The Civil War was a defining moment in American history, testing the strength of a young nation as it nearly split apart. It also occurred during the early days of photography, some twenty years after the introduction of the field. The idea of using photos to chronicle major events, like a war, was still relatively new and many of the photos taken of Civil War battlefields and soldiers can be seen as some of the first attempts at photojournalism. Seeing these pictures of the Civil War provides a whole different perspective than a history book, giving us a way to see how things really were then and appreciate how long we’ve come since.
Click through to see some humbling moments from our nation’s greatest internal conflict — Number 3, which showcases the dead on the field of Gettysburg, is particularly sobering.
14. Amputation at Gettysburg
Given that it was the most costly battle in U.S. history, with approximately 50,000 casualties on both sides, it’s no surprise that there would have been a lot of amputations happening at Gettysburg. Given the generally unclean operating conditions that were present in most field hospitals, an amputation was often the least of the worries of a soldier as various diseases and infections had a good chance of killing them even after they’d started to heal.
13. Battle Of Antietam
The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history, fought near a church near Sharpsburg, Maryland. That one day of fighting would leave over 22,000 soldiers dead, injured, or missing and prove enough of a victory that Lincoln would feel confident enough to make the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the course of the war.
12. Devil’s Den
This photo was taken at Devil’s Den, a site of fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg. Despite the bloody history that the site is best known for, the area is now a popular spot to hike around. From peaceful town to bloody battle site to hiking destination all in 150 years.
11. Ford’s Theater
Ford’s Theater would go down in history as the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth during the final days of the Civil War. The theater would close down for 100 years before reopening in the 1960s. Once it reopened, the interior was eerily well-preserved throughout the years.
10. Cumberland Landing
This picture was taken in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, after the Union moved a huge number of troops into the area to launch an attack on the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Soldiers set up temporary housing across numerous acres of land. Life in the camps was often miserable, with the elements wreaking havoc on the soldiers.
9. Brompton Oak
During a battle nears Spotsylvania, this plantation in Brompton was used as a field hospital for wounded soldiers. As evidenced by the many men laying around injured in the picture, the nearby battle was deadly, with many local buildings still standing from the period still bearing bullet holes from the stray bullets.
8. Dead At Chancellorsville
The Battle of Chancellorsville was known as “Lee’s Perfect Battle” because of the Confederate victory in the face of overwhelming Union forces. Still, the victory didn’t come easy since the Confederate Army suffered heavy losses and General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire during the campaign.
7. Confederate Prisoners
During the Civil War, over 400,000 soldiers were taken prisoner after battle. Early in the war, they were often immediately paroled, but that system broke down later in the war and led to a large number of soldiers being sent to prison camps. Over 12% of those in Union prisons died, while over 15% of those in Confederate prisons died there.
6. Prisoner of War
As slide 7 showed, there were a lot of prisoners of war. Some of the less fortunate, but still living, prisoners ended up looking like this guy. A Union soldier released from the Belle Isle prison camp in Virginia, this man was so emaciated and starved that he could barely walk.
5. Dead Gathered For Burial
Slide 13 has already shown us that the Battle of Antietam was an especially bloody and gruesome moment in the war. To put it in a better light is this picture of a group of dead soldiers, lined up like sandbags as they get ready to bury all of them.
4. Dead Confederate Sharpshooter
While the guns of the period weren’t the most accurate, the introduction of a repeating rifle and the first telescopic sights led to efficient uses of sharpshooters during the Civil War. A good sharpshooter could make a huge difference in battle, being key in taking out targets of importance, like officers and NCOs, causing confusion among the enemy.
3. Dead at Gettysburg
We already know Gettysburg was a big, bloody battle and a huge turning point in the war. Up to 50,000 soldiers on both sides died during the three-day battle, making it the bloodiest battle in US history. While they may have fought on different sides in life, there was a distinction between where the Union and Confederate dead lay.
2. Entrenched Union Soldiers
Given the rapid advancement of firepower during the Civil War, but the rather slow progress of mobility during battle, trenches played a big role in multiple Civil War battles. The trenches provided more cover from the enemy’s bullets and artillery and played key parts in the battles around Fredericksburg and Petersburg.
1. Location Of Lee’s Surrender
In the final days of the Civil War, things were looking grim for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was making one final attempt to keep things alive when they were cut off by the Union at Appomattox Courthouse. Seeing the battle wasn’t likely won, Lee surrendered. The documents were signed in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house, pictured above. Lee’s surrender would lead to the surrender of most of the South in coming days.
The Civil War was a bloody period in our nation’s history and the relatively new field of photography made sure that the whole thing was documented as best as possible for later generations. While many of the photos from the period are lost to time, the ones that survive really help to put the entire war in perspective, showing us the dramatic loss of life and the often horrible conditions that went along with the war. If there are any great photos that we missed in the article, be sure to let us know about them in the comments!