Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Civil War Reenacting: Photography

By Matthew Pizzolato

Mathew Brady, 1875.
Modern photography was invented just prior to the Civil War and became the primary means we have of recording that era in history. The daguerreotype was invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre. He published a booklet describing the process and by 1850 there were more than 70 studios in New York city. The tintype was patented in 1856 by Harold Smith. Both means became popular and many people wanted portraits of their loved ones before they marched off to war.

The most famous of the photographers of the War was Mathew Brady, considered by many to be the father of a photojournalism. Brady took pictures of many famous Americans, including 18 presidents, Civil War officers on both sides of the conflict from Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to Ulysses S. Grant and George Custer and many more. He also photographed battle scenes and the dead and wounded casualties of the war.
Mathew Brady photograph at Devils Den at Gettysburg.

For some, photography was a money making endeavor as this quote from Scientific American illustrates.

Decidedly one of the institutions of our army is the traveling portrait gallery. A camp is hardly pitched before one of the omnipresent artists in collodion and amber bead varnish drives up his two-horse wagon, pitches his canvas gallery, and unpacks his chemicals. Our army here (Fredericksburg.) is now so large that quite a company of these gentlemen have gathered about us. The amount of business they find is remarkable. Their tents are thronged from morning to night, and "while the day lasteth" their golden harvest runs on. Here, for instance near Gen. Burnside's headquarters, are the combined establishments of two brothers from Pennsylvania, who rejoice in the wonderful name Bergstresser. They have followed the army for more than a year, and have taken, the lord only knows, how many thousand portraits. In one day since they came here they took in one of the galleries, so I am told, 160 odd pictures at $1 each. The style of portrait affected by these traveling army portrait makers is that know to the profession as the melainotype, which is made by the collodion process on a sheet-iron plate and afterward set with amber-bead varnish.

Scientific American, October 18, 1862

One hundred and sixty dollars a day was a veritable fortune at a time when a private made thirteen dollars a month. Mathew Brady, on the other hand, went bankrupt as a result of photography business. During the war, he spent over $100,000 developing his photographic plates and expected the United States government to buy the photographs after the War was over. The government refused.  Brady was forced to sell his business and died penniless on January 15, 1896 following a streetcar accident.

At the reenactments, there are a lot of pictures taken. However, we use modern techniques. Just about everyone at a reenactment will have a camera, especially the spectators. I have been known to sneak a camera onto the battlefield and have gotten a lot of real cool pictures. I've been to Devils Den at Gettysburg and have visited the exact spot where Brady's photo was taken.

At some events, especially the larger ones, there will be people who can take a tintype of you. They use the exact same process that was used during the War. I haven't had a tintype made yet, but that is something that I fully intend to do.

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He is a member of Western Fictioneers and his work can be found in the Wolf Creek series as well as his own publications, THE WANTED MAN, OUTLAW and TWO OF A KIND. 

He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western. He can be contacted through Twitter @mattpizzolato or via his website:


  1. Fascinating. Photographers also took photos of the dead with their living relatives, as the story goes, so they would always have something to remember them by. Thank you for this great information. Doris

  2. Matt, wouldn't that be awesome? To have tintype of yourself made just like they used to do it? I have a book in my TBR pile called "Mercury Dreams"--I think that's the name of it--kind of a fictionalized history of Louis Daguerre's work/life. If I ever get time to read again for pleasure...LOL Great article as always!

  3. Great stuff! I found tintypes of my great grandfather and a mystery woman LOL and am so intrigued.

    My herd didn't photograph the dead but there are plenty of family pictures of the newly-filled grave.

  4. Matt, I hope you pose for that tintype soon,and I also hope you post it here! I didn't know anyone knew how to do that anymore. How cool is that?

  5. Thank you! Also check out