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One of the first photos of the Union Army in combat. Circa 1861.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Two Black Union soldiers point their rifles while at a "picket post" in Dutch Gap, Virginia. Their job was to guard the army from a surprise attack.
Mathew Brady/Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Carver Hospital in Washington, D.C. The flag showcases the "33-Star Great Star Design," which was popular in the Union during the Civil War. However, it was never used in an official capacity.The U.S. National Archives
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A group of men identified as "a company of the 170th New York Infantry." This regiment lost 227 men over the course of the war.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Several bodies of Confederate soldiers line a trench in this Mathew Brady photograph. Fredericksburg, Virginia. Circa 1861. Fotosearch/Getty Images
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A "contraband camp" in Richmond, Virginia. The "contraband" were actually people — escaped slaves who'd crossed into Union territory. The U.S. National Archives
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Entitled "Camp Scene," this Mathew Brady photo shows a group of young Union soldiers sitting outside simple tents.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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A young soldier lies dead in a trench in Petersburg, Virginia. Both the Union and the Confederacy lost thousands of men while battling near the city. This ultimately resulted in a Union-enforced siege that lasted 292 days.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Another dead soldier in the trenches, also in Petersburg, Virginia.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Two members of the New York State Militia near Harpers Ferry, Virginia.Library of Congress
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In addition to Civil War scenes, Mathew Brady also photographed prominent Americans, like President Abraham Lincoln. Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Soldiers on the deck of a gun boat, possibly the USS Mendota.
The U.S. National Archives
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A soldier from the 8th Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment holds a tattered American flag. During the war, men in this unit saw action in major engagements like the Second Battle of Bull Run.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Men at Fort Totten, which was built between 1861 and 1863 to defend Washington, D.C. Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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A Mathew Brady photograph entitled simply "Battery on Drill."The U.S. National Archives
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A Union soldier guards a 200-pound gun on Morris Island, used to shell Charleston, South Carolina. Circa 1863.The U.S. National Archives
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Men sit in the trenches of Petersburg, Virginia. The U.S. National Archives
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In this photo, entitled "Battle of the Wilderness," Mathew Brady can be seen standing on the far right side of the frame.
The Virginia battle pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Robert E. Lee for the first time. It resulted in a stalemate, though both sides ultimately lost hundreds of men. Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Soldiers removing wounded men from an unspecified battlefield. Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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African American soldiers of the 107th U.S. Colored Infantry pose with rifles at Fort Corcoran in Virginia. Circa 1863.Archive Photos/Getty Images
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A company of an unspecified infantry on march.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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A soldier identified as Private W.C. Arnold of the Union Army. Undated photograph.Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images
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Soldiers on the deck of the USS Monitor on the James River in Virginia.
The U.S. National Archives
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An infantryman poses for Mathew Brady.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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This "camp scene" is entitled "Guarding Confederate prisoners." An estimated 12 percent of Confederate POWs died in Union captivity, whereas an estimated 15.5 percent of Union POWs died in Confederate captivity.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Officers of the 15th New York Engineers sit beside two flags, one representing their regiment, and one representing the Union. Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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An officer on horseback.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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A battery in front of Petersburg, Virginia. The Siege of Petersburg eventually led to the end of the Civil War, as Confederate General Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon the city to the Union in April 1865. He surrendered soon afterward. The U.S. National Archives
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A group of soldiers stand around a cannon. This photo was originally titled "Gun squad at drill."Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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A battery standing at "attention."Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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A battery "in action" at Fredericksburg, Virginia.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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The 21st Michigan Infantry. This regiment served with General William Tecumseh Sherman.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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An infantry resting between drills. The U.S. National Archives
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General Ulysses S. Grant with his "staff of eight."The U.S. National Archives
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Four white soldiers pose with their weapons. Behind them, a Black soldier watches the scene.Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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The original caption of this Mathew Brady photo reads: "Prof. Maillefert and Naval Officers at Torpedo Station on James River probably taken in April or May 1865. Prof. Maillefert was engaged in removing the torpedoes and obstructions in the James River after close of the War."The U.S. National Archives
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A battery at Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Battle of Missionary Ridge, which was fought on November 25, 1863, resulted in a Union victory, though both sides suffered thousands of casualties.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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A Union soldier stands near a cannon at the U.S. Arsenal in Washington, D.C.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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The ambulance of the 6th Corps.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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Abraham Lincoln sits with General George McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, at his headquarters at Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on October 2, 1862.
Lincoln urged McClellan to attack Robert E. Lee's forces, but McClellan dragged his feet. By November, Lincoln would replace McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside.Mathew Brady/MPI/Getty Images
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Wounded soldiers sit under trees in Marye's Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia after the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
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The ruins of Charleston, South Carolina. In the background, the Mills Hotel is visible. Bettmann/Getty Images
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The ruins of Richmond, Virginia.The U.S. National Archives
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In addition to photographing leaders like Lincoln and Grant, Brady also took pictures of Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee. This photo of Lee is Brady's last from the Civil War.
After surrendering on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Lee returned to Richmond — and Brady followed him there. Two days after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Lee agreed to pose for Brady wearing the uniform he'd worn while surrendering at Appomattox.Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons
Mathew Brady And His Groundbreaking Photos That Showed The Public The Gruesome Price Of The Civil War
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.
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.
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."
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 double degree in American History and French.