Civil War Photographs Home Page

Introduction to the 1961 Microfilm Edition

of Selected Civil War Photographs

Editor's Note:

Of the 1,118 Civil War photographs included in the American Memory electronic edition, 1,047 were originally published as a microfilm in 1961. The microfilm and an accompanying index were the work of two Library of Congress staff members: Hirst D. Milhollen of the Prints and Photographs Division and Donald H. Mugridge of the (then) General Reference and Bibliography Division.

The following text reproduces the introduction for the 1961 microfilm edition. The table of contents indicates how Milhollen and Mugridge divided the collection into five major sections and numerous subsections. The catalog records in this electronic edition repeat the name of the section and subsection from the original edition.

In 1943 the Library of Congress purchased its Mathew B. Brady Collection of photographic negatives of views and portraits concerning the Civil War. In spite of much study and discussion, many of the details concerning this great accumulation and its history before the purchase are obscure, and, since the evidence is and seems likely to continue fragmentary, will probably remain so. The collection changed hands six times before the Library acquired it, and during that time many additions were made to it and many losses came about through carelessness and neglect. It can now be known only in part what photographs were made by Brady or under his auspices, what ones were acquired by him before he relinquished title in favor of the New York photographic supply house, E. and H. T. Anthony and Company, what additions were made by subsequent owners, and what is the exact relation of this to the other great Brady Collection, which was acquired by the War Department in 1874 and is now in the custody of the National Archives.

For a fuller discussion, the user of this catalog is referred to the Guide to the Special Collections of Prints & Photographs in the Library of Congress, compiled by Paul Vanderbilt and published by the Library in 1955; the Brady Collection is No. 80, described on p. 19-24. Since its publication, Josephine Cobb has illuminated many points in two important articles, "Mathew B. Brady's Photographic Gallery in Washington," in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, D.C., vols. 53-56 (Washington, 1959), p. 28-69, and "Alexander Gardner," in Image (George Eastman House, Rochester), June 1958, v. 7, p. 124-36.

Briefly, it may be said that the Library's collection presumably originated in the negatives turned over by the Brady galleries to the Anthony company during the war, under an agreement whereby Anthony made card-size prints for sale in large numbers, paid Brady a handsome proportion of the proceeds, and retained property in the negatives. This foundation was perhaps augmented by additional transfers during Brady's prolonged financial embarrassments, which set in immediately after the war and were attributable to his lack of business acumen. The collection was eventually purchased by two collectors, veterans of the conflict, Col. Arnold A. Rand and Gen. Albert Ordway (seen as a staff lieutenant in No. 224), who added to it some 2,000 negatives deriving from Alexander Gardner, second only to Brady as a photographer of the Civil War. In the mid-1880's it was bought by John C. Taylor and removed to Hartford, Conn., where it remained for nearly 60 years. About 1890 Taylor printed a catalog which gave analytical guidance to the portraits and to the views of the war in the East and enables one to see how large a part of these materials has been lost. In 1907 another Hartford man, the publisher Edward B. Eaton, acquired the collection, and between that year and 1913 set on foot six different publications from it, the best-known and most important of which is The Photographic History of the Civil War, edited by Francis Trevelyan Miller and others (New York, Review of Reviews Co., 1911-12. 10 vols. Reprinted in 5 vols. by T. Yoseloff, New York, 1957). From 1916 until its purchase by the Library of Congress the collection was stored in a basement vault, where it suffered its worst damage and destruction. In acquiring the collection for the cost of the unpaid storage, the Library received some 7,500 original wet collodion glass plates and some 2,500 copy negatives on both glass and film; these yield only about 3,750 different views and about 2,650 different portraits.

Since it became housed in the Annex of the Library of Congress, and was finally arranged so as best to insure its preservation, the collection has been extensively used, but researchers have had either to call in person or to make inquiry by mail about it. A further deterrent to use has resided in the nature of the original glass plates, made by the wet collodion process, which has been obsolete since 1880. In a laboratory of today, such plates require special handling in order to produce a quality print; hence the Library's Photoduplication Laboratory was unable to fill orders for Brady prints as promptly as for other kinds and had to charge more for them.

For several years, however, the Photoduplication Laboratory has been making, on behalf of the Prints and Photographs Division, a series of copy negatives on film, produced from intermediary "soft prints." Once this is done for any photograph, it eliminates the risk of breaking the original glass and the wear involved in handling it between the filing cabinets and the darkroom. The purchaser of a print can obtain it sooner and at a low rate. Now that the copy negatives number more than a thousand, the present catalog has been prepared so that anyone at a distance may learn what can be obtained. The whole series is also available on a microfilm roll preserving the order of this catalog, enabling the user of the latter to supplement, at small cost, its brief entries with visual impressions. The microfilm can also be readily converted into slides or used in a microfilm reader-projector.

The 1,047 copy negatives here listed are more than a mere selection from the Brady Collection, for they have been carefully chosen to include the best and most interesting photographs of the several kinds into which the collection may be classified. The plates still uncopied are, in the main, (1) views varying only in small detail from those listed, for the Civil War photographers customarily took three or more successive exposures of the same subject; or (2) additional subjects very much like those selected (more views of winter quarters, pontoon bridges, Parrott guns, companies of engineers, etc.); or (3) inferior or deteriorated negatives. Some views of unusual interest have been copied from cracked plates, but that fact is regularly noted in this catalog.

The first three parts of the catalog arrange the photographs according to the progress of the war in three different areas of the United States. Such a treatment promptly brings out the limitations of photography, under the technical conditions of the 1860's, as a mirror of events. History progressed actively as always, but photography was still largely static: the collodion process could not cope with movement, and the cumbersome equipment which it required could not without difficulty keep pace with the advance of armies, and it was put quite out of action by the haste and confusion of a retreat. The Brady camera was most at home in recording materiel; officers, men, and horses (if they felt like it) had to pose as if in a studio. There are only 4 views of the 723 in these three parts that can fairly be described as scenes of battle. Once the fighting was decided, if the Federal Army remained in possession of the field, the photographer could go to work as soon as the provost marshal and the weather permitted. He could photograph the dead, where they fell or where they had been assembled, but it would seem that, in all save a very few instances, he was confined to photographing dead Rebels. He could photograph the buildings (and how few of them, in comparison with 20th-century wars, were leveled or shattered!) and other landmarks of the field, and perspectives where he was told that the fighting had taken place. If, however, the Federal Army had been forced to abandon the field, he had to wait until the vicissitudes of war permitted it and him or his successors to come that way again. When these parts were arranged, therefore, consideration often had to be given not to when the photograph was taken, but to when the event took place which was the reason for the photograph's having been taken. No. 85 (and probably No. 86 as well) was taken in April 1865, as the war was coming to an end, but nothing happened in Mechanicsville that month. The battle, because of which No. 85 was taken and to which it refers, was fought on June 26, 1862, and it has been inserted at approximately that point in the necessarily somewhat rough chronological progress. At Mechanicsville Gen. Fitz-John Porter was not driven from the field; indeed, he stoutly repelled Stonewall Jackson's assaults; but his men were withdrawn during the night, and so Mechanicsville was not photographed by James F. Gibson, who was with McClellan's army, but had to wait until John Reekie passed that way nearly 3 years later. Thus arranged, partly by the date of taking and partly by the date of reference, and partly by the geographical location of the scenes, the photographs provide a remarkable pictorial accompaniment to the campaigns if one knows their story, but they do not themselves provide that story. The photographers, however, could be profitably active when nothing at all was going on, for winter quarters or a prolonged encampment gave them abundant opportunity for their group photographs of generals with their staffs, companies, batteries, bands, and auxiliary groups, from all of which a large sale could be anticipated--to the soldiers themselves, and to their relatives and friends at home.

Part IV documents Washington, the Federal Capital, in the last two years of the war. Here both Brady and Alexander Gardner had their galleries; there was much to photograph in the city proper and in its environs, and at the very end of the war came a spectacular succession of events.

The great majority of the portraits in Part V were taken in one or the other of Brady's galleries, but a few of the military ones were taken in the field, although they are not assignable to any recognizable campaign. The Confederate portraits, of course, must have been taken in Richmond or, in some cases, elsewhere in the Confederacy. Those showing civilian dress are usually postwar, although Bishop Polk in his canonicals is certainly antebellum, since he died a soldier's death in the Atlanta campaign of 1864.

The captions in part are derived from the original photographers, in part stem from the Taylor catalog of circa 1890, and in part are supplied by the compilers. Much care and some investigation has been spent upon them, and while it is not supposed that all possible identifications have been made or all mistakes avoided, it is hoped that the results are in general simple, serviceable, and valid. When we have differed from our predecessors, it has often been in the direction of a smaller claim; photographers then as now were apt to make the most of their work by a somewhat flamboyant title. No. 702 was labeled "Last train from Atlanta," and has given this title to a book; but since one has no way of knowing on what day it was taken, or of being sure that it was the very last train, and since there is no engine, it is thought that "Boxcars with refugees at railroad depot" is a considerably less disputable caption. The extraordinary series, Nos. 300-2, has been so long known as a "Council of War" that this title has been left in quotation marks, although it is no such thing, but rather is General Grant's headquarters in its ordinary operation. But Gen. Horace Porter's attempt, followed by The Photographic History of the Civil War, to remove the scene to another church and another day has been resisted; here there is no reason to doubt that Timothy H. O'Sullivan knew where he was and what day it was. It has been an unpleasant surprise to find a number of instances in which the editors of the Photographic History have not been thus misled, but have to all appearances quite arbitrarily labeled an innocent photograph as representing some scene or object considerably more prestigious than the original photographer indicated. Many of the photographs have been carefully checked against the Official Records of the Rebellion and especially its magnificent atlas volumes (this compliment does not extend to their arrangement, which is maddening), the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, contemporary directories of Washington, works on the old buildings of Richmond and Charleston, and a variety of other sources and authorities, in an attempt to locate the scene in space and time as precisely as is now possible. The compilers will be grateful to have any errors or additional information brought to their attention.

When two or more personal names appear in series in a caption or key, the order left to right is to be understood.

Some explanation is required for the division of the index [omitted from the American Memory edition; researchers should use the electronic collection's automated features] into three parts. The first one indexes the men who actually took the photographs (or the galleries in which they were taken), so far as this can be discovered from the original negatives' jackets or from other contemporaneous sources of information. It should prove to be a badly needed corrective to the notion, widely held even among scholars, that whenever a camera was pointed at a Civil War scene or figure, Mathew Brady was standing behind it. Brady deserves his fame, but it should be for originating and sustaining, so far as his limited resources permitted, a continuing enterprise, and for preserving negatives made by men in his employ, and adding to them as many negatives produced by others as he could get his hands on. His own experience was that of a studio photographer, and his weak eyesight handicapped him for work in the field. It is probable that he himself made a proportion of the Brady Gallery portraits which form most of the items in Part V, but the views of camp and field were taken by others. Nor did Brady ever hold an official appointment. The first photographer to receive a military post was Alexander Gardner, who, on parting company with Brady in 1862, went to work for Gen. George B. McClellan as Photographer to the Army of the Potomac, bearing the honorary rank of captain. However, his official duties lay in multiplying maps and documents; the views which his situation enabled him to take were his private sideline, and his appointment lapsed when McClellan was dismissed. A little later and in the West, the taking of views was evidently regarded as an integral part of the duties of George N. Barnard, who was attached to the office of the chief engineer of the Military Division of the Mississippi. So far as the present collection is concerned, Gardner and Barnard, together with John F. Gibson and Timothy O'Sullivan, must be regarded as the leading field photographers of the Civil War, who went with the armies, shared their hardships, and made the largest part of this extraordinary record. Since Mathew Brady has had his share or more of fame, it is to the memories of the quartet of Barnard, Gardner, Gibson, and O'Sullivan that this catalog might well be dedicated.

The second part of the index consists of general entries for classes of visible objects, such as bridges, caissons, and locomotives, which appear in the collection in some quantity, and in which various specialists are likely to take an interest.

The third part consists of entries for the individual persons, sites, and things which make up the greater part of most indexes. Here, however, are not included (1) the persons individually portrayed in Part V, since within their categories they are in an alphabetical order already; or (2) place-names, since Parts I-III of the catalog follow the geographical course of the campaigns, and the sites prominent in them will be sufficiently known to most readers. However, particular houses and other buildings which the photographers thought worthy of attention are indexed.

The compilers take this opportunity to express their sincere gratitude for assistance received from Craddock Goins, Jr., of the Division of Military History, Smithsonian Institution, who identified much of the ordnance shown; Josephine Cobb, Specialist in Civil War Iconography, National Archives, who gave the benefit of her unrivaled knowledge of Brady, the Gardners, and the National Archives' Brady Collection; Elmer O. Parker, Civil War Branch, National Archives, who supplied the full name, rank, and unit of many officers in the group pictures; and Harrison E. Allen of the Library of Congress Photoduplication Laboratory, who devoted uniform care and skill to the "soft prints" from which the copy negatives were made.

Specialist in Photography, Prints and Photographs Division

Specialist in American History, General Reference and Bibliography Division

Civil War Photographs Home Page | Table of Contents for the 1961 Microfilm Edition Booklet

am Sep-22-97