The American Civil War (1861–65) was the fifth war in history to be photographed, the first four being the Mexican–American War (1846–48), the Crimean War (1854–56), Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Second Italian War of Independence (1859).
Mathew B. Brady (May 18,1822 – January 15, 1896), the son of Irish immigrants, was born in Warren County, New York. Brady would spend his fortune to accumulate photos of the war. In the early 1840s, Brady was a manufacturer of "jewel cases" for daguerreotypes in New York City. By 1844 he had opened his own daguerreian gallery at 205 Broadway, the "New-York Daguerreian Miniature Gallery", having with Edward Anthony in 1840 received instruction from Prof. Samuel B. Morse for a fee of $50. Still in his 20s, Brady's next goal was to establish at his gallery a hall of fame, a Gallery of Illustrious Americans. "From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers." Brady returned to New York in May 1852 after a long absence in Europe. While there he sought treatments for the ill effects of mercury poising, a common occurrence among daguerreians. In 1856, seeing the tremendous potential for reproducible and enlarged prints and illustrated newspapers, Brady hired photographer and businessman, Alexander Gardner, who instructed him in the new art of wet-plate collodion photography.
Mathew Brady's unequaled fame derived from his shrewd ability at self-promotion and a strong determination to succeed as the foremost portrait photographer of his day. He would also come to be known as the most prominent photographer of the American Civil War. From the very beginning Brady determined to accumulate as many war views as possible, with the understanding that in the not too distant future a photomechanical means of reproduction would be possible. With this end in mind, Brady bought, exchanged, borrowed, acquired and copied prints and negatives. If there were duplicate views to be had, he bought those. In light of Brady's practice, it is not surprising therefore, that a very large number of war views that were not actually his came to be associated almost exclusively with his name. Nearly every photograph associated with the struggle seemed to be a "photograph by Brady."
At the beginning of the war, Mathew Brady secured the necessary permissions from the War Department, purchased rugged cameras and traveling "darkrooms", and sent his employees out to begin documenting the struggle, all at his own personal expense. The First Battle of Bull Run provided the initial opportunity to photograph an engagement between opposing armies, however Brady returned with no known photographs from the battlefield. Following the Federal rout, he arrived back in Washington D.C. the day after the battle and was photographed at his studio wearing a soiled duster and sword (see photo). Tantalizingly little is known about Brady's life, as he kept no journals, wrote no memoirs and left but few written accounts.
By war's end, Brady estimated he had spent $100,000 to amass more than 10,000 negatives that the public no longer showed an interest in. In 1875, the War Department came to Brady's relief and purchased, for $25,000, the remainder of his collection, which were mostly portraits. Anthony Co. possessed most of Brady's war views, received by them as compensation for Brady's continued indebtedness. From the War Department, the collection went to the U.S. Signal Corps, and in 1940 it was accessioned by the National Archives. On January 15, 1896, Brady died penniless in the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. However, in his last days, Brady did not die in isolation. He was visited and comforted often, by friends and admirers up until the very end. His funeral was largely financed by the friends of his adopted regiment, the 7th NYSM.