When war threatened the nation in the spring of 1861, thousands of soldiers flocked to Washington, D.C., to defend the capital. Photographers followed in their footsteps capturing camp scenes and portraits of untested, jubilant greenhorns in their new uniforms. It so happened that Alexander Gardner had just opened a new studio in the capital for the most notable photographer of his era – Mathew Brady. Gardner also took advantage of the coming storm to increase his business. All of the early war photographs were taken in studios or tents. No one had produced images in the field.
It wasn’t until September of 1862 that the first true images of war were produced. Antietam was the first battle to depict the grim and bloody truth of civil war through the lens of photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James Gibson. Gardner made two trips to Antietam. The first was just two days after the battle, the second, two weeks later when President Abraham Lincoln visited the battlefield.
After Gardner returned to Matthew Brady’s studio in Washington, prints were made of his negatives and were taken to New York City. As the photographs were something entirely new, images of dead Americans on a battlefield, Mathew Brady decided to display them immediately in his New York City gallery, which was located at Broadway and Tenth Street.
On October 6, 1862, a notice in the New York Times announced that photographs of Antietam were being displayed at Brady’s gallery. The brief article mentioned that the photographs show “blackened faces, distorted features, expressions most agonizing…” It also mentioned that the photographs could also be purchased at the gallery. New Yorkers flocked to see the Antietam photographs, and were fascinated and horrified.
On October 20th the New York Times posted a lengthy review of the exhibit at Brady’s New York gallery. One part of the review was read during Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” masterpiece some years ago.
“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. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard, “The Dead of Antietam.”