Bringing the Civil War Home – The Photographers (Article 56)

Bringing the Civil War Home – the Photographers (Article 56) 

The American public, both in the North and the South, had never seen anything like it. Newspapers and periodicals, which carried the images, sold thousands of extra copies compared to those that did not, and people flocked to exhibits to see the pictures first hand. The photographs were of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, taken as they lay, nearly covering the ground, in the distorted postures that only horrific violence against another human being can cause. A New York Times editor said; “(The photographer is bringing) home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them on our door-steps, he has done something very like it.”

Amid the chaos of the War, a few photographers became famous for telling their own stories of that conflict; not with words but with un-edited scenes of the terrible aftermath of war. Photography became a medium for an important message; war was not the grand adventure often described by Victorian era writers and artists. Until the Civil War, most manuscripts and memoirs about war, and oil paintings by artists of the day, glorified warfare as noble and even romantic. But, the photographer’s new message clearly showed that it was dirty, destructive and deadly; and that powerful message began to sway public opinion.

Photography had evolved in the thirty years before the War but was not yet seen as an art form; it was simply a fascinating new way to record events and portraits of people; although only in black and white. The first useful method, daguerreotypes, only provided a single mirror image, was nearly impossible to reproduce, and was easily damaged or completely ruined. However, by the late 1850s, improvements in the process had evolved to make photography more widespread, durable, practical, and reproducible; but it still required professional skills. And, to many, the work of a fine painter was still preferable to photography as the artist could depict a larger scale and with vivid colors. A few artists even began to add tints to photographs to make them appear more lifelike.

Even by the time of the Civil War, successful photographers had to be a combination of chemist, physicist, authoritarian, and laborer. The process required the mixing of several caustic chemicals, including sulfuric acid and silver nitrate, which was then coated onto a glass plate just moments before the photograph would be taken. The treated plate had to be protected from any light source as it was quickly inserted into the body of the large camera box, then a lens cap was removed for a precise amount of time, depending on the light of day, to allow only the correct amount of light to strike the glass plate and cause the desired chemical reaction. A good photograph also required the subject or subjects to remain absolutely still because, if anyone moved, their motion was captured as a blur. One photographer said, “I am the Captain in my studio and I tolerate no movement.” And, another who took many battlefield photographs said, “I take better images of the dead, they lie still.” The equipment was heavy and bulky which required strength and agility to set up the camera and take it down when finished. The process was also accident prone as the dangerous chemicals could spill, or the glass plate would break which usually rendered the image useless.

As a result of the effort and expense required, relatively few people learned the skill.  But those who did, began to make their mark in society. Mathew Brady became the most recognized master of his craft and built profitable businesses from his studios in New York and Washington DC. One of his most trusted employees was Alexander Gardner who was assigned primarily to the office in Washington DC and began to photograph the leading politicians of the day. At that time, Abraham Lincoln was not yet one of them.

However, in 1859, Lincoln was in New York City to present a political speech at Coopers Union, a small Manhattan college, which he hoped would be reprinted by the Eastern press and expand his recognition in the region. He visited Brady’s studio for a portrait, which he intended to use to introduce himself to the Eastern population. He knew that he had to dispel the common notion that he was a simple “western frontiersman” from Illinois. Brady posed Lincoln standing, in a new suit, which was bought and pressed for the occasion, resting his hand on a bookstand. Lincoln’s political instincts were, as usual, very good and the speech solidified his stature as a serious Republican leader. Brady’s photograph was released at Coopers Union and then reproduced in newspapers, campaign pamphlets, and in new copies of the still popular book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The public now had an image of Abraham Lincoln, looking presidential, confident, and, as Lincoln himself joked, not at all as ugly as some had expected.

But then the Civil War started and Mathew Brady recognized the business potential of quickly delivering photographs of the Generals and soldiers taken at the battle-front to newspapers and periodicals.  But Brady did not initially set out to be a messenger warning of the horrors of war; he just wanted to run a successful business and enjoy the profits which would be created.

To cover the wide territory of the Civil War, Brady had to first make a major financial investment. He designed a portable, but very sturdy, dark room that could safely carry all of the necessary photographic supplies, including chemicals, glass plates, and the camera. He then manufactured over twenty large covered buckboards, which would each be drawn by one or two horses. Finally, he trained other photographers who would drive the wagons and follow the Union armies from battlefield to battlefield. He and his crew of photographers, would, for the first time, bring the scenes of the battle-front to the home-front. Among those roving photographers/assistants were Alexander Gardner, Timothy Sullivan and James Gibson, who all became well known in their own right; but, of those, Gardner certainly became the most prominent.

While some of Brady’s photographers were able to cross into Confederate territory to capture images, and a few Southerners also learned the craft and took historic photographs; far more images were taken from the Union perspective. This disparity was partly because both Brady and Gardner supported the War to restore the Union and were admirers of Abraham Lincoln. However, while Brady was generally quiet about his politics, Gardner was outspoken in his advocacy for the Union, support for its use of overwhelming military force, and his respect for the courage of the individual Union soldier. On the other hand, he frequently described the Confederate forces in less complimentary terms and editors would occasionally include his comments about a battle along with his photographs. As an example, after the battle of Gettysburg, Gardner’s photographs of devastated terrain and Confederate dead were accompanied by his words; “Killed in the frantic efforts to break the steady lines of  patriots, they paid with life the price of their treason, and when the wicked strife was finished, found nameless graves, far from home and kindred.”

Abraham Lincoln appreciated the loyalty of both men and frequently gave each of them permission to take photographs of him not only at the White House, but in battle areas as well.  Lincoln understood that images of him near the battlegrounds with soldiers would “play well” in the communities across the North, where such photographs were featured in local newspapers.

In late 1863, Gardner began to realize that, while he had taken many of the more dramatic pictures of the then two-year Civil War, Mathew Brady was given (or took) most of the credit. Gardner was appreciative of Brady’s mentorship and did not resent the existing arrangement, but was ready to break out on his own. The two men reached an amicable settlement with Brady even transferring ownership of some of Gardner’s photographs; and Gardner then opened his own studio in Washington DC.

Gardner became close to Abraham Lincoln, and several of his photographs of the President have become iconic, including one of the most artful images of Lincoln which captured, in the President’s lined and weary face, the enormous toll that the War had taken on the man.

Collectively, the photographers of the Civil War era provided thousands of images of people and places from that great conflict, however, their contributions were possible because Brady and Gardner, with their extraordinary vision and talent, advanced the profession of photography.

Mathew Brady, by his professional foresight and his willingness to invest heavily in the horse drawn photographic studios and in the training and salaries of the several assistants, was critical to the extensive record we have of the Civil War. And, Alexander Gardner transcended mere images and captured the harsh reality of war with his pioneering images of the tragic loss of life, young men left with terrible wounds, and devastated farms and communities.

And both men, by developing a trusting relationship with Abraham Lincoln, left us with unique and deeply introspective portraits, taken over several years, which let us glimpse Lincoln’s heartfelt humanity and the sad evolving effect the War took on this President.

Contact the author at




Did President Lincoln Offer to Step Aside? (Article 55)

As Charles Allen Thorndike Rice reviewed the numerous replies he had received from Lincoln contemporaries in preparation for his 1885 book “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln,” he noted that, occasionally, there were discrepancies between the recollections of the respondents to the same incident. Usually, he just included the writers’ statements as sent to him, preferring to let the readers sort out which version might be more accurate. However, in one instance, he decided that he must reconcile the differing remembrances of three of the respondents to a unique event in Presidential history.

Prior to the publication of Rice’s book, there had been suggestions that President Lincoln had once offered to resign or to not seek re-election; and would then throw his support behind the politician he had chosen. Biographers in the twenty years after his assassination had offered conflicting testimonies from individuals who claimed to know for certain that he did, and others that he did not, make such an offer. The key word in these speculations was “offer,” and there seemed to be no proof either way as no prominent figure in the political scene at the time had confirmed participation. It was, however, well known that Lincoln had said, at times, that if anyone would come forward who could better unite the Northern citizens and more successfully prosecute the “awful Civil War,” he would yield the office as President. Such an occasional utterance in the face of intense political opposition and a stagnant war effort would be reasonable for any President, but especially one as empathetic to his cause as Abraham Lincoln.

But, did Lincoln take any specific steps to identify, and then encourage, a potential replacement? And, if so, why would he have made such an offer?

In mid-1863, the Republican President was unsure if he would even get his Party’s nomination in 1864, let alone win a national election against a Democratic opponent.  He was concerned that the public in the Northern states seemed to have lost the will to support the fight to restore the Union. There were Democrat and Republican Congressmen, Senators, Governors and newspaper publishers calling for a peace accord with the Confederate government; even if that resulted in two separate nations and the lost opportunity to end slavery. However, Lincoln believed that only a vanquished South, defeated militarily, would ever rejoin the United States; so he wondered if another individual could re-ignite the public’s support for the war effort.

Lincoln was an astute political observer and believed that a new “blended” party would attract both Democrats and Republicans who favored efforts to force the Southern states back into the Union. Then, that new constituency would support a Unionist platform and elect as President a man dedicated to that cause; or at least a man who “said” he was dedicated to that cause.

Of course, any such offers, if made, would have to be kept confidential and could not seem to come directly Lincoln. After all, Lincoln was still the President with obligations as the country’s chief executive and Commander-in-Chief, and the War was still raging.  Also, he was also fearful that such news would be a rally point for the Confederates and such an announcement could boost their morale and likely prolong the War.

Thanks to Mr. Rice’s book, we now know that the President had approached two men, neither a Republican, and notified them that he was willing to not seek re-election and would support their candidacy as the new President; if they would commit to continue the fight for restoration of the Union.  And, the methods Lincoln devised to deliver the offers were indicative of his astute political skills.

One of the men who Mr. Rice interviewed, for his forthcoming book, was Thurlow Weed, a New York based attorney. Mr. Weed had been a political operative for many years before and after the Civil War; usually in the service of William Seward, former New York Governor, who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Weed thrived on political intrigue, especially if the task at hand involved a bit of misdirection and back-door negotiations. One New York newspaper declared that, “Weed is the bullet, fired from long distance by Seward.” When Seward went to Washington DC in 1861 to serve under Lincoln, Weed became a frequent visitor. Weed was excellent at his job because he never sought notoriety for his deeds and he assured there was no trail back to Mr. Seward.

And, on at least two occasions, he undertook assignments at the request of Abraham Lincoln!

Weed’s second assignment for President Lincoln was in 1865 when, by offering patronage and other dubious promises, he was instrumental in securing enough votes to get the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which, if ratified by the states, would abolish slavery. But, Mr. Weed’s first assignment for the President was in 1863, when he was asked to approach two men Lincoln had chosen as possible successors.

When Rice was first working on his book, he visited Thurlow Weed at his home, hopefully to hear some Lincoln stories from the eighty-year-old famous (some say in-famous) politico. Rice found Weed in excellent spirits, under the care of his daughter, and “lucid as a gold piece.” At the time, Weed was categorizing his papers, including the many newspaper accounts of his career, and dictating his recollections to add details. Weed told Rice that he had met Abraham Lincoln on several occasions and would be pleased to provide anecdotes for Rice’s new book. First, Weed spoke of Lincoln’s close relationship, both political and personal, with Secretary of State William Seward, who had introduced Weed to the President. Rice already knew of the friendship between Lincoln and Seward and sought to explore, with Mr. Weed, Lincoln’s relationship with other important figures of the day.

Rice asked Weed’s opinion of General George McClellan, who Lincoln had dismissed in 1862 and who had been Lincoln’s Democratic opponent in the 1864 election. Weed quickly replied, “He might have been President as not!” At first Rice thought that Mr. Weed was referring to the 1864 campaign but, to Rice’s surprise, Weed continued down a different path. “(In 1863) Seward telegraphed me to come to Washington, and he took me right over to the White House saying, ‘The President wants to see you.’

Weed continued, “We found the President deeply distressed. I had never seen him in such a mood. The President said, ‘Everything goes wrong. The rebel armies hold their own; Grant is wandering around in Mississippi; Seymour has carried New York. (Horatio Seymour was a popular Democratic Governor who earlier promoted a peace settlement with the Confederacy, the antithesis of Lincoln’s war policy.) If his party carries many of the Northern states, we shall have to give up the fight, for we can never conquer three-quarters of our countrymen, scattered in front, flank, and rear. Governor Seymour could do more for our cause than any other man living. If he could control his partisans he could give a new impetus to the war. Mr. Weed, I want you to go to Seymour and tell him now is his time. Tell him I do not wish to be President again and that the leader of the party, provided it is in favor of a vigorous war against the rebellion, should have my place. Entreat him to give a true ring in his Annual Message (to the New York Legislature), and if he will, I will gladly step aside and help put him in the executive chair. All we want is the rebellion put down. If there is a man who can push our armies forward one mile further or one hour faster, he is the man who ought to be in my chair.’

Then Weed went on, “I visited Governor Seymour and delivered my commission from Lincoln. When I left him it was understood that his message would breathe an earnest Union spirit, praising the soldiers and calling for more, and omitting the usual criticisms of the President’s policies. I forwarded this expectation to the President. Judge my disappointment and chagrin when Seymour’s message came out- a document calculated to aid the enemy.

This attempt to enlist the leader of the Democratic party having failed, Lincoln authorized me to make the same overture to McClellan. Lincoln said, ‘Tell the General that we only wish the success of our armies and that if he will come forward at the head of a (new) Union-Democratic party, and through that means, push forward the Union cause, I will gladly step aside and do all I can to secure his election in 1864.’

Weed continued, “I opened negotiation through Mr. Barlow, McClellan’s next (best) friend, who shortly afterward told me he had seen him (the General) and secured his acquiescence, saying ‘Mac is eager to do all he can do to put down the rebellion.’ I then suggested a great Union-Democratic meeting in Union Square at which McClellan should preside and this was agreed to by both Barlow and McClellan. I drew up some memoranda of principles to set forth on the occasion and set the meeting for Monday, June 6 (1863). Once more there seemed to be a promise of ending the war by organizing a great independent Union Democratic party under McClellan. On the eve of the meeting I received a formal letter from McClellan declining to preside, without giving any reason. If he had presided at that war-meeting, nothing but death, could have kept him from being elected President in 1864.”

Rice was astounded by the revelations that Lincoln had offered these two different men a similar path to the Presidency. Rice was aware that there had been rumors that Lincoln had possibly made such proposals but, to his knowledge, no politician had ever come forward to claim they were the person who had been approached by the President.  However, Rice was an experienced reporter and could tell by Weed’s mannerisms that he believed his recollections were factual. On the other hand, Rice wondered if the tale was true or was it the muddled thoughts of an elderly man? So, Rice made appointments with the two men Weed mentioned as potential Lincoln replacements; Seymour and McClellan.

In his meeting with McClellan, the former General and former Presidential candidate said, “No such events ever occurred. Mr. Weed is a good old man but he has forgotten. Mr. Lincoln never offered me the Presidency in any contingency and I never declined to preside at a war-meeting. I am sure I never wrote to Mr. Weed in my life.” Rice also called on Mr. Barlow, who Weed said was the messenger; and, Barlow said he could recall no such episode.  Rice then returned to Weed’s home and relayed the conversations with McClellan and Barlow. Weed laughed and said, “The General has forgotten, has he.” Mr. Weed’s daughter then presented the twenty-year old letter from McClellan to Mr. Weed in which the General had written, “I have determined to decline the compliment of presiding over the proposed meeting of Monday next.” (In the letter, McClellan did offer vociferous support for the Union and the military efforts.)

Thurlow Weed, who had spent his political life in the shadows, leaving no paper trail, had saved, at least, this one letter.

Rice made a second appointment with McClellan and showed him the letter. McClellan spent a few minutes looking at the document and finally said, “Well, that is my writing. I wrote that and had forgotten about it.” And with that, one historical puzzle was solved!

Next, Mr. Rice visited former Governor Seymour who, unlike McClellan, readily confirmed Mr. Weed’s account. In fact, Seymour said that years earlier he had once visited with Weed and they agreed as to the general sequence of events, including Seymour’s unexpected change of heart. Seymour told Rice that he changed his mind when he realized that a forceful speech to continue the Lincoln policies would have cost him too much of his support in New York. When Rice said that Weed still believed he could have become President, Seymour replied, “Well it isn’t much matter. I was not in good health and it might have killed me. It is a hard laborious, thankless office and it is just as well as it is.” However, while he passed on the opportunity to become Lincoln’s replacement in 1864, Governor Seymour was evidently in good enough health by 1868 to be the Democratic nominee for President, losing to the Republican candidate, former Union General, Ulysses S. Grant.

But, Mr. Rice now had his last piece of the 1863 puzzle. Thurlow Weed had indeed been Abraham Lincoln’s emissary for his offer to step aside and support either Seymour or McClellan as President of the United States in the 1864 election.

So how did Lincoln go from that level of despair in the summer of 1863, when he thought he could not even win his Republican Party’s nomination for a second term, to a landslide re-election in 1864? Simply put, the tides turned! He found his perfect General in Ulysses S. Grant, the Union began to win more victories, the Confederate armies began to weaken through attrition, and the Southern economy began to collapse while the Northern economy surged.  It was a perfect storm against the Confederacy, but certainly advantageous for the re-election chances of Abraham Lincoln.

However, we now know that, in 1863, Lincoln’s overtures to Seymour and McClellan were sincere, as he placed his country ahead of his own political ambitions.

Isn’t that a unique concept for a politician!

Contact the author at