How Civil War Photography Changed War

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THE GIST

- Photography had been around for over 20 years before the Civil War, but its flowering began just before conflict broke out.

- Photography during the Civil War had a wide-reaching impact on the public's perception on everything from their leaders to the nature of warfare.

- Images of everyday life are also depicted for the first time in the Civil War.

We've all seen photographs of the Civil War: black-and-white images of bearded Union generals or mustachioed Confederate colonels posing to one side of the camera, dead bodies stacked on the battlefield or common soldiers around a camp tent.

Looking back 150 years to the start of the Civil War this month, what impact did photography have on the war? On the people who lived during the time? What do these images tell us today about the soldiers and their families?

Historians say that photography changed the war in several ways. It allowed families to have a keepsake representation of their fathers or sons as they were away from home. Photography also enhanced the image of political figures like President Lincoln, who famously joked that he wouldn't have been re-elected without the portrait of him taken by photographer Matthew Brady.

Intense images of battlefield horrors were presented to the public for the first time at exhibits in New York and Washington, many later reproduced by engravings in newspapers and magazines of the time.

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"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," wrote the New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862 about Brady's New York exhibit just a month after the bloody Battle of Antietam.

Photography had been around for over 20 years before the Civil War, but new techniques and commercialization led to its flowering just before conflict broke out. Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography in Abilene, Texas, says the invention of the tintype, which was a metal image, and the ambrotype, printed on glass, allowed for mass production of small photographs usually kept by families in wooden or glass cases.