Alexander Gardner’s Photographs of the Civil War

Maryland, Pleasant Valley. Local Identifier: 165-SB-24; National Archives Identifier: 533298.

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.

 

Antietam Bridge, Maryland. Sept. 1862. (Photograph by Alexander Gardner). Local Identifier: 111-B-7199; National Archives Identifier: 530474.

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.

 

Maryland, Antietam, President Lincoln on the Battlefield. Local Identifier: 165-SB-23; National Archives Identifier: 533297.

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. 

 

Spotted Tail-Tshin-Tah-Ge-Las-Kah. Brule Sioux. Local Identifier: 75-ID-27; National Archives Identifier: 518969.

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

111-B: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes

Fully digitized in the catalog. 

 

165-SB: “Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War,” by Alexander Gardner

Fully digitized in the catalog.

 

75-ID: Alexander Gardner Portraits of Tribal Delegations to the Federal Government

Fully digitized in the catalog.

 

Sources: 

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

 

Related Blog Posts

19th Century Photographic Processes and Formats

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

Unnoticed: African Americans in Union Army Camps during the Civil War

Mapping the Civil War: Antietam and South Mountain

The Civil War Ends at Appomattox Court House

Mapping the Battle of Gettysburg

 

The photographs included in this post have no known copyright restrictions. If you have any questions about the images in this post or the holdings of the Still Picture Branch, please contact us at stillpix@nara.gov.

 

PUBLICATION OF PHOTOGRAPHS FURNISHED BY THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES STILL PICTURE BRANCH-RRSS

Generally, copies of photographic records held by the National Archives may be published without special permission or additional fees. The National Archives does not grant exclusive or non-exclusive publication privileges. Copies of Federal records, as part of the public domain, are equally available to all. A small percentage of photographs in our holdings are or may be subject to copyright restrictions. The National Archives does not confirm the copyright status of photographs but will provide any information known about said status. It is the user’s responsibility to obtain all necessary clearances. Any use of these items is made at the researcher’s or purchaser’s own risk.

Proper credit lines are encouraged in the interest of good documentation. They also help inform the public about government photographic resources that are available.

*Because so many of our requests for information cite credits and captions that appear in published works, the inclusion of a photo number in hard copy and electronic publications is of great assistance to both us and the public.

Examples of preferred credit lines are as follows:

  • National Archives photo no. 210-G-C241
  • Credit National Archives (photo no. 83-G-41368)
  • Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 83-G-41430
  • National Archives (210-G-A14)

If using a large number of our images, the National Archives will appreciate receiving copies of publications that contain our photographs. Such copies can be sent to the Still Picture Branch or the Library, National Archives and Records Administration.

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