The Bizarre Practice Of Staging Civil War Photographs

By Debra Kelly on Monday, November 24, 2014
civil war
“What visions, of loved ones far away, may have hovered above his stony pillow! What familiar voices may he not have heard, like whispers beneath the roar of battle, as his eyes grew heavy in their long, last sleep!” —Alexander Gardner, describing his staged photo “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter”

In A Nutshell

During the American Civil War, photography was just coming into its heyday. For the first time, civilians were able to see the horrors of the battlefield—days, weeks, and months after the fighting. Photographers, most notably Alexander Gardner, saw their documentation of the battles as a duty to capture the most moving images they could. And when they couldn’t find the right shot, they’d make it by moving the bodies and occasionally adding props.

The Whole Bushel

Alexander Gardner was one of the most famous photographers from the American Civil War era. He photographed battlefields, he photographed Abraham Lincoln, and he photographed the execution of the men who had conspired to kill the president. His work had been largely forgotten for decades, only relatively recently rediscovered, along with a practice that seems pretty chilling today.

Today, fake photos are certainly nothing new. We see them every time we look at a magazine, after all, and we’re well aware that we probably shouldn’t believe anything we see on the Internet. Compared to today’s faked photos, at least those that were faked during the Civil War had authentic subjects and the best of intentions.

In 1975, historian William Frassanito was looking through some photographs of Gardner’s from the Battle of Gettysburg. They were described as showing Confederate sharpshooters lying dead on the battlefield, but Frassanito noticed something odd. There were several photos of the same man lying in different positions and even in different locations.

In one, the soldier lay on the flat battlefield. In another photo, the same dead man was in a trench, propped up, facing the camera, next to a rifle. Additional research uncovered some eerie truths.

In 1893, an assistant to Gardener had been showing some of the photographs to a reporter. According to the man, J. Watson Porter, he’d heard the story of his mentor’s work at Gettysburg. Travel being what it was during the Civil War, the photographers didn’t make it to the battlefield until some time after the fighting had come to a halt. When they did get there, they found that many of the dead had already been buried or removed from where they had fallen . . . and many of those that remained unburied weren’t in much of a recognizable condition. Then, they had come across the body of the Confederate soldier in an area called Devil’s Den.

The photographers documented where he had fallen (as pictured above), then decided that they needed some better shots if they wanted a particular reaction to their photos. So they dragged the dead man to the second location, added in a few props to make him a sharpshooter, and took more photos.

Gardener had released a book of his photos, called Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, in 1865. He included both photographs of the unidentified man, along with descriptions of the scene. In the first, he describes how the dead man had chosen that particular spot to wait, how he had probably lay there for some time, waiting for a clear shot at the enemy until he was killed by the violent shock of a bullet. In the second photograph, the staged one, he talks about the disarray of the scene, the spot where he had taken his fatal wound, and spoke of how the soldier had clearly laid down on his blanket and waited to die from his wounds.

While that’s considered pretty unethical today (and disturbing on so many levels), at the time, photography was still a newly discovered art form. Civil War photographers knew that they weren’t just bringing the war into the homes of civilians, they were taking pictures that could be used to send a very particular message about the war, its causes, and whether or not it should be supported.

Today, Gardner’s photographs are still among the best and most well-known from the war, but viewers have to wonder how many were real and how many of the dead were adjusted for artistic reasons.

Show Me The Proof

Library of Congress: Does The Camera Ever Lie? (Contains full versions of both of Gardner’s photos discussed above)
Washington Post: Alexander Gardner: The mysteries of the Civil War’s photographic giant

  • Hillyard

    So this guy invented photoshopping during the Civil War. This makes me wonder how much of what we consider history has been photoshopped as well. Good bushel.

    • cregg

      No, “photoshopping” is digitally altering a computer file to produce a fake visual image. He did not invent that.

      This non-computerized ghoul did it old school : he dragged real corpses around to produce real images. There is a big difference.

      • Hillyard

        Thank you for pointing that out.

      • https://soundcloud.com/arjan-hut Arjan Hut

        It’s more like realityshopping.

  • Clyde Barrow

    For propaganda purposes, some war photos have been staged ever since.

    • Matthew Messerly

      More like sensationalism. Gardner wasn’t serving a political agenda or promoting the war, just trying to get his studio more attention. Civil war photography was a very competitive field and getting the best photograph often meant creating one.