ALEXANDER GARDNER:
The Tragic Realities of the Civil War

By Bill Dobbins
www.billdobbinsphotography.com

You frequently hear nostalgic sentiments expressed regarding the Civil War.  There are reenactments, monuments to Confederate generals, memorial celebrations and displays of the Confederate flag.

But these sentiments ignore the stark reality that the actions of the Confederacy involved treason, armed insurrection and an attempt to continue having the buying and selling of human beings remain legal.  The fact that there are still some residual problems and issues  from the Civil War still effecting the the country after all these years makes this war perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of American history.

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The real face of the Civil War. Credit: Alexander Gardner.
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A dead Confederate sharp shooter. Credit: Alexander Gardner
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The war resulted in at least 1,030,000 casualties (3 percent of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

The war also resulted in an almost unimaginable loss of life and incredible physical damage to many who managed to survive the slaughter of the battlefield:

The war resulted in at least 1,030,000 casualties (3 percent of the population), including about 620,000 soldier deaths—two-thirds by disease, and 50,000 civilians.[11] Binghamton University historian J. David Hacker believes the number of soldier deaths was approximately 750,000, 20 percent higher than traditionally estimated, and possibly as high as 850,000.[22][217] The war accounted for more American deaths than in all other U.S. wars combined.[218]

Based on 1860 census figures, 8 percent of all white men aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6 percent in the North and 18 percent in the South.[219][220] About 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps during the War.[221] An estimated 60,000 men lost limbs in the war.[222]
—-Wikipedia

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Photo of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner.
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Abraham Lincoln visits the troops. Photo by Alexander Gardner.
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An Alexander Gardner photo of the execution of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

If you study the carnage of the Civil War in any detail it is almost impossible to find anything “romantic” about it.  Masses of dead lying in the mud, many more alive but torn and damaged with little chance of surviving and military surgeons cutting off legs and arms in hospital tents with little or no use of anesthetics.  The minie-ball was used extensively as ammunition and the way it expanded when it penetrated a body created wounds more extensive than you see in most modern ordinance.

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The mini ball was a far more damaging bullet than the traditional musket ball and caused hugely destructive wounds.

An excellent documentary on the Civil War was created by Ken Burns.  We also have the extensive and well known photo library of Civil War photos by Mathew Brady and his group of photographers.  But a somewhat lesser known photographer who has also given us excellent documentary images of that conflict is Alexander Gardner  Gardner was a Scottish photographer who immigrated to the United States in 1856 and is best known for his photographs of the American Civil WarU.S. President Abraham Lincoln, and the execution of the conspirators to Lincoln’s assassination..

Brady was a private entrepreneur who received permission from Lincoln for him and his photo staff to shoot photos in the various battlefields.  Go the other hand, Gardner’s relationship with Allan Pinkerton (who was head of an intelligence operation that would become the Secret Service) recommended Gardner for the position of chief photographer under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Topographical Engineers. Following that short appointment, Gardner became a staff photographer under General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac.  The honorary rank of captain was bestowed upon Gardner, and he photographed the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, developing photos in his traveling darkroom. – Wikipedia

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The blasted heath.  Credit: Alexander Gardner

Gardner had actually been the manager of Mathew Brady’s photo gallery, but this ended when he began photographing the war himself.  With both men making outstanding photos in the field, over time may of Gardner’s images have been mistakenly attributed to Brady.

n 1866, Gardner published a two-volume work, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. Each volume contained 50 hand-mounted original prints but unfortunately the book did not sell well.  As with the work of Mathew Brady, Gardner discovered that the country after the war was in no mood to dwell on the horrors and casualties of the conflict and was not interested in viewing photos of it. However, in 1893, photographer J. Watson Porter, who had worked for Gardner years before, discovered after his death a trove of hundreds of glass negatives made by Gardner that had been stored in an old house in Washington D.C. where Gardner had once lived.  These photos helped to reestablish Gardner’s reputation as a photographer and made his images available to history.

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Alexander Gardner’s studio and gallery. Previously Gardner had served as the studio manager for Mathew Brady.
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Using a view camera and slow emulsions and lenses, action photos were not possible during the Civil war.
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Wet plates had to be developed immediately before they dried. So photographers in the field need some sort of portable darkroom, such as this kind of wagon.

However, there as been some controversy regarding his photos.  Analysis has shown that a few of his images show signs of being created by manipulation in the darkroom, such as putting bodies from two different plates in the same print,  But historians have pointed out that, back in that era, this was considered a common practice and not at all  “cheating” as it would be given today’s documentary and journalistic practices.

Nonetheless, the photographs of Alexander Garner, along with those of Mathew Brady and a few others, help us to see how awful the bloody carnage of the Civil War actually was and what a terrible scar it left on American History – countering the tendency of some to view this event through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia and romantic fantasy.

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ALEXANDER GARDNER BOOKS
AT AMAZON.COM

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Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com
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After the battle. Credit: Alexander Gardner.
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With mass casualties comes the need for mass graves. Credit: Alexander Gardner
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As with Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner found there was little demand to see war photos once the war had ended. Neither photographer was able to capitalize financially on their bodies of work.

 

 

 

 

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