. (Library of Congress).  Dr. Gaines owned the mill for which the Battle of Gaines Mill is named.  Houghton set up his photo operation in one of the family slave cabins.

Before Fair Oaks, Vermont photographer George Houghton had arrived on the Peninsula and secured scores of images, focused upon Vermont troops and the places they went. Houghton’s photos remain among the most obscure of the Civil War but have been at last presented in a new book, A Very Fine Appearance.

savage station
Field Hospital at Savage Station, by James Gibson, June 28, 1862. (Library of Congress).  At last showing some of the human toll of battle, this is the first great documentary photo of the war.  These wounded soldiers, mostly from New York, were captured the following day by Confederates.

In the wake of the Battle of Fair Oaks, Gen. Robert E. Lee took command of the Southern forces and within weeks launched an assault upon the Union’s isolated right flank and lines of communication. This resulted in the Seven Days Battles: June 25 - July 1, 1862. From Lee’s first attack at Beaver Dam Creek, McClellan began a steady retreat which for a while precluded post-battle photographs at any of the Seven Days battlefields. Gibson did, however, capture an incredible documentary image of soldiers wounded the day before at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill as well as others at Savage Station — before the fighting there on June 29.

Graveyard at Hampton Church, by George Barnard, July 1862. (Library of Congress).  Modern photo by Garry Adelman, April 23, 2004.

Having no access to battlefield sites after the Union retreat, George Barnard headed eastward and recorded photos at Fort Monroe, Yorktown and with a particular emphasis upon the historic City of Hampton, which had been burned by Confederates, oddly enough. More photographers came to the Peninsula along with Union General U. S. Grant’s movements there in 1864. Cold Harbor, White House Landing and Charles City Court House were among the subjects covered.

battlefield dead
Remains of soldiers at Gaines' Mill, by John Reekie, April 1865. (Library of Congress).

In April 1865, photographer John Reekie finally accessed the scene of Lee’s only Seven Days victory—the bloody battlefield of Gaines’ Mill. The costliest battle of the Seven Days also saw a slightly bloodier engagement, Cold Harbor, on nearly the same ground. Reekie took images of the exposed dead at both battlefields.

1865 mill
Ruins of Dr. Gaines' Mill, by John Reekie, April 1865. (Library of Congress).  Note the skull and partial spine in the foreground.

Although the Battle of Gaines’ Mill was not actually fought at Dr. William Gaines’ mill, it was the most notable landmark in the vicinity and therefore the battle bears its name. Playing on this fame, John Reekie shot a photo of the mill, which had been burned the previous year by Union General Philip Sheridan’s forces. After the war, other photographers captured scenes of the Gaines’ Mill at various stages of reconstruction. By then, the world of documentary photography had changed from practical non-existence to a budding profession with roots on the Virginia Peninsula during the Seven Days Battles.  

 panorama 1
Ruins of Gaines' Mill, photographer unknown, c. 1880s. (Army Heritage Education Center)

panorama 2
Ruins of Gaines' Mill, photographer unknown, c. 1880s. (Army Heritage Education Center) Note the advertising graffiti so common at historic sites in the postwar years.  Here, at Gettysburg, at Harpers Ferry and at other Civil War sites, one could often find an advertisement for the cure-all "Hoofland's German Bitters."

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