The Effects of Photography and Journalism During the Civil War

Long before the invention of the camera, warfare was largely romanticized and those who participated in it were seen as heroes. War was seen as the ultimate test of manhood and a way to prove one’s self. Even in America, those who fought in the revolutionary war were praised by the public who did not know the truth. However, after the invention of the camera and the widespread news about the war, the brutal realities were revealed and everyone could see its horrors. Images of soldiers laying dead, houses and buildings in rubble, and battlefields scorched from fire spread throughout the nation and opened the eyes of the American people to the events taking place. These images gave an honest example of warfare, they did not allow for a romanticized depiction and it is for that reason that the camera and the increased spread of communication completely changed warfare forever.

The camera was first successfully used in 1827 by NicГ©phore NiГ©pce who used it to make heliographs and sun prints(photography-basics.com) . Over the next fifty years the camera quickly evolved and the images it produced became higher quality and lasted longer. During the events of the civil war, photographer George S Cook captured what is believed to be the first images of real combat. The images showed the confederate forces being bombed by the union army near Charleston. Through the course of the war there were hundreds of photographs taken to show the true horrors of war. “In total there were more than 3,000 photographers who captured the events of the war(Broomall) . Many of these photographers were northerners who worked for newspapers. “Mathew Brady, already famous before the war, was the first to organize a group of field photographers and the first to publish war images in albums(Broomall) . These images were sold to newspapers who published them and allowed the public to see the realities of war. The public demanded more as they wanted to know the truth about the conflict. Because of the availability of the images many people were able to learn the harsh reality of the war, however some of the images were seen as the only remaining memory of family and loved ones. Many soldiers who participated in the war had portraits taken in their uniforms and this was the only thing their families had to remember them. With an estimated amount of “620,000 to 850,000 deaths in the Civil War(battlefields,.org) equaling two percent of the population, which would equal six million today, the war was and extreme loss of life on both sides and the images taken are a harsh reminder of the time when brother fought against brother.

The first attack of the Civil War was the battle of fort Sumter which took place on April twelfth and thirteenth 1861. The confederate forces began bombarding the fort until the forts commander Major Robert Anderson and his men surrendered. The union did not recapture the fort for almost four years. “Confederate troops then occupied Fort Sumter for nearly four years, resisting several bombardments by Union forces before abandoning the garrison prior to William T. Sherman’s capture of Charleston in February 1865(History.com) . This attack was the spark of the civil war and resulted in union forces retaliating against the south. A month later the forces clashed again as union gunboats faced off against confederate artillery resulting in an inconclusive battle. Over the course of 1861 35 battles took place in which the confederate forces were victorious in 15 and the union were victorious in 14, the rest remained inconclusive as both forces received casualties and there was no clear winner(Wikipedia) .

The battle of Antietam was one of the largest battles in the civil war and to this day remains the bloodiest single day in American history with over 22,00 casualties. The union victory didn’t stop Lee’s forces, but it did give Abraham Lincoln enough confidence to announce the emancipation proclamation, stating that the war was now about the freedom of slaves and the preservation of the union. The fighting began on September seventeenth 1862 and lasted nearly twelve hours. It was a brutal and bloody battle as most of the fighting was done at close range, with most of the soldiers being 100 yards or less from the enemy. The reason Lee invaded the union was because Maryland was a slave state, yet still part of the union, and Lee believed he could persuade the citizens to support the confederacy. This plan did not work and the loss at Antietam put a temporary hold on Lee’s invasion of the north. In a photo titled “Troops deployed : union forces hundreds of troops and horses can be seen on the battlefield before the fighting begins(unknown photographer 1862) . The pictures taken changed the understanding of the war and became some of the most famous pictures in American military history(Ural) .

By the end of 1862 Lee had retreated across the Potomac river and began to reorganize his army. The union general, McClellan, wanted to hold his place, but was ordered by the president to follow Lee’s forces. After some time the Army of the Potomac crossed on October twenty sixth with 100,000 soldiers(sonofthesouth.net) . By the time the union forces had reached Fredericksburg and called for the cities surrender, Lee’s forces had grown to 80,000 and they held strategic positions throughout the city. When the union forces were finally able to cross the Rappahannock river they attacked on the morning of December thirteenth. The confederate positions proved to be a problem as they were able hold multiple charges and push back union forces. After losing over 10,000 men the union forces retreated north on the fourteenth and fifteenth of December and the confederate forces reoccupied the city. The city was left significantly damaged and littered with bodies as both forces lost a combined 17,500 soldiers(Lohnes 2018) . A photo titled “After the bombardment shows multiple houses destroyed after being fired upon by cannons(unknown photographer 1862) .

The next large conflict between the two forces would take place at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The union forces held multiple strategic defensive positions around and in the town, forcing the confederate forces to come to them. Lee and his troops had to find a weak spot in the union line if they were to be successful. The first skirmish of Gettysburg took place on July first when union forces clashed against the rebels, the result was success for the rebels and the union retreated back to the town. Lee would attack the union left on July second and was nearly successful but resulted in failure(Reid 2013) . Lee once again attacked on July third but after a failed distraction on the union right, his forces faced the union artillery (Reid 2013) . The battle of Gettysburg would become the most costly battle of the civil war as there were 46,000 casualties over the three day period. In a photo titled “Dead confederate soldier, Devils Den along with two other photos of the “Devils Den it showed confederate soldiers dead on the ground after the loss at Gettysburg(unknown photographer 1863) . After the battle lee retreated with his army only to find the Potomac had flooded and his pontoon bridges had been swept away by the water, leaving him and his army trapped. President Lincoln urged union general George G. Meade to follow Lee, but Meade did not.

The reality of the battles fought during the civil war is that they effected more than just the soldiers. People would return to the towns that battles took place in and find their homes destroyed. Later on in the war people would lose not only homes, but their crops and fields as well, because of the union general William Tecumseh Sherman who implemented a total war strategy in an effort to starve out and take away the supplies from the confederate forces. Multiple photographs and paintings show the result of Sherman’s tactics; crops burnt, telegraph poles destroyed, railroad tracks pulled out of the ground. All of this led to the eventual defeat and surrender of the confederacy.

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