Mathew Brady And His Groundbreaking Photos That Showed The Public The Gruesome Price Of The Civil War

Published November 1, 2022

Known as the "father of photojournalism," Mathew Brady helped take 10,000 pictures of the Civil War — and captured the reality of America's bloodiest conflict.

Union Army In Combat
African American Soldiers At A Picket Post
Mathew Brady's Photo Of Carver Hospital
170th New York Infantry
Mathew Brady And His Groundbreaking Photos That Showed The Public The Gruesome Price Of The Civil War
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During the bloody Civil War years, a photographer named Mathew Brady was determined to bring the battlefield directly to Americans. And after receiving permission from Abraham Lincoln himself, that's exactly what he did. Mathew Brady's photos led The New York Times to remark that he had brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war."

Throughout the years, Brady's photographs have become even more stirring. Without him, we wouldn't have so many historic images of Civil War soldiers, battlefields, trenches, generals, presidents, prisoners, and more.

In the gallery above, take a look at some of Mathew Brady's most poignant photos, which evocatively depict America's war against itself.

How Mathew Brady Became A War Photographer

Born in 1823 or 1824 in Warren County, New York, Mathew Brady came of age at the same time as photography. The first photo was taken around 1827, and French inventor Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre unveiled the daguerreotype in 1839, the same year that Brady moved to New York City.

Brady opened his own studio in New York in 1844. Serendipitously, he opened a gallery in Washington, D.C. five years later. There, he kept up to date with developments in photography technology and took pictures of several prominent Americans. In 1860, Brady even took a photo of a beardless Abraham Lincoln months before the politician won the presidency.

Mathew Brady Photos

Library of CongressMathew Brady was already a preeminent American photographer when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

Lincoln's election that November would change Mathew Brady's photographs — and the entire country. As states in the South seceded one by one, and the nation prepared for war, Brady set out to document the conflict.

"My wife and my most conservative friends had looked unfavorably upon this departure from commercial business to pictorial war correspondence," Mathew Brady later said of his decision, according to History. "And I can only describe the destiny that overruled me by saying that, like Euphorion, I felt that I had to go. A spirit in my feet said 'Go,' and I went."

Mathew Brady's Photos During The Civil War

As the National Park Service explains, Mathew Brady's efforts to document the Civil War were nothing short of herculean. Though he secured Lincoln's approval, Brady had to fund the operation himself, and he hired a team of photographers like Alexander Gardner and George Barnard to help him.

Brady and his men would eventually take more than 10,000 Civil War photos, including the aftermath of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. Though Brady wasn't always behind the camera, History points out that Brady organized and financed expeditions, accompanied his fellow photographers into the field, and arranged meetings with important leaders and generals.

Ulysses S Grant

Library of CongressUnion General Ulysses S. Grant in a photograph credited to Mathew Brady. Cold Harbor, Virginia. 1864.

He exhibited many of the photos in his galleries, including pictures taken by Gardner and James Gibson at the Battle of Antietam. These images of dead soldiers on the battlefield shocked Americans and led The New York Times to remark, "If [Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it."

But even though Mathew Brady's photos made a huge impact on nearly everyone who viewed them, they didn't bring him fame or fortune.

The Tragic Final Days Of The Photographer

Mathew Brady had poured $100,000 into photographing the Civil War. But after the conflict ended, no one wanted to buy his images. According to The New York Times, the "appetite" for Civil War photos had nosedived.

Brady himself struggled with debts for the rest of his life, though the government did eventually offer to buy his collection for $75,000 in 1875. He died penniless in his 70s on January 15, 1896, his funeral paid for in part by the 7th New York Infantry, according to the Congressional Cemetery.

Though he didn't live to see it, Mathew Brady's photographs later became priceless relics of the Civil War. They captured the heart of the conflict, from soldiers lying dead in trenches, to generals leaning against trees, to the sweeping landscapes of battlefields where thousands of men lost their lives. Today, some even consider Brady the "father of photojournalism."

In that way, though Brady struggled financially, he achieved his ultimate goal of demonstrating the power of photography. As he once said himself: "My greatest aim has been to advance the art of photography and to make it what I think I have, a great and truthful medium of history."

After looking through these Mathew Brady photos, delve into the surprisingly complicated question of how many people died during the Civil War. Or, enjoy these facts about Abraham Lincoln, America's Civil War president.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
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.
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "Mathew Brady And His Groundbreaking Photos That Showed The Public The Gruesome Price Of The Civil War.", November 1, 2022, Accessed April 23, 2024.