Although hundreds of individuals photographed the Civil War, the majority of photographic documentation 'in the field' was in the hands of a few dozen men. An even smaller number had the skills, determination, and opportunity to photograph actual events taking place between the two battling armies. Photographic processes of the period were too slow and the equipment and procedures were too cumbersome to record instantaneous action. The photographers instead focused on the prologue and aftermath of battle.
Photography had the capacity to display the real, unglamorous face of the war. It seems fairly certain, from many of the documents of the day, that the average American citizen had little notion that the Civil War would be so long and so devastating. Furthermore, it seemed clear that most Americans had little understanding of what war actually meant, and throughout the conflict their ideas about warfare evolved and changed.
An increasing demand by Americans for more accurate and factual descriptions of the war led to an expanded use of photographs in the illustrated press by the end of the war, even though the photograph had to be translated into wood engravings to be printed. These engravings, at times composites using imagery from several photographs, were the public's main source of visual information about the realities of war.
After publishing engravings of Antietam, Harper's Weekly reproduced only one significant image of the dead based on a photographic source for the remainder of the war. The print, entitled "The Harvest of Death" was derived from photos taken after the Battle of Gettysburg. This print, however, was not published until July 1865, two years after the famous battle, when it was used to illustrate a story on the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield monument. The engraving was a construction from different sources done to achieve a formally balanced composition for aesthetic reasons (photographs in comparison appeared stark and incomplete for storytelling) that visually equated death with sleep— appropriate for a story on the dedication.
The public's desire for a better understanding of war's grim reality helped fuel the popularization of stereoviews and albums whose images were real photographs, such as Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War (published after the war in 1866).
Panel of Cartes-de-visite received by the Post Office's Dead Letter Office 1861-1865 Various Photographers
The George Eastman House PhotographyCollection has 10 sheets of these cartes-de-visite portraits of soldiers, mounted 9 across and 4 high.
About the Photographs
Cartes-de-visite (French for "visiting cards") were first introduced in 1854. They were enjoyed as family images, often placed in specially constructed albums, and exchanged with friends and relatives. Scattered among the sheets are paper photographs and small tintypes. Both were popular, inexpensive kinds of images during the Civil War years, 1861-65.
Many photographers were active during the war, most of them in temporary studios set up at military encampments. The soldiers sent their portraits home to their loved ones and friends, and waited for similar portraits of their wives and children.
Although photographs were used to document the Civil War, this personal function was the most common use made of photography.
The letters containing the photos above, however, never reached their intended destination— probably for a variety of reasons such as a wrong or indecipherable address, or the letter could not be forwarded because the addressee had moved. Such mail ended up in the Dead Letter Office of the Post Office in Washington D.C.
It is likely that the mail at the Dead Letter Office is opened after a specified time has passed. It is unknown who decided to keep the photos or mount them this way. It is possible they were once exhibited. Unfortunately, we cannot look on the backs of any image because of the mounting method. The existence of any written identification, messages, or printed studio information is not known. While we know the fates of these photographs, we can only speculate on that of the individuals.