Alexander Gardner: The Man Who Captured the Civil War

Alexander Gardner was a photographer who captured the United States during its greatest struggle. His pictures told stories of the Civil War and the American West.

Apr 3, 2024By Aaron Stoyack, BA History, Museum Studies Minor

alexander gardner captured civil war


Much of Alexander Gardner’s work has historically been overshadowed and even ascribed to his former employer, Matthew Brady. But Gardner may have left more significant contributions to America’s history and collective memory. Gardner photographed the horrors of war, exposing the public to its nature. His relationship with Abraham Lincoln enhanced the President’s achievements in life and legacy in death. Gardner later documented the American West undergoing a transitionary period filled with uncertainty.


Alexander Gardner’s Life Before Photography

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Portrait of Robert Owen by W.H. Brooke. Source: National Museum of Wales, Cardiff


Alexander Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland, on October 21, 1821. His family moved to Glasgow when Alexander was still young, and his father died soon thereafter. Alexander proved to be an eager learner, demonstrating proficiency in astronomy, chemistry, and photography. Despite his studiousness, he dropped out of school at fourteen and worked as an apprentice jeweler for seven years.


Gardner admired the New Harmony community in Indiana, a socialist-inspired commune founded by Robert Owen and Fanny Wright. Owen was a Welsh Socialist who began the cooperative movement, envisioning self-sufficient communes where workers collectively owned the operations in which they labored. In 1850, Alexander and his brother James traveled to the United States to purchase land in Iowa for a collective society of their own.


After the siblings secured their property, Alexander returned home to solicit donations and members. He appropriated funds to purchase the Glasgow Sentinel, a weekly newspaper. Gardner’s political editorials galvanized the publication, which became Glasgow’s second most circulated paper within three months.

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How Gardner Became a Photographer

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M.B. Brady at the World’s Fair in London, ca. 1853. Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


Gardner visited London’s Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. This was the first time many visitors saw a photograph in person. For Alexander, it was his first introduction to Mathew Brady’s renowned images, which ignited his passion for the emerging art form. He developed a strong interest in photography, reviewing exhibits in the Glasgow Sentinel and taking pictures of his own. By 1852, Gardner stepped back from the paper, pursuing his newfound obsession instead.


In 1856, Gardner immigrated to America with his mother, his wife Margaret, and their two children. They first went to the Iowa commune, soon discovering that some residents had tuberculosis, and Alexander’s sister, Jesse, perished from the affliction. Gardner then moved to New York, where he met his idol, Brady, for whom he began working.


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Portrait of Alexander Gardner, ca. 1863. Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


Brady admired Gardner’s work with the challenging wet-plate negative technique. This process required a glass plate covered in collodion to be treated in silver nitrate. When ready, it was immediately placed into a camera to take the picture while the plate was still wet. Practitioners needed access to chemicals, a portable darkroom, and other equipment to capture and process the image. Yet it created more detailed pictures with an exposure time of only a few seconds, gradually eclipsing the older, slower daguerreotype method.


During Gardner’s early years of employment, he may have invented “imperial prints,” large 21-by-17-inch photographs magnified with coloring by hand. Prominent subjects commissioning their portraits in this style paid between fifty and five hundred dollars. Over time, Brady’s eyesight deteriorated, and in 1858, he selected Gardner to manage his gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC.


Early Photography of the Civil War

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[Private William B. Haberlin of Battery B, Pennsylvania Light Artillery in uniform with shoulder scales and great coat] ca. 1861-1864. Source: Library of Congress

Demand for photography boomed when the Civil War broke out as deploying servicemen sought portraits to give to their loved ones. Relatives of a soldier marching to an uncertain fate desired an authentic memento they could cherish. Quick and inexpensive photography, such as the wet-plate negative style used by Gardner, met the new mass market.


Matthew Brady observed the First Battle of Bull Run and decided to photograph the war itself. Gardner’s connection to Allen Pinkerton, director of the intelligence agency that became the Secret Service, enabled the proposal of this idea to Abraham Lincoln, who agreed.


Brady sent Gardner and several other employees across the country, each working with a personal darkroom to process their images quickly. The team meticulously photographed Union camps and the outcome of battles. By November, Gardner became an honorary captain on General George McClellan’s staff.


What Photography Meant in the Civil War

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Antietam, Maryland. Field where Sumner’s corps charged. Bodies of Confederate in front of the Dunker church by Alexander Gardner, 1862. Source: Library of Congress


Gardner’s captainship provided him the opportunity to document the bloody aftermath of Antietam. Fought on September 19, 1862, Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history. Two days later, Gardner entered the field and captured some of the most iconic wartime images ever taken. Over the course of two visits, he took roughly 120 images of the battlefield. Brady’s New York gallery exhibited over seventy of Gardner’s images.


Through the new medium of photography, the American public was first introduced to the carnage of battle. Readers thousands of miles away could notice every gruesome detail in astonishing clarity. The New York Times wrote of Gardner’s work at the New York Exposition: “It is a thunderbolt that will crash into some brain.”


As practitioners of an art form, photographers acted as journalists, capturing and sharing subjects they chose, often with an unspoken message behind them. The North and South used their images for propaganda and for observation of enemy positions to develop wartime strategy.


Gardner and Brady Go Separate Ways

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Title Page Lithograph of Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book Of The War by A.R. Ward, 1866. Source: Library of Congress


A rift arose between Gardner and his employer. Brady credited all his team’s images as Brady & Co. As such, Gardner received little public recognition for his contributions. Brady was also in debt and perhaps unable to pay his workers. By the end of 1862, Gardner left Brady’s studio. He was already an established artist with influential connections in political and military circles. In 1863, he began his own enterprise in Washington DC, with his brother James and other former Brady photographers.


Gardner traveled with the Army of the Potomac and documented several other important Civil War battles, such as Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the siege of Petersburg. He mainly worked alone, only collaborating with a team for the massive engagements of Antietam and Gettysburg. Many of his works showcased the scale and violence of the conflict. When not on the battlefield, he took portraits of civilians, soldiers, and politicians in the nation’s capital.


Gardner and his team published a two-volume book entitled Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War in 1866. It included one hundred photographs and detailed, poetic descriptions of each. Eleven photographers contributed to the book, and Gardner credited each one. He took only sixteen of the images himself but used his background as an editor to construct the narrative.


Pictures of President Abraham Lincoln

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[Abraham Lincoln, three-quarter length portrait, seated and holding his spectacles and a pencil] by Alexander Gardner, 1865. Source: Library of Congress

Gardner took thirty-eight pictures of Lincoln, more than any other photographer, as portraits, in the field and at both inaugurations. The portraits functioned to promote the president’s national image and reelection campaign. Lincoln visited Gardner’s gallery twice and took an interest in the methodology of camera operation. Gardner’s images of Lincoln, captured from 1861 to 1865, demonstrate the President’s involvement in military affairs and the stress exerted upon him over the course of the war.


One of Gardner’s works could be the last image taken of the president, just five days before his assassination. Gardner also photographed the seven people charged with plotting to kill Lincoln, as well as the presidential funeral. He was the only photographer permitted to record the execution of the four conspirators sentenced to death on July 7th, 1865.


Gardner’s Life After the War

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Indian church at Isletta, New Mexico, on the Rio Grande, below Albuquerque, 871 miles west of Missouri River by Alexander Gardner, ca. 1867. Source: Boston Public Library


Gardner became the photographer of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1867. He met with an expedition party in St. Louis, charting the future route of the track, and accompanied them from 1867 to 1868. The band ventured through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, finishing in San Francisco. He published a series of 127 photos the following year in Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (Route of the 35th Parallel). These images captured the construction of the railroad in Kansas, native Indigenous groups, and other early images of the American West.


Gardner photographed Native American representatives visiting Washington DC in 1866. The government also hired him to document the 1868 peace conference in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Gardner broke from the railroad expedition to travel by rail to the site. During these sessions, Gardner took pictures of members from the Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Sac and Fox, Iowa, and other tribes.


Gardner did the same with federal political figures, such as William T. Sherman. Sherman was a Union general during the Civil War and belonged to the Peace Commission, established in 1867, to broker treaties with American Indian Plains groups. Gardner published these pictures in another book, Scenes of Indian Country. His success won him an appointment as the official photographer of the Office of Indian Affairs in 1872.


Gardner established an insurance company in 1871. He also photographed criminals for the police of Washington DC. He spent his later years aiding charities furnishing relief to widows, children, and the impoverished. Alexander Gardner passed away on December 10, 1882, in Washington DC.


Alexander Gardner’s Controversy and Legacy

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Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg by Alexander Gardner, 1863. Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York


One Gettysburg photo, Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, shows a dead Confederate soldier who seems to be depicted elsewhere in A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep. Most historians acknowledge the likely possibility that Gardner or a member of his team moved the body for another shot. This deception appears to be the only example of altering a shot across his career. Some consider the absence of corpses in certain terrain shots unusual, but these often belong to a series of images taken after the removal of the dead had already begun.


As an artist and editor, Gardner made conscious decisions not only in the images he captured but in which ones he published and how. Democracy and the triumph of the working class are prominent themes throughout the book.


Gardner’s body of work holds value not only in advancing the art and science of photography but also in historical memory. His images left a lasting impact on how citizens experience war, while the subjects and their portrayal define how the conflict is remembered. Gardner’s pictures of Lincoln helped facilitate Lincoln’s enshrinement as the face of a nation during the conflict and an American hero thereafter. Photographs of the West captured a transition period as expansion brought the Federal government, private corporations, and citizens of all classes into contact and conflict with Indigenous groups. These images and their creator deserve recognition as foundational elements of mid-1800s America.

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By Aaron StoyackBA History, Museum Studies MinorAaron is a historian, museum specialist, and writer. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from West Chester University with a BA in History. Aaron served on local commissions and presented at regional and national public history and education conferences. He enjoys researching and interpreting all aspects of history, from local to global scale.