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Civil War Trust

The Impact of Civil War Photos on the Public

The United States Civil War was the first to be extensively documented with photography. Three previous wars had seen photographers but the extent of Civil War photographyas well as the size and significance of the Civil War made the visual documentation stand out as new and unique. Some historians even argue that we know more about the Civil War than any other war up to World War Two because of the vast amount of photos left from the Civil War.

Armed with cameras that could capture an image in less than 30 minutes of exposure, plus some complicated chemical mixing and developing at either end of the process, photographers documented every detail of the war that they could capture. They followed important generals and large forces, capturing the faces of soldiers and the horror of the bloodiest war the United States would experience for nearly 50 years in vivid detail and amassed a volume of photos that had never been seen before.

Some experts argue that the biggest impact of Civil War photos was that this proliferation of images changed the way the public perceived the war by turning people removed from the fighting into eye witnesses of the carnage. It is certainly true that when, for example, Southern General Robert E. Lee routed the Federals at the battle of Chancellorsville, photos of the battle’s aftermath made their way to Northern eyes. However, photographs primarily circulated in magazines or serial publications of that nature. Newspapers were not yet equipped to publish photographs but instead continued to produce images from engraved plates based on artists’ renderings. Many photos were presented in galleries to satiate the public’s desire for authentic images of the war.

Just as the first video footage of war streaming live out of Vietnam into U.S. households during the late 20th Century led to a public condemnation of the horror and wanton violence of that war, there is no doubt that the antebellum public was aghast at what war did to soldiers, the conditions in field hospitals, and the savagery of battle – all things they could observe through the efforts of photographers often older than the invention of their art.

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