Teachers

Teaching With Documents:
The Civil War as Photographed by Mathew Brady

Background

Many historians call the Civil War the central event in U.S. history. The formation of the Constitution corrected the autonomy of individual states that the Articles of Confederation did not harness. Still, the young country struggled for 75 years to find a graceful balance between the power of the federal government and the several states. The rights of states and the issue of slavery propelled the country into civil war. Today, America defines itself from that point forward, as it still seeks a more perfect union and equality for all its citizens.

The sociology of the American Civil War can be viewed through a medium that was coming of age in the middle of the 19th century: photography. The National Archives and Records Administration makes available on-line over 6,000 digitized images from the Civil War. Mathew Brady and his associates, most notably Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, and Timothy O'Sullivan, photographed many battlefields, camps, towns, and people touched by the war. Their images depict the multiple aspects of the war except one crucial element: battle. Photographs show camp life, routines, war preparations, the moments just prior to battle, and the aftermath of battle. The primitive technology of photography required that subjects be still at the moment the camera's shutter snapped. Battle scenes are, therefore, missing from the record of history of this era. The study of war journals and artifacts has developed a network of people, particularly located on the East Coast, who perform Civil War re-enactments. Recently, these groups have helped American filmmakers portray the war in realistic terms in movies like Gettysburg and Glory and in other documentaries on key Civil War battles. Thus, the more modern technology of cinematography fills the gap left by photography in recording the battles.

Other Resources

The Library of Congress has over 1,000 photographs of the Civil War in its American Memory collection. It includes a search engine
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/cwphome.html

McPherson, James. For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. (McPherson read over 1,000 letters and 200 diaries of Confederate and Union soldiers to come up with his answers to the book's title question.)

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. (This is McPherson's Pulitzer prize-winning history of the Civil War.)

The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War by historian Edward L. Ayers of the University of Virginia allows students to compare and contrast a Northern town with a Southern one before, during, and after the Civil War.
http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/vshadow2/index.html

The Photographs

  1. Colors of the 23rd New York Infantry
    National Archives Identifier: 529517

  2. Wilderness, near Chancellorsville, VA
    National Archives Identifier: 524447

  3. View in Wilderness area of VA
    National Archives Identifier: 529193

  4. Pontoon across the Rappahannock River, VA, Cavalry column
    National Archives Identifier: 524925

  5. Battery in action at Fredericksburg, VA
    National Archives Identifier: 524733

  6. Wounded soldiers under trees, Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg,
    after the battle of Spotsylvania, 1864

    National Archives Identifier: 524768

  7. Wounded soldiers in hospital
    National Archives Identifier: 524705

  8. Confederate prisoners waiting for transportation, Belle Plain, VA
    National Archives Identifier: 524824

  9. A company of the 6th Maine Infantry on parade after the battle of Fredericksburg
    National Archives Identifier: 524587
    At time of the charge across the stone wall at foot of Marye's Heights, General Joseph Hooker was in command of the Federals and General Fitzhugh Lee in command of the Confederates.

  10. Confederate dead behind a stone wall at Fredericksburg, VA
    The 6th. Maine Infantry penetrated the Confederate lines at this point
    National Archives Identifier: 524930

  11. Aquia Creek and the Fredericksburg Railroad, with a construction corps at work
    National Archives Identifier: 528988

  12. Battery D, 2nd U.S. Artillery, at Fredericksburg, VA
    National Archives Identifier: 533305

  13. Pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, VA
    National Archives Identifier: 533306

  14. An interior view of Union breastworks on Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA
    National Archives Identifier: 530424

  15. Camp of the 44th New York Infantry near Alexandria, VA
    National Archives Identifier: 524564

  16. Camp scene showing winter huts and corduroy roads
    National Archives Identifier: 524642

National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer
Record Group 111

Article Citation

This article was written by Douglas Perry, a teacher at Gig Harbor High School, in Gig Harbor, WA.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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