Colorized Civil War Photos That Bring America’s Deadliest Conflict To Life

Published April 21, 2022
Updated January 31, 2024

With more than half a million dead in just four years, the Civil War was America's bloodiest conflict and the first to be extensively documented through photography.

170th New York Infantry
Grant War Council
Union Artillery
Union Drummers
Colorized Civil War Photos That Bring America’s Deadliest Conflict To Life
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The growth of photography in the middle of the 19th century kicked off a revolution in the recording of history. Momentous events and public figures could now be documented in real-time in a way that hadn't been possible before unless you were actually there to bear witness.

Yet this revolution can sometimes be difficult to appreciate today, with old photos in sepia tones that look alien in our vibrantly-colored modern world. This is precisely what makes colorized photos of a period such as the Civil War both revelatory and important historical documents.

More than just artistic reproductions, such colorizations restore the immediacy of the actual historical events in question.

Colorized Civil War Photos

Library of CongressA colorized photo of African American Union soldiers during the Civil War. Dutch Gap, Virginia. November 1864.

Before the dawn of photography, people were used to seeing drawings or paintings of an event, pulled from the fallible memories of an artist or from the secondhand accounts of witnesses long after the fact. For most of human history, this was all the public could access — if they were lucky.

But photography brought the immediacy and stark truths of important events to the masses for the first time — no matter that it was black and white for audiences who had never seen a photograph of any kind before.

And today — with color cameras on the phones we all carry around in our pockets — pictures of, say, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in shades of gray can feel like artifacts from another world. However, a colorized photo of the Civil War general reminds us that he was a flesh-and-blood person, one who was important to one of American history's defining chapters.

How The Civil War Transformed Photography From A Novelty Into A Mass Medium

Colorized Photo Of Civil War Amputee

Mütter MuseumOn June 18, 1864, a cannon shot took both of Alfred Stratton's arms. He was just 19 years old at the time.

Invented in 1824 by Nicéphore Niépce, heliography was the first-ever process created to preserve an image from the light striking a silver plate, bringing the world the very first documents akin to what we know as photographs. The exposure process still took several days, however, so its utility in documenting historical events was virtually nonexistent.

A few years later, Niépce began working with Louis Daguerre — of daguerreotype fame — who would go on to pioneer the process of photography after Niépce's death in the early 1830s. By the outbreak of the American Civil War some three decades later, pictures of people and events still weren't widespread, but that was all about to change.

Thanks to the advances in camera and photograph-processing technology, exposure times required for pictures were vastly reduced to a few seconds in most cases — or even less. New chemical processes for the capture, treatment, and development of a photographic image were far more cumbersome and delicate than those in place today, but they were refined enough for trained professionals to take cameras into the world and produce the first real documentary photographs anyone had ever seen.

As a result, the American Civil War became one of the first armed conflicts to be extensively documented through photography (with the Crimean War the only possible precursor). Intrepid photographers like Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady took their cameras out onto the battlefields of the Civil War and captured its grim realities, stripping the conflict of the romance around warfare that had been commonly found in earlier periods.

The photographers who braved the Civil War battlefields blazed the trail for the next century and a half of photojournalists. Furthermore, they ensured photography's position as an indispensable mass medium able to transmit its message to the illiterate as easily as to the most well-read.

Chronicling The Bloodshed Of The Civil War

Civil War Photo In Color

Library of CongressBodies of dead Union soldiers lie on the battlefield following the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. 1863.

More important than how photographers documented the period, however, is what they were actually documenting. The American Civil War was the world's first industrialized conflict that was fought with what we can consider modern weaponry in the grand scope of history.

Rifled muskets — which were far more accurate than previous generations of firearms — and modern artillery could cut down entire lines of men in battle, forcing lower-ranking officers and infantry commanders to abandon the old Napoleonic Era doctrine of an orderly line of soldiers firing volleys at the enemy over an open field before launching into a bayonet charge.

Instead, small units of soldiers sought cover and fired from behind walls and makeshift barricades, decimating enemy advances at longer range, and later even digging trenches into the ground in which to seek refuge.

Dead Confederate Soldier

Library of CongressA dead Confederate soldier at the Battle of Petersburg, in Petersburg, Virginia. 1865.

With these new ways to kill in place, the official number of Americans who died as a result of the war, both battlefield deaths and those who succumbed to their wounds later, long stood at about 618,000. However, a recent reassessment using census data in 2011 put the total number of deaths as high as 850,000, according to The New York Times.

As much as three percent of the total population of the United States was killed and the photos of the war delivered these horrors to the public in ways that simply weren't possible before the invention of photography.

After all, it was one thing to see your son, father, or husband go off to war and never return. That has been one of the constant sorrows of the human experience throughout history. It was another thing entirely to see pictures of the bodies of dead men littering the battlefields of the war and wonder if your loved one was one of the broken figures contained therein.

How Civil War Photos Revealed The Horrors Of Battle To The Masses

Abraham Lincoln Aging

Wikimedia CommonsTwo portraits of President Abraham Lincoln; the left portrait from 1860, the year that he won the presidency; the right portrait from 1865, the year that he won the Civil War, shortly before his assassination.

The men who led their armies through the Civil War were photographed as well, their portraits recording the toll the war had taken on them. President Abraham Lincoln, for example, visibly aged in just four short years, appearing more than a decade older than he did on the eve of his election.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, whose campaign against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would eventually bring the war to an end, was captured in moments of exhausted candor during the campaign, stripped of some of the heroism that military commanders had long presented to the public.

Moreover, pictures of the Civil War captured death in ways that few who were removed from the actual battlefields had ever seen. In the early 20th century, the ugliness of war would hit home at its fullest as photography documented World War I's desolation throughout Europe, but the stripping away of war's mystique arguably began with the Civil War.

As Gen. Sherman famously wrote to James Yeatman, a Missouri philanthropist, in May 1865: "It is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation."

Civil War photography, for the first time, brought these grim realities to the public in ways that would change history forever.

After viewing these colorized Civil War photos, dig into the causes of the Civil War. Then, check out these photos of the Battle of Gettysburg, the clash that marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.