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Many Americans in the 1860s experienced the Civil War at home through photographs, far from the battlefront. Three-dimensional photographs, known at the time as stereoviews, were a popular new format. This exhibition explores the innovative 150-year-old technology, the history of the Smithsonian Institution during the Civil War, the origins of American photojournalism and battlefield photography, and the wartime experience as it was shared on the home front.

Exhibition generously funded by The History Channel, and produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and the Civil War Trust.

The Smithsonian and the Civil War

The Smithsonian and its original Castle building continued operations during the American Civil War, 1861–1865. A unique history transpired here under the leadership of Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian. The Board of Regents included many Southern Congressmen who were forced to leave the governing body during the war years. Freed black men were employed in the Castle, including Solomon Brown, chief clerk to the Secretary. The building was considered for an army hospital. But it was Henry’s leadership in fostering scientific and technological advancements, and military reconnaissance conducted from the tower of the Castle, that most significantly contributed to the Union Civil War efforts.



Civil War-era photo of the north façade of the Smithsonian Castle. (Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives)



henry family

The Henry family on the grounds of the Smithsonian, about 1865. (Photograph by Titian Ramsay Peale; Reproduction courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives)

si burning

The Castle escaped harm during the Civil War, but in January 1865 experienced a fire on the third floor resulting in structural damage to the building, and loss of collections, including many items owned by James Smithson and records of Secretary Henry’s scientific research. (Hand-tinted photograph by Alexander Gardner; Reproduction courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives)

A New Era of Photography

The art of taking pictures of events as they occurred predates the Civil War by many years. Photographic artists in the 1850s made daguerreotypes of lively streets, burning buildings, and people engaged in their various professions. Daguerreotypes were not easily reproducible, however, and few people actually saw them. This changed, however with the invention of the wet plate collodion process—glass plate images could now be reproduced on paper by the thousands. With this new technology, the Civil War would be brought into the homes of Americans like no event before it. 

Niagra falls daguerreotype 

This early “news photo” from 1853 shows Joseph Avery stranded in the rapids above Niagara Falls, shortly before plunging to his death. (Daguerreotype, unknown photographer; Image courtesy of Library of Congress)


  George Stoneman multi cards

Specialized cameras and lenses allowed photographers to record and then print multiple pictures at the same time. Eight small card photographs of Union General George Stoneman, pictured here, could be printed at once. (Image courtesy of National Archives)

Ambrotypes and Tintypes

The wet collodion process generated both ambrotypes and tintypes. Why a consumer selected one over the other might depend on availability, cost, and preference. The ambrotype, a unique image created by darkening the back of a glass plate negative, would be cased. The tintype, collodion on an iron plate, was also a unique image but with more flexibility as to how it was mounted. It could be cased, placed in jewelry or campaign buttons, or slipped into albums.


Civil War-era four lens tintype camera. (Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History)


Stereoviews offered three-dimensional photographic depictions of the war alongside explanatory captions or text. Stereoviews were an important means of gathering information. Not only did the cards themselves offer pictures and words, but families could share their ideas and views of the world with one another. The various designs and ornate holders reveal that the stereoviewing experience was a recreational activity and the viewers themselves were meant to be incorporated in the décor of one’s home.

Brewster family stereoview

Stereoview of Sir David Brewster and his family looking at stereos. (Unknown photographer; Image courtesy of National Museum of American History)

Early Photojournalism

“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.”—New York Times, October 1862, regarding Mathew Brady’s The Dead of Antietam photographs.

Manassas Junction 

After Confederate troops burned the strategically important rail junction at Manassas in March 1862, Northern photographers secured dozens of images, including this one, in the wake of the retreating Southerners. (Albumen print by Alexander Gardner; Image courtesy of Bob Zeller Collection)


Antietam barn

During the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, this barn was serving as a Confederate field hospital when it was struck by Union artillery fire. Only a few of the wounded were rescued from the burning building in time. (Albumen print by Alexander Gardner; Image courtesy of Bob Zeller Collection)


In what may be the first great documentary Civil War photograph, wounded Union soldiers and their attendants are seen just after fighting at Savage Station and just before being captured by advancing Confederate forces. (Photo by James Gibson; Image courtesy of Bob Zeller Collection)



Photos of young dead soldiers in and around the trenches at Petersburg did not reach the public until after the Civil War had ended. Photographer T.C. Roche managed to illustrate the horror of the conflict only after it was over. (Image courtesy of Garry Adelman Collection)

Special: Looking Closer

Negatives printed on glass plates allow for an unexpected and astounding level of detail. Look closely at the two photographs above and you will see:


...a sergeant consoling a wounded man.


box empty ammunition box that once held .57 caliber bullets.


...wounded men wearing the distinctive hats of the 16th New York, which had experienced heavy fighting at Gaines' Mill a few days earlier.



...the body of a Confederate soldier buried under the rubble.

Documenting the Civil War

By 1861, more than 6,000 professional photographers were operating across the nation. Most stayed near cities and towns, content with the steady business of photographing the customers who came through their doors. Only a handful had the equipment, expertise, or desire to actually take pictures on battlefields.

Famed photographer Mathew Brady tried but failed to secure photos of the war’s first great battle—Bull Run, July 21, 1861. However, in the following years, Brady and others pushed the bar ever upward, securing pictures of battlefield carnage and even of actual combat.


The first photos showing actual combat were recorded during the Civil War, including this view showing ironclad warships firing heavy ordnance in Charleston Harbor. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)


Securing photos of dead soldiers on battlefields was difficult and dangerous—a feat accomplished by photographers on only seven occasions during the Civil War, such as here at Spotsylvania, May 1864. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

War Photography for the Public

Today, pictures can be shared with millions in an instant, but in the 1860s photographic dissemination was decidedly slower. Photographs were distributed as printed copies or via newspapers, which in itself was an involved process.

Photographers exposed prints from wet-plate negatives on their rooftops and mailed them to interested buyers. Photographs could not even be reproduced in newspapers and had to be converted to engravings or woodcuts by specialized artists.

Burnside bridge photo



The September 1862 photograph of Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam was converted into the woodcut at right, along with embellishments like the soldiers in the foreground. Far more people saw the woodcut version via newspapers than the actual photograph.  (Images courtesy of Bob Zeller Collection)

Photographers at Bull Run

Correspondents and photographers, pictured here at Bull Run in 1865, formed a vast machine that brought news and imagery to the public. (Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

Photography on the Home Front

A variety of photographs could be found in middle-class homes during the Civil War.

The historical and sentimental values of photographs derive from each viewer’s experience and relationship to the subject and the photograph. For instance, a portrait of a soldier, made in the event he did not return from war, would be most meaningful to those who knew him. Stereoviews rendered the war three-dimensionally, giving families and close friends an opportunity to discuss tactics, strategies, events, policies, players, geography, and much more. Carte-de-visite photographs were gathered as a way to visually capture military leaders, politicians, cultural figures, and other such people who shaped dialogue and values that mattered to the individual collector.

Nasby carte de visite 

Petroleum Nasby (1833–1888), about 1865; Carte-de-visite by Mathew Brady. Nasby, a journalist whose real name was David Ross Locke, wrote satirical letters in the character of an uneducated and outraged Southerner. (Image courtesy of National Museum of American History)


  family of four tintype

Three tintypes and one ambrotype were made in different locations at different times. By placing all four photographs in the same case, they remain united literally and metaphorically. (Image courtesy of National Museum of American History)

The full exhibit contains many more photographs, closer examination stations, and 3-D images. It can seen in the Smithsonian Castle from August 1, 2012 until July, 2013. Admission is free.

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