The Image of War
By Garry Adelman
September 2008 Civil War News - Preservation News

The Stone Wall at Fredericksburg. The Shirley House at Vicksburg. Battery Robinett at Corinth. The Sunken Road at Antietam. Would these sites be so well-known without the iconic images recorded there?

Without Civil War photography, would they have even been preserved in the first place?

It might seem odd at first to link Civil War imagery with battlefield preservation but the two are irrevocably connected in every step of the preservation cycle. From research to education to fundraising, restoration and interpretation, Civil War imagery plays a key role in getting battlefield land preserved and seen.

Consider Gettysburg’s Rose Farm — site of the largest grouping of Civil War dead and the most negatives exposed on a single grouping of bodies. Until photohistorian William A. Frassanito pinpointed the location of the Alexander Gardner images, this portion of the Rose Farm was seldom visited and rarely mentioned by Gettysburg guides and rangers.

Today, armed with the primary documentation provided by the imagery, the land and the surrounding area has been saved, restored, and wayside exhibits have been erected using the photos.

Such preservation movements begin when a meaningful connection is made between people and battlefields. 

As a battlefield guide, no matter how many poignant stories I try to tell or how many facts I spit out, my visitors make the greatest connections with the Civil War through the combination of imagery and battlefields. 

When people realize that they are standing in front of a rock at which a dead soldier was photographed, some gasp, others go silent, and still others, myself included, feel compelled to lie down in the spot where the soldier laid dead so long ago.

No matter the reaction, imagery can powerfully heighten peoples’ connection with the past. 

“One of the primary reasons why people are drawn to the Civil War is the photographs of that long ago conflict,” says Jim Campi, Policy and Communications Director for the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT).

“Photos bring the conflict to life – in a way that the paintings and woodcuts of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars cannot.  They underscore the need to protect the hallowed places where these simple glass plates were transformed into haunting photographs.” 

When historic sites are threatened, imagery plays a key role in helping to preserve them. Compare the 1860s image of the monument to Hazen’s Brigade at Stone’s River with one taken today showing industry towering over the graves of the fallen.

Ever tried to line up the numerous images taken at Petersburg’s Fort Mahone? Instead of the muddy trenches containing dead soldiers, you are greeted with a parking lot and stores.

Using this “then & now” approach is not only helpful in raising awareness about a threatened or compromised site, it can help to save it.

“Battlefield photographs have greatly enhanced the emotional impact and effectiveness of our various Web-based preservation appeals,” says CWPT Director of Internet Strategy and Development Rob Shenk.  

“By seeing the ground in question, one is transported to that very place.  Each photo, from the 19th century up through the 21st, is like a stepping stone that helps to build an important connection with those seeking to save our threatened Civil War battlefields.”

Once a site is preserved, Civil War imagery comes to the fore once again. When the NPS sought to restore historic tree lines at Gettysburg, Alexander Gardner’s images of the Slaughter Pen (and the research conducted with them) proved more useful and accurate than any of the numerous period maps available.

As William Frassanito has demonstrated at the Slaughter Pen and numerous other places, Civil War images provide a primary source document like no other. Such use of imagery has recently facilitated an unparalleled restoration of the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. 

“Photographs are invaluable in helping to recapture or restore historic landscapes,” says Eric Mink, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s Cultural Resources Manager. “They provide a snapshot at a specific time — a document attesting to the numerous attributes of a particular site.”

Imagery also plays a key role in interpreting saved sites. Aside from the obvious use of period imagery at almost every Civil War site, how many people would visit the “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” at Devil’s Den if there were no photos taken there in 1863?

Would people pick their way down part of Lookout Mountain to Roper’s Rock had not U.S. Grant been photographed nearby?

So, Civil War imagery can generate interest, raise funds, aid in restoring, and help to interpret Civil War sites.  And the timing for all these uses has never been better — photographic research now coincides with previously unimaginable digital capabilities.

The Library of Congress has revolutionized the way historians use Civil War pictures. With more than 7,200 Civil War photographs, not to mention more than 2,000 Civil War documentary drawings, available free in high-resolution download, the Library of Congress’ on-line catalog, as well as the Web capabilities of other institutions, allows for easier file sharing, far greater image enlargement, and the easy use and manipulation of Civil War photos and drawings. 

These digital and Web advancements alone have already resulted in numerous discoveries such as detecting real Civil War battle scenes, determining the location of the cemetery at Drewry’s Bluff, the identification of a view of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, the recognition of soldiers using a four-person stereo viewer in Atlanta, and the “Devil” graffiti on Robert E. Lee’s Richmond home.

The list goes on and on and continues to grow as more researchers start to use high resolution imagery to its full extent. 

These capabilities are best put to use with the easier digital capabilities of assembling 3-D imagery. Most Civil War documentary images were recorded in 3-D and the research potential of using a 3-D image, as opposed to a flat 2-D image, is remarkable.

All these resources, however, have not reduced the volume of misuse and inaccuracies in specific Civil War photographs and captions.  A lot more work needs to be done to sort out numerous issues and solve scores of remaining Civil War photo mysteries. 

The Center for Civil War Photography’s goal is to assemble every documentary Civil War photograph into a database for the collective use of researchers.

As we work to complete this lofty goal, we share information and study the topic in our newsletter, Battlefield Photographer, and our annual seminar, The Image of War. For more information, please visit

Most importantly, visit the Library of Congress and the National Archives Web sites, browse through a set of Francis T. Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War, or just open your favorite Civil War books and start using the pictures. You are sure to enjoy yourself and who knows? You just may make a key discovery yourself!


Garry Adelman is the author of numerous books and articles concerning the Civil War and its photographic coverage. He is the vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography, a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg and works full time as a historian for History Associates Incorporated in Rockville, Md., where he manages several Civil War-related projects.