The last time I visited my mother, I looked in vain for my father’s copy of Mathew Brady’s photographs. I know they were in a book with a blue cloth cover, and that my dad had it for as long as I can remember. There was no mention of Alexander Gardner or Timothy O’Sullivan anywhere in it, but there were pictures aplenty.
This book was pivotal in my learning to love the Civil War. The Brady pictures were the first ones of dead people I ever saw. They were responsible for many firsts: my first images of Abraham Lincoln, of General Lee– so handsome, and the “men” looking funny to my child’s eyes. The women looked funny too, but I loved their dresses. The landscapes were barren, not wooded. Richmond was a ghost town, haunted and haunting. And I kept looking and looking.
To build a good library, there must be a book a child can look at. This one was my childhood choice, and now it is my choice as an adult.
I don’t have my father’s book–I wish I did–but this particular book is probably the same. It was originally published in 1946, so the year is right. It contains over 300 photographs, including a series of magic lantern slides (with unedited captions) that had been assembled for a show at Carnegie Hall. The show was never presented.
Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man also contains the famous images from “Scenes From the Battle of Antietam” that so shocked New Yorkers when finally unveiled. “Mr. Brady has brought the War to our doorstep!” Indeed, he had. Photographs change the way we see things. The North first saw images of slaves with whip-scarred backs in Brady galleries. They were able to purchase cartes-de-visite (CDVs) of Civil War heroes and generals, to be kept or traded much like modern baseball cards.
These images made the Civil War real in ways both terrible and glorious. Brady’s slave images galvanized abolitionist feelings, and were recently used to excellent effect in the movie Lincoln. Portraits of men in hospitals or wounded on the battlefield spurred the North to continued support of both the U. S. Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission. The chilling, zombie-like images of Union prisoners from Andersonville created such outrage that Clara Barton’s efforts to help these prisoners were greatly enhanced.
These same images are the ones we all carry today–Lincoln’s cameraman was our cameraman as well. Although we now know that Mr. Brady himself did not take most of the photographs formerly accredited to him, it was his money and influence that made the “Whatsit Wagon” welcome in Civil War camps and battlefields. His photographers gave future generations iconic images like “Three Confederate Prisoners,” “A Sharpshooter At Devil’s Den,” and the slave “Gordon.”
Author Roy Meredith’s text covers the pre-war career of Brady and his team. There is a large sampling of portraiture, including Lincoln. The book is then arranged chronologically, focusing mainly on the eastern theater. Brady’s men followed the armies, processing their glass plates under difficult conditions. The pictures in this book have not been digitally redone, and are sometimes damaged by rain and mud. A few have even been artificially posed.
You will see many familiar pictures: Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam, Lincoln as he ascends the platform to speak at Gettysburg, Grant and his generals in a “War Council,” Lee in defeat. The Grand Review marches past. The Lincoln conspirators are hanged. These images are as fresh, as exciting, as awful now as they were 150+ years ago. They are the way we see this war in our minds, and in our hearts.
Every Civil War bookshelf needs a book of photographs. There are many from which to choose and, with the Sesquicentennial, new ones come out almost daily. Of course, choice is a matter of preference. Many of the new books feature digitally enhanced versions of damaged photographs. One has even added color to formerly black-and white images. But, my personal experience with Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man: Mathew B. Brady, by Roy Meredith, has brought me a long way toward becoming a historian. It is my pick.
It is available from 48¢ to $205.00, plus shipping and handling, from amazon.com. Surely you can afford to add this book to your own bookshelf for a price somewhere in between?