Bringing the Story of War to Our Doorsteps
Rediscovering Alexander Gardner’s Antietam Photographs
“Every war begins as one war and becomes two, that watched by civilians and that fought by soldiers.”
Gerald E. Linderman, Embattled Courage, 1987, on the Civil War.
Bringing the story of the war fought by the combatants to civilians has been a challenge since the 5th Century BC when Thucydides wrote of the Peloponnesian War. In the United States, a free press, established by the 1st Amendment, dispatched correspondents to battles beginning with the Mexican War in the 1840s. While words and drawings could tell part of the story, it would be the new technology of photography that could present what war really looked like.
Beginning after the Battle of 1st Manassas in July 1861, photographer and gallery owner Mathew Brady dispatched his photographers to follow the Union armies. They sent back photos of soldiers in camp and in fortifications and sailors on warships.
On September 17th 1862 Union and Rebel forces clashed in fields around the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. When the sun set, more Americans had been killed or wounded than in any day before or since.
Two days later, Brady’s photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James Gibson arrived and began photographing the battlefield and the soldiers who had died. By October 6th, 1862 Brady had these photographs on display and ready for sale at his New York City gallery.
The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement.
Mr. BRADY has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.
New York Times October 20, 1862
These photos came to be called “The Dead at Antietam.”
For the first time since Mathew Brady brought Alexander Gardner’s breathtaking photographs of the Dead at Antietam to the people of New York 150 years ago, a partnership of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the Frederick County Civil War Roundtable, and Hood College is bringing them to the people of America at the Pry House on the Antietam Battlefield from October 5th to December 1st.
“Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action.”
The original gallery exhibit is being restaged with prints made to the same dimensions and style as the originals. The exhibit will also be on the second floor of the Pry House, which was used as a hospital during the Battle of Antietam, to recreate the exhibit as described by the New York Times.
These prints have been made from high-definition Library of Congress digital files of the original glass-plate negatives. Also on display are several original Gardner photos from the collection of Robert Zeller.
In addition, since the majority of Gardner’s photos were taken with stereoscopic cameras, there will be a 3-D theatre to view the photos as 19th century individuals who had purchased the photos in stereo form did with their portable devices.
Besides the photos, we have put together a ground-breaking interpretation of the how these photos transformed the history of the United States. We think it will be thought provoking for all who attend.