Alexander Gardner may be best known for his photographic work during the American Civil War era of the 1860s. Gardner was born in Scotland in 1821 and started originally as an apprentice jeweler. After seeing Mathew Brady’s photographs at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, Gardner knew he had to be involved in the newly-evolving world of photography.
Mathew Brady likely paid for Alexander Gardner’s passage to the United States, and later hired Gardner to manage Brady’s Washington, D.C. photography studio in 1858. As the American Civil War broke out in 1861, photos were in high demand for soldiers wanting to leave something behind for their families. At the time, Gardner became one of the top photographers for these portraits.
After witnessing the Civil War battle at Manassas, Virginia, Mathew Brady knew the war needed to be documented. In his effort to capture the tragedy before him, Brady hired photographers–including Gardner–and equipped them with a travelling darkroom. Alexander Gardner is recorded as photographing the battles at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Petersburg. Shortly after the Battle of Antietam, Gardner ceased working with Brady and began photographing the Civil War for himself. With his traveling darkroom, Gardner could photograph and develop all of his images out in the field. Many of the photographs taken during the Civil War were publicly displayed, in order to bring the realities of war to the forefront of the general public’s attention. Gardner’s images were some of the few to hit home the hardest.
At the end of the Civil War, Gardner took one of the last photographs of President Abraham Lincoln before his assassination. He would also go on to photograph the execution of the Lincoln Assassination conspirators.
In 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad appointed Gardner as their official photographer. He would document the railroad in Kansas, as well as the Native American tribes he encountered along the way. Shortly after in 1871, Gardner would give up photography altogether and pursue a career in insurance until his death in 1882.
The Still Picture Branch at the National Archives holds many photographs by Alexander Gardner. Due to the nature of Gardner’s work underneath Mathew Brady, many of his images are not directly credited to Gardner. However, much of his work can be found with the series of Brady’s Civil War photographs: 111-B: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes. In addition, Gardner published his “Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War” in 1866, after the war. A digitized copy of the sketchbook can be found within our online catalog under the series 165-SB: “Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War,” by Alexander Gardner. Lastly, at the end of his photography career, Gardner completed many portraits of Indian delegations to Washington, D.C. These portraits can be found within the series 75-ID: Alexander Gardner Portraits of Tribal Delegations to the Federal Government.
Series of Records with Alexander Gardner Photographs
Furgurson, Ernest B. “Alexander Gardner Saw Himself as an Artist, Crafting the Image of War in All Its Brutality,” SmithsonianMag.com, October 8, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/alexander-gardner-saw-himself-artist-crafting-image-war-all-its-brutality-180956852/.
American Battlefield Trust, “Civil War Biography: Alexander Gardner,” Accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/alexander-gardner.
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