Brady’s Lens: The Civil War and the Mathew Brady Collection in the National Archives

On 9 April 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.  Over the course of April and into early May, more and more Confederate commanders surrendered their armies, and on 10 May 1865, Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Three days later, at Palmito Ranch, Texas the war’s final battle ended with a superfluous Confederate victory.  By the end of June 1865, the last Confederate field commanders surrendered, and the war that cost the nation an estimated 700,000 lives came to an end.[1]  In the 150 years hence, the American Civil War became one of the most studied and scrutinized periods of American history.

When the Civil War began, wartime photography was in its infancy.  The Crimean War of 1854-55 provided the first real “opportunity” for photographic documentation of a conflict, but images from that war only focused on soldier portraits and battlefields.  Early photographers avoided capturing photographs of the death and misery that made up the reality of the conflict.  In 1861 though, well-known photographer Mathew Brady saw an opportunity to use the camera to document war in a way that was impossible only a generation earlier.  Brady and his associates–notably Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, and Timothy O’Sullivan–set out to record the progress of the war.

Brady’s first photographs of the Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) helped to replace the romantic tradition associated with battlefield art, and illustrated newspapers mass-produced engravings based on Brady’s photographs.  The American public’s appetite for candid images of the conflict grew, and photographers sold pictures and stereo cards by the thousands.[2]  While Brady’s photographs changed the way people viewed war from afar, technological limitations still plagued his endeavors.  Long exposure times, heavy cameras, and the wet-plate process meant that Brady and other photographers could not capture the spontaneity of combat, but depended rather, on posed portraits and carefully-planned battlefield shots.

Despite his limitations, Brady and his team managed to capture some of the most powerful images of the war’s cruel realities.

Throughout the war, Brady and his team captured at least 12,000 photographs of battlefields, towns, and people touched by the war.  Additionally, Brady (or one of his associates) photographed many prominent politicians and military personalities who stopped by his studio in Washington D.C.  Whether these photographs showed wounded soldiers or well-dressed women, the Brady collection helps expand the cultural and social understanding of the war.  Of course, Brady never missed an opportunity to capture a truly defining moment.  Only days after Lee surrendered, he posed for Brady in front of his Richmond home in what became the final photograph of Lee in his Confederate uniform.  Many of Brady’s other photographs still serve as some of the most recognizable of many prominent figures and events associated with the Civil War.

Unfortunately, Brady’s success declined after the war.  When he declared bankruptcy, many of his negatives went on public auction, and in 1874 Secretary of War William Belknap purchased part of Brady’s collection for $2,500.[3]  A year later, the War Department purchased 3,735 plates directly from Brady, and held them in their library until 1921 when the Office of the Chief Signal Officer secured custody of the Brady negatives in order to make copies and provide them to the public.  In 1940, the National Archives accessioned the Brady collection, and in 1943 the Library of Congress purchased another significant portion of the Brady negatives from the Phelps Publishing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts.

Today, NARA’s collection of Mathew Brady photographs is available online in the National Archives catalog.  See also the Civil War Select Audiovisual Records at the National Archives.

Note: All photo captions are the captions listed in the online catalog.  Also, the photographs are unedited and appear as they do in the catalog.







[1] Harold Holzer, “War by the Numbers,”  While traditional estimates of Civil War deaths hover around 620,000, new evidence suggests higher numbers.

[2] Jonathan Heller, ed., War and Conflict: Selected Images form the National Archives, 1765-1970 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1990), 4.

[3] Heller, War and Conflict, 5.