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The Civil War

Battle Field of New Hope Church, Ga., No. 2

The Civil War marked the first sustained use of photography during an armed conflict.The Union army employed photographers to help survey the land, make maps, and document the building of military infrastructure such as railroads and bridges. (The Confederates relied less on the medium, as their ability to obtain photographic supplies was limited.) Photographs also brought the war to the general public, and entrepreneurs took the opportunity to sell pictures related to the conflict. The war posed a new challenge to photographers: how to portray and memorialize the epic scale of army life and death. Although exposure times for the medium were too long to allow the recording of combat action, photographers captured the aftermath of battles and the destruction wrought by them, the deployment of armies, and their encampments. By the time photographers arrived, most fallen soldiers had already been buried; therefore, few images of the dead were made. Some wartime photographs celebrate preparation for battle, while others are suffused with melancholy, fashioning the altered landscape into a meditation on mourning.

George N. Barnard, American, 1819–1902, Battle Field of New Hope Church, Ga., No. 2, 1866, albumen print from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign (New York, 1866), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Acquired by exchange with the Library of Congress