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.
While it is true that in the beginning, at his own expense, the enterprising Mathew Brady secured the necessary permissions from the War Department for the purpose of documenting the "rebellion", it would be others, particularly those photographers who were under the direct supervision of, or were employed by Alexander Gardner, such as Timothy O'Sullivan, James Gibson, George Barnard, James Gardner and William Pywell, who would follow the armies and ultimately fulfill the difficult task of recording for posterity a timely, consecutive photographic history of the American Civil War.
Alexander Gardner (1821–1882) was born in Paisley, Scotland. He became an apprentice silversmith jeweller at the age of fourteen. Soon, Gardner found out that his interests and talents lay in finance and journalism. When he was twenty-one he left the jeweler's shop for a job on the Glasgow Sentinel as a reporter. After only a year of reporting he was appointed editor of the Sentinel. A love of chemistry soon led him to experiment with photography. Deeply disturbed by the exploitation of the working class, and in the spirit of the early cooperative movements in Scotland, Gardner organized a utopian venture in the US called the "Clydesdale Joint Stock Agricultural and Commercial Company" in Iowa, however by 1853 many at the Iowa colony were sick and dying of tuberculosis (then called "consumption") and the Clydesdale company was dissolved. In 1856, Alex, his brother James and seven others, including Alex's wife, Margaret (b.1824-d.?), his son Lawrence (b.1848-d.?), his daughter Eliza (b.1850-d.?) and his mother Jane, immigrated to the United States. Colleague James Gibson may have been one of the party. Alex sought out the renown Mathew Brady for employment, who hired him to manage the Washington D.C. Gallery. Gardner's business acumen and expertise at wet-plate collodion photography and particularly the "Imperial Print", a 17 by 21 inch enlargement, brought Brady enormous success. The developed plates, which had typically been used as positives to create individual portraits called ambrotypes, were now being widely used as negatives, which employed the use of sensitized papers, making possible the production of unlimited copies of stereocards, album cards, and the increasingly popular "carte-de-visite", or visiting card. In November 1861 Gardner was appointed to the staff of General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and was given the honorary rank of captain. In 1862, Gardner and/or his operators photographed the 1st Bull Run battlefield, McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, and the battlefields of Cedar Mountain and Antietam. Since the battlefields of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were Union defeats and remained in enemy hands, Northern photographers were unable to reach the fields.