Our Favorite Civil War Images

May 9 2021 - May 9 2021

Our Favorite Civil War Images

  • May 9 2021 - May 9 2021


Center for Civil War Photography board members reveal their favorite war-time images.

Bob Zeller

President & Co-Founder

In this stereograph by George S. Cook, Union ironclads fire at Fort Moultrie on Sept. 8, 1863.

Charleston photographer George S. Cook became history’s first combat photographer – the first photographer to capture the enemy in action while under fire – when he captured a stereo photograph of the Union Navy’s USS Ironsides and two Monitor warships firing at Fort Moultrie during a battle in Charleston Harbor on Sept. 8, 1863. (Image scanned from Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume One, page 24; original negative at The Valentine, Richmond, Va.)

Fallen Confederates near the Dunker Church and West Woods | Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress

“Completely Silenced!” is Mathew Brady’s original tabloid-style title on the reverse of this 1862 Album Gallery Card of dead Confederate artillerymen on the Antietam battlefield with the Dunker Church in the background. It was taken by Brady associate Alexander Gardner as a stereograph. Some of my Dunker ancestors farmed these fields and worshiped in this simple whitewashed, steeple-less building, captured on a wet-plate stereo negative after it was badly battered in the fighting. EXPLORE THE PHOTO.

John Richter

Director of Imaging

Alexander Gardner shot this photo of the dedication of the Soldiers’ Cemetery at Gettysburg. | Library of Congress

Gettysburg, Nov. 19, 1863. President Lincoln dedicates the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and in doing so, gives probably the greatest speech in American history. I think anyone who’s interested in history wonders what it would have been like to be there that day. Through Gardner’s use of a stereo camera, the scene is realized in the magic of 3-D, which transports us into the crowd on that historic day. Until someone invents a time machine, it’s the next best thing! EXPLORE THE IMAGE.

Alexander Gardner image of freedmen in Richmond, 1865. | Library of Congress

This 1865 photograph of freedmen in Richmond, with the ruined Gallego Flour Mills in the background, sums up the Civil War. It’s destruction and hope for a brighter future in one image. The fact that it’s a stereo view is just icing on the cake! EXPLORE THE IMAGE.

John Banks


Alexander Gardner image of fallen Rebel at Antietam. | Library of Congress

This sad image encapsulates the awfulness of the Civil War for me. A fallen young Rebel on the battlefield, alone. It was among images of Antietam dead that caused a sensation when viewed at Mathew Brady’s gallery on Broadway in New York — the first time Americans had seen such carnage of the war in photographs. “Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. ” a New York Times reporter eloquently wrote about the gathering at Brady’s gallery in October 1862. EXPLORE THE IMAGE.

In an image by Timothy O’Sullivan, Union cavalry gather at an inn near the Cold Harbor battlefield. | Library of Congress

On June 4, 1864, Union cavalry gathered at Old Church Hotel while their infantry comrades about five miles south down the road in Cold Harbor, Va., dodged fire from Confederates and dug in for an extended standoff against the enemy. Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was there to capture the hotel scene, which appears unremarkable at first glance. But cropped enlargements of this image reveal great details — including the name hotel’s proprietor, J.A. Lipscomb, on a large sign in front of the two-story structure. Don’t look too closely at those horses — you may be shocked! EXPLORE THE IMAGE.

Craig Heberton IV

Social Media

Civil War photographers in the field near Berlin, Md., (now Brunswick) in late September or early October 1862. Mathew Brady stands second from right. | Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

This one-of-a-kind carte de visite at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorites simply because it probably depicts the largest number of famous battlefield photographers within a single image during the Civil War. It also shows us some of the tools of their photographic trade, including what appear to be a large, wooden portable darkroom as well as large-format, glass-plate negatives of the kind used by the military to reproduce maps, orders, etc. Pictured, from left, are: Silas A. Holmes; a teamster who worked for the photographers named Jim; Edward T. Whitney; a man named Hodges; a cook named Stephen; Mathew B. Brady (standing); and David B. Woodbury (kneeling). This image was taken somewhere near Berlin (now known as Brunswick), Md., in late September or early October 1862 during Brady’s photographic expedition following the Battle of Antietam. The exact location is unknown. EXPLORE THE PHOTO.

In an image by Timothy O’Sullivan, contrabands and Union soldiers in the Rappahannock in August 1862. | Library of Congress

I find myself repeatedly drawn to stereographic images created by Timothy O’Sullivan at the Rappahannock River on or about Aug. 19, 1862, especially this photo. As John Pope’s forces retreated northward, a number of contraband slaves followed them in an effort to flee their masters and seek a better life. This stereo view shows a group of “contrabands” in an oxen-pulled wagon containing all of their combined earthly posessions. Inside the wagon, a woman with a large bonnet with her back to the camera tantalizingly turns her head toward the photographer, but covers her face with her left hand. Another woman doesn’t even attempt to look toward the camera. Someone holds a large umbrella because of the intensity of the August sun. Movement in the back of the wagon suggests the presence of other adults or children. The oxen are guided by two men — one seated and one standing. A barefoot lad on a horse without stirrups or a saddle is visible to the right. Several soldiers disinterested in the picture-taking sit astride horses that gulp the river water. It must have been a scorcher that day. Only one solder diligently posed, looking straight at the camera. Ironically, he moved during the exposure, thereby blurring his image. In September 2012, the African-American Heritage Alliance celebrated the 150th anniversary of this photograph by performing a re-enactment of the river crossing with about 250 people at Cow Ford, just south of Remington, Va. EXPLORE THE PHOTO.

Jennifer Kon

Executive Director

Union cavalry commander George Custer in the field with man’s best friend. | Library of Congress

I’m an enthusiast for photographs of dogs from all eras, so it makes sense that my two favorite Civil War photos feature dogs. This photo shows then George Custer during the Peninsula Campaign with a dog at his feet. Interestingly, he appears in several other photos throughout his career that also feature dogs. EXPLORE THE PHOTO

General Rufus Ingalls’ dalmation at Ulysses Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Va.

This photo shows General Rufus Ingalls’ dalmatian standing on the front steps of the general’s home in City Point, Virginia. This dog also appears in a few other photos. In “Campaigning with Grant” by General Horace Porter, he writes, “General Ingalls had just returned from a trip to Washington, and brought with him an English spotted coachdog, which followed him everywhere through camp, and attracted no end of attention. A dog of any kind was rather an unusual sight in an army in the field, and an animal of the peculiar marks and aristocratic bearing of Ingalls’s companion excited wide-spread remark.” EXPLORE THE PHOTO