The Battle of Antietam and War Photography

Heather Cox Richardson

One hundred and fifty years ago this weekend, 75,000 Union and about 38,000 Confederate troops massed near Sharpsburg, Maryland. One hundred and fifty years ago on Monday morning, a clear fall day, September 17, 1862, the two armies engaged. The ensuing battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.

Antietam changed the way societies would see war for ever after.

After a successful summer of fighting, Confederate general Robert E. Lee had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland to bring the Civil War to the North. He hoped to swing the slave state of Maryland into rebellion and to weaken Lincoln’s war policies in the upcoming 1862 elections. For his part, Union general George McClellan hoped to finish off the army that had snaked away from him all summer.

The armies clashed as the sun rose about 5:30 on September 17. For twelve hours the men slashed at each other. Amid the smoke and fire, soldiers fell. Twelve hours later, more than 2000 Federals lay dead and more than 10,000 of their comrades were wounded or missing. 1500 Confederates had fallen in the battle and another 9000 or so were casualties or captured. The Union had lost 25% of its fighting force; the Confederates 31%. It was a slaughter. The First Texas Infantry lost 82% of its men.

Eighty-two percent.

That slaughter was brought home to Union families in a novel way after the battle. Photographer Alexander Gardner, working for the great photographer Matthew Brady, brought his camera to Antietam two days after the guns fell silent. Until Gardner’s field experiment, photography had been limited almost entirely to studios. People sent formal photos home and recorded family images for posterity, as if photographs were portraits.

Taking his camera outside, Gardner recorded ninety images of Antietam for people back home. His
stark images showed bridges and famous generals, but they also showed rows of bodies, twisted and bloating in the sun as they awaited burial. By any standards these war photos were horrific, but to a people who had never seen anything like it before, they were earth-shattering.

Matthew Brady exhibited Gardner’s images at his studio in New York City. People who saw the placard announcing “The Dead of Antietam” and climbed the stairs up to Brady’s rooms to see the images found that their ideas about war were changed forever.

“The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams,” one reporter mused. “We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type.” But Gardner’s photographs erased the distance between the battlefield and the home front. They brought home the fact that every name on a casualty list “represents a bleeding, mangled corpse.” “If [Gardner] has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it,” the shocked reporter commented. [New York Times, October 20, 1862, p. 5.)

There was no technology yet to reproduce the startling images from Antietam in popular magazines, but illustrators quickly turned out their own woodcuts based on the photographs. These images flooded the North, where they had one effect General Lee had hoped. They helped to undercut Lincoln and the Republican Party in the 1862 midterm elections, as Americans began to think that anything, even compromise with the Confederacy, would be better than the kind of carnage they had seen at Antietam.

The import of Gardner’s images from Antietam stretched far beyond the fall of 1862. Never again could war be distant, so long as photographers could be there to record what they saw. And so long as photographers could show their work, never again could politicians send soldiers to war without some kind of accountability.