Rare Civil War photos capture America’s greatest war
In 1943 the Library of Congress purchased a collection of over 7,000 of rare Civil War photographs for archival purposes, many of which recently became digitally available on their website. This is a collection of some of our favorites, from the first war ever captured by photographs.
1. Enemies in war, brothers in arms
This Union soldier has happened upon a Confederate soldier in an abandoned camp. He was probably too wounded to move and was left behind. The Civil War was devastating in all the casualties it produced, and those who were wounded were often never the same.
There were two soldiers who each lost a leg while serving with Stonewall Jackson in the Second Battle of Manassas and the Battle of the Wilderness, respectively. One man lost his left leg, while the other lost his right. When their kids were married to each other years later, they met every year to buy one pair of shoes that they shared. Somehow, they had the same shoe size.
Next: The ultimate insult
2. He shouldn’t have said that…
The man sitting in the middle is General John Sedgewick. He received the dubious distinction of being the most highly ranked Union soldier to be killed during the Civil War. General Ulysses S. Grant would say losing him was, “greater than the loss of a whole division of troops.”
General Sedgewick was indeed a good commander, but the way he went out was decidedly less than spectacular and is borderline comedy. Upon seeing some of his men taking cover from long range-rifle fire, his last words before he was shot in the face will live in infamy: “Stand up. They couldn’t shoot an elephant from this distance!”
Next: Bring out the big guns
3. A 200 pounder
This 200-pound gun was guarding Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor and there were 13 more just like it. Fort Wagner has a decidedly storied past, as it was the setting of a battle that involved the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment. You might know them as the first colored unit in the US Army.
During the Second Assault of Fort Wagner, Union soldiers were able to breech the walls, but a desperate hand-to-hand fight inside the fort saw the Union army get driven back. This gun stayed in place until July 1863, when constant shelling from Union ships forced Confederate soldiers to evacuate.
Next: The first shots fired
4. The first bombardment of the war was heavy
Fort Wagner shared Charleston Harbor with the site of the first action in the Civil War, which happened on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter. The rubble at the bottom of this photo should give an indication of what happened. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, which it did a full six months before the Civil War began.
In that time, both sides knew the situation was a powder keg, but were waiting for a spark. When Fort Sumter ran low on supplies, President Lincoln ordered it reinforced. The South didn’t like that, since the fort was in their harbor, and even though no one was killed during the bombardment, Fort Sumter surrendered.
Next: More cannon balls than ants
5. Count the cannon balls
While Fort Sumter was the setting of the first battle of the Civil War, this is the site of Richmond, Virginia at the wars conclusion. Richmond would serve as the capital to the Confederacy, which had its demise in as similar fashion as most southern cities.
You know a bombardment is bad when cannon balls are stacked neater than bricks. Then look at the other cannon balls that are sitting idle after being hurled through the air at hundreds of miles an hour. With all these balls of hot metal flying through the air, you can bet that the destruction was enormous. We’ll visit Richmond again at the end of our discussion and show you what was left.
Next: A familiar face
6. A fist fight in a gun fight
The below photograph shows positions held around Fredericksberg, Virginia, which was the gateway to Richmond. Once these defenses were defeated, Richmond was a sitting duck. When General Grant attacked in 1864, the Battle of the Wilderness ensued, and a peculiar thing happened on the battlefield.
During the battle, a Union soldier took cover in a gully only to find there was a Confederate soldier already in it. They started arguing about who should surrender, and eventually they started to fist fight. According to reports, the entire battle around them stopped until they finished. When the Confederate soldier won the fight by belting the Union fighter, the Union soldier agreed that he should surrender.
Next: We can’t make this stuff up!
7. You’ve got to be kidding me
The photo below is all that remains of the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle. Its smokestack was riddled with bullets in a battle with Union ships, but it managed to sink two ships at the cost of losing just one man (one curious sailor opened a hatch to watch the battle. It was the last thing he saw).
The Albemarle didn’t succeed in sinking the Union ship Miami, but it did manage to do a number on its Captain. Captain Fusser of the Miami was tired of his ship’s cannon balls bouncing off the iron hull of the Albemarle, so he ordered his crew to light a ten second fuse. It ended up being his last order, because one shell bounced off the Albmarle and landed at Captain Fusser’s feet before it exploded.
Next: Balloons! Not the birthday kind
8. Smart man, bad plan
The observation balloon being fueled with hydrogen gas below is called the Intrepid, and was the brainchild of inventor Thaddeus Lowe. Air balloons had been around for decades by the time the Civil War started, and Lowe was determined to have them serve for the Union cause.
This was a new concept in North America, and to sell the idea, Lowe came up with a dimwitted plan to fly to Washington DC and land on the White House lawn. Instead, he caught a “rebel” wind and ended up landing in enemy territory. After being arrested and escaping from being lynched, Lowe returned to Washington and demonstrated the balloons advantages as an observation platform.
Next: Civil War necktie
9. I’ll go ahead and take credit for that…
The photograph below was taken by Andrew Russell, and then was quite incorrectly published as “Sherman’s Neckties” in reference to the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. It looks benign, but this is the method Southerners would use to wreck Union railroad lines.
The method used the ties as fuel, and the fire would produce high heat against the steel. When it was hot enough, soldiers on each side would twist the metal as much as they could, making it impossible to be used for railroad tracks. The name “Sherman’s Neckties” ended up sticking, because the Union general thought the tactic was so effective, he stole it.
10. So close, yet so far away
If this army looks complacent, that’s because they are. After two unsuccessful attempts to take Richmond in the war’s opening months, the Union army just watched their neighbors to the South until they could be weakened enough to invade. It took over three years before the Union launched a successful campaign in the South. Until then, these soldiers were probably twiddling their thumbs.
Next: Lincoln is almost shot
11. The President came under fire during battle
Just in case he wasn’t the tallest man in the photo, Abraham Lincoln brought his top hat to make it official. Being tall was not an advantage in the Civil War, and his height nearly cost him his life on a Civil War battlefield in 1864.
As the legend goes, Lincoln was visiting the lines during a Union army attack on Fort Stevens. Confederate rifle fire started coming in dangerously close, and reportedly, future Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes (who was a Colonel at the time) barked at the president and said, “Get down you fool!” Lincoln took cover, and escaped being killed on that day.
Next: The reason we have all of these photographs
12. Let no good deed go unpunished
The man sitting in the middle is Matthew Harrison Brady, who is considered the inventor of photojournalism, and also the reason why we have such a vast collection of Civil War photographs. Brady came up with his finances to create the legendary collection that enabled audiences to experience warfare like never before.
Brady put up nearly $100,000 of his own money to finance the project. He would live to regret it. During the war, people were eager to see his work, but afterwards the country was devastated, no one was interested his collection. He eventually sold it to Congress for a fraction of the price. He died in 1895, deeply in debt.
Next: The first ironclad ships
13. Clash of the ironclads changed naval warfare
This is the deck and crew of the USS Monitor, which arrived on the Civil War battlefield just in time to save the Union fleet. The Confederacy had just commissioned the CSS Virginia, formerly named the Merrimack, when the two met in the Chesapeake Bay on March 9, 1862.
The Monitor has a decidedly different design, requiring 40 new patents, and rising just 18 inches above the waterline. Behind the men, is a gun turret that housed two 11-inch guns. The battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack changed naval warfare forever with the introduction of armored ships, but each ship was so well made, the battle ended in a draw.
Next: The first time the Merrimack sank
14. The Merrimack was originally sunk
When the Civil War started, the CSS Virginia was the USS Merrimack, which was once the jewel in the United States Navy. The Union would surely have loved to have the ship, but it was in Norfolk Naval Yard at the war’s outset, and thus fell into Confederate hands.
Of course, savvy Union sailors ended up sinking the ship while it was in harbor, but after a matter of weeks, the Confederacy hired men to salvage the ship. Norfolk was an important port for the Confederacy, but the Union Navy had an extreme numerical advantage and imposed a blockade that hampered Confederate efforts at sea during the entirety of the war.
Next: General Grant pulls off a move
15. A brilliant move by Grant
This innocent looking pontoon bridge was actually used by General Grant to pull off a wicked flanking maneuver against the Confederates defending Richmond. This was the longest, most impressive pontoon bridge of the war. Spanning the James River, General Grant said it was, “two thousand feet wide and eighty-four feet deep at the point of crossing.”
Infantry, followed by wagons, then cattle, and finally a rear guard cavalry detachment crossed the bridge and caught the Confederates by surprise. The bridge was built on June 14th 1864, and Grant’s cavalry was able to ride ahead the very next day causing the Confederate advanced guard to flee.
Next: Commander of Union cavalry
16. Lee’s nemesis (though he has many)
General Sheridan is no doubt a controversial figure in the history of warfare, and people in the South will probably never forget “the Burning” he conducted in the Shenandoah Valley. However, Sheridan was also a skilled commander who caused major problems for the Confederate army.
Sheridan was given command of the Union cavalry, and when he crossed the pontoon bridge over the James River, it was he who caused the Confederates to surrender (though it took considerable time). He also went on to capture a quarter of Robert E. Lee’s men, and then cut off Lee’s retreat at Appomattox, which was the nail in the coffin for the Confederacy.
Next: A “dictator,” but not the kind you think
17. Ladies and gentlemen, meet “Dictator”
The United States government is not a fan of totalitarianism, but in wartime, that won’t stop them from gaining help from “Dictator.” The Dictator was so big that it had to transported via railroad, as a special flattened car carried the 17,000 pound gun.
You’ve seen some photos of hallowed out buildings in Richmond already (more are coming, sorry Richmond), and you can thank Dictator for that. Dictator fired a 13 inch shell that weighed 218 pounds at distances up to and including 2.5 miles. Dictator was fired many times between 1863 and 1865, and each time, the flat car is said to have recoiled 10 to 12 feet.
Next: From Dictator to Ambassadors
18. The Confederacy was looking for allies
The Civil War was fought on American soil by mainly Americans, so what would a bunch of European diplomats be doing hanging out by a waterfall in New York? The answer lies in the fact that the Confederacy was making inroads with the English, and to some extent the French, to intervene in the war on their behalf.
This 1863 photograph shows then Secretary of State William Seward relaxing with the Ambassadors of Sweden, Italy, Nicaragua, France, Great Britain, Russia, and some others. It was important to keep good relationships with these countries to keep it just an American war, and President Lincoln successfully managed that effort.
Next: One heck of a beard
19. Great beard, bad commander
General Ambrose Burnside will go down as having the most awesome beard of the Civil War, but the one-time commander of the Army of the Potomac had a less than awesome time leading men into battle. President Lincoln’s hand-picked man for the job of commanding the army tasked with defeating the South was General George McClellan, but they got along less than famously.
When General McClellan proved a far too cautious commander for President Lincoln, he was replaced with General Burnside. The problem was that Burnside didn’t want the job. He proceeded to make several headlong assaults against Lee’s forces in Fredericksberg, and was repulsed at great cost. After the battle, President Lincoln accepted his resignation, after only three months on the job.
Next: Confederates dig in
20. Custer, before he was Custer
His face might not be familiar in this photograph, but you know the man sitting on the right. His name is George Armstrong Custer, of fame from the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Custer may have led his men to their doom in that battle, but in the Civil War, he was one of the most decorated and well-known soldiers in the country.
To the left is the less familiar face of a Confederate officer named John “Gimlet” W. Lea, who was a classmate of Custer’s at West Point. At the Battle of Williamsburg, Custer spotted Lea on the ground wounded, and even though they were opposite sides, Custer carried Lea to a nearby field hospital. Custer insisted on having his photo taken with his prisoner, which was typical of his boastful style.
Next: The Mac Daddy of all battles
21. Why Gettysburg?
Gettysburg was a decidedly odd setting for the biggest battle in North American history, as most battles in the Civil War happened in Southern states. But General Lee wanted to take the war to the Union, and found their army in the little crossroads town in southern Pennsylvania.
One persistent myth about Gettysburg is that the battle initially started because the Confederates were looking for shoes. They were actually looking for trouble, and with 10 roads going in and out of the town, it was a likely place for them to meet up. The three day battle that unfolded turned out to be the deadiest in American history.
Next: The man who won Gettysburg
22. Just three days on the job when the battle happened
General Burnside lasted three months as the commander of the Army of the Potomac, followed by General Hooker who lasted six months, and then General Meade (pictured below) who lasted about a year. None of his predecessors had much success against the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Lee, but General Meade was in command during the most decisive battle of the war.
General Meade was three days into his tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac when Lee’s army arrived at Gettysburg. Despite heavy casualties, Meade’s marshaling of his forces on the first day of battle proved invaluable at the battle’s conclusion. Not bad for one week on the job.
Next: The spot where it went down
23. Little Round Top saved the Union army
The photograph below is of Little Round Top, and if that sounds familiar, it’s because this is where the Union army almost got rolled up into a carpet and thrown into a river. This photo was taken after two days of desperate fighting left the landscape almost unrecognizable.
Little Round Top was held in the end thanks to some extremely heroic fighting by the Union army. Of course, it saved the Union army from defeat, but it also had another significant impact. Upon hearing the news of the defeat at Little Round, Top General Lee made the hasty, ill-advised decision that led to Pickett’s Charge.
Next: Pickett’s Charge
24. The largest artillery barrage in North American history
These men in the below photograph are on drill firing their cannons into the field. But before Confederate General George Picket set about on his ill-fated charge with 12,000 of his men, the Confederate Army opened up with what amounted to the largest artillery barrage in the history of the continent.
Fortunately for the Union, the barrage was largely ineffective. Unbeknownst to Lee, a shell had hit an ammunition store and the subsequent explosion made it seem as though they were wreaking havoc on Union positions. Picket would lose half his men, and later, the infamous charge would be known as, “the high water mark of the Confederacy.”
Next: Defiant fellows
25. An unforgettable notion of peace
You’ve got to hand it to these Confederate prisoners at the Battle of Gettysburg. They’ve just been defeated, badly, and in all likelihood, lost many people close to them. Yet there they stand, defiantly, even though their war is over.
Fifty years after the battle, a reunion was held that invited combatants on both sides. The men, mostly in their 70s, enjoyed the day and even recreated Picket’s Charge. When the Confederate soldiers got to the Union lines, the Union men threw up their hands to surrender out of respect. The two sides then shook hands, and buried the hatchet forever.
Next: The man who won the war
26. Meade was seen as soft, while Grant was relentless
Believe it or not, General Meade was criticized by everyone from the media to President Lincoln after the Battle of Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia withdrew in a wagon train 17 miles long, and President Lincoln was furious with Meade for letting them get away.
One can probably understand Meade’s reluctance to pursue given the fight his army just endured, but that’s what Lincoln wanted. It took nearly three years to find the man for the job, but on March 10, 1864, Lincoln commissioned General Ulysses S. Grant to destroy Lee’s army. Grant was definitely the man for the job, as he was relentless in his pursuit of Lee despite absolutely appalling casualty figures.
Next: Someone doing some good
27. A hospital for both Union and Confederate forces
The photograph below is of Sister M. M. Joseph, who with eight other Sisters of Mercy, served at the Hammond Hospital in North Carolina. They served at the request of then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and their job was slightly different than most nurses.
Hammond Hospital was seized by Union forces early in the war, then converted to a treatment center. It was meant to help soldiers who had lost a limb in combat. Procedures were not done there, as it was meant to be a safe place where soldiers on both sides, Union and Confederate, could come to relax and recover.
Next: The devastation of war
28. A great fire
The photograph below shows the city of Richmond, after Dictator and other guns fell silent. Hollowed out structures such as these tell us they were burnt, and by the look of it, there must have been one whirlwind of a fire.
This is a photograph of the “Ruins of Haxalls Mills” and was taken at the war’s conclusion. Before the war, the mill was the best in the nation, and provided a type of flower that was highly sought after by the British Navy for its preservative qualities, which then fed the Confederate army during the Civil War. The fire that ended the Haxalls Mills was said to have consumed 30 square blocks of Richmond’s business district.
Next: A flurry of event
29. Confederate President Jefferson Davis goes on the run
Once the defenses around Richmond were breached, the people and government of Richmond knew they couldn’t defend the city. On April 2, 1865 as the Union army lay siege to the Confederate capital, Jefferson Davis and the city’s defenders left the city on the last remaining railroad line.
The Army of Northern Virginia would surrender seven days later on April 9, 1865, but Jefferson Davis remained on the run. On April 14th, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, and then on May 10th, the Union cavalry finally caught up to Jefferson Davis and arrested him. And you think our modern news cycle is full of action, my word!
Next: The final resting place of the fallen
30. Lee’s mansion becomes a national cemetery
One of the legacies of the Civil War is that the beautiful grounds at Arlington became the site of the United States’s most recognizable cemetery. In the photograph below, soldiers and their wives gather on the steps of the mansion that crests above the hill overlooking Washington DC. You may be surprised to learn that that mansion belonged to none other than Robert E. Lee.
Lincoln was looking for a place to establish a new national cemetery, and the Quartermaster General suggested right in front of Lee’s home. The message was blunt and clear, and was also supposed to deter Lee from ever returning to his prewar home. The move had the desired effect, because he never did.