History Affairs

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner’s work has often been overlooked in favor of his previous employer, Matthew Brady. However, Gardner’s contributions to American history and collective memory may be more substantial than previously recognized. He captured the brutal realities of war through his photography, bringing the harsh truths to the public eye. His close association with Abraham Lincoln…

Alexander Gardner’s work has often been overlooked in favor of his previous employer, Matthew Brady. However, Gardner’s contributions to American history and collective memory may be more substantial than previously recognized. He captured the brutal realities of war through his photography, bringing the harsh truths to the public eye. His close association with Abraham Lincoln also played a significant role in highlighting the President’s accomplishments during his lifetime and shaping his legacy after his death. Additionally, Gardner documented the American West during a time of great change and uncertainty, providing valuable insights into this transitional period.

Alexander Gardner’s Early Life

robert owen portrait brooke oil painting canvas

Alexander Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland on October 21, 1821. His family relocated to Glasgow when he was young, and his father passed away shortly after. Despite dropping out of school at the age of fourteen, Gardner displayed a keen interest in subjects like astronomy, chemistry, and photography. He then worked as an apprentice jeweler for seven years.

Inspired by the New Harmony community in Indiana, which was a socialist commune established by Robert Owen and Fanny Wright, Gardner and his brother James traveled to the United States in 1850 to buy land in Iowa for their own cooperative society. Upon securing the property, Alexander went back to Scotland to seek donations and recruit members. He used the funds to acquire the Glasgow Sentinel, a weekly newspaper, where his political writings quickly boosted its circulation, making it the second most popular paper in Glasgow within three months.

The Journey of Gardner to Becoming a Photographer

matthew brady 1851 london medal photography

In 1851, Gardner attended the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, where he encountered photographs for the first time. Seeing Mathew Brady’s famous images sparked his interest in photography, leading him to explore the art form further by reviewing exhibitions and taking his own pictures. By 1852, Gardner decided to focus on photography rather than his work at the Glasgow Sentinel.

In 1856, Gardner moved to America with his family and settled in Iowa briefly before relocating to New York. There, he met Brady, whom he admired for his work with the wet-plate negative technique. This method involved treating a glass plate with collodion and silver nitrate, then immediately using it in a camera while still wet to capture detailed images in just a few seconds, surpassing the older daguerreotype process.

During his early years working for Brady, Gardner may have introduced imperial prints, large hand-colored photographs measuring 21 by 17 inches. Wealthy clients paid significant sums for portraits in this style. As Brady’s eyesight declined, he appointed Gardner to manage his gallery in Washington DC in 1858.

Early Images of the Civil War

The demand for photography surged during the Civil War as soldiers wanted portraits to give to their families. Families of soldiers heading off to war sought genuine keepsakes. The introduction of quick and affordable photography, like Gardner’s wet-plate negative technique, catered to this new market.

After witnessing the First Battle of Bull Run, Matthew Brady decided to document the war through photography. With Gardner’s connection to Allen Pinkerton, head of the intelligence agency that later became the Secret Service, the idea was presented to President Abraham Lincoln, who approved.

Brady dispatched Gardner and a team across the country, each equipped with a personal darkroom to develop images rapidly. They meticulously captured images of Union camps and battle aftermaths. By November, Gardner was appointed an honorary captain on General George McClellan’s staff.

The Significance of Photography During the Civil War

Gardner’s leadership as captain allowed him to document the violent aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. This battle, fought on September 19, 1862, marked the deadliest day in American history. Just two days later, Gardner ventured onto the battlefield and captured some of the most iconic images of the Civil War. He visited the site twice and took around 120 photographs. Brady’s gallery in New York displayed more than seventy of Gardner’s images.

Through the innovative use of photography, the general public was able to witness the brutality of war for the first time. Even readers located far away could see every graphic detail with remarkable clarity. The New York Times praised Gardner’s work at the New York Exposition, describing it as a powerful and impactful display.

Photographers, as artists, also served as journalists by selecting and sharing subjects that often carried implicit messages. Both the Union and Confederate forces utilized these images for propaganda purposes and to gather intelligence on enemy positions for strategic military planning.

Gardner and Brady Part Ways

A disagreement arose between Gardner and his employer, Brady, as Brady claimed credit for all the team’s work under the name Brady Co., leaving Gardner with little recognition. Brady was also facing financial difficulties, potentially unable to pay his employees. Consequently, Gardner left Brady’s studio by the end of 1862. With established connections in political and military circles, Gardner started his own photography business in Washington DC in 1863, along with his brother James and other former Brady photographers.

Gardner documented significant Civil War battles like Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the siege of Petersburg while accompanying the Army of the Potomac. He mostly worked independently, only collaborating with a team for larger battles such as Antietam and Gettysburg. His photographs vividly captured the magnitude and brutality of the war. In addition to battlefield scenes, Gardner also took portraits of civilians, soldiers, and politicians in Washington DC.

In 1866, Gardner and his team published a two-volume book called “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War,” featuring one hundred photographs accompanied by detailed and poetic descriptions. Although Gardner only took sixteen of the images himself, he utilized his editing skills to shape the narrative and credited all eleven photographers who contributed to the book.

Images of President Abraham Lincoln

Gardner photographed Lincoln more extensively than any other photographer, capturing thirty-eight images of the President in various settings such as portraits, during military activities, and at his inaugurations. These portraits were used to enhance Lincoln’s national image and support his reelection campaign. Lincoln visited Gardner’s studio twice and showed interest in the technical aspects of photography.

The images taken by Gardner between 1861 and 1865 showcase Lincoln’s active role in military matters and the immense pressure he faced during the Civil War. One of Gardner’s photographs may be the final image captured of Lincoln, just days before his assassination. Additionally, Gardner documented the individuals involved in the plot to assassinate Lincoln, as well as the President’s funeral. He was granted exclusive access to photograph the execution of four conspirators on July 7th, 1865.

Gardner’s Post-War Life

In 1867, Gardner was appointed as the photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. He joined an expedition group in St. Louis to map out the railroad’s future path and traveled with them from 1867 to 1868, passing through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, ending in San Francisco. The following year, he published a collection of 127 photographs in a book titled Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (Route of the 35th Parallel), showcasing images of the railroad’s construction in Kansas, Indigenous peoples, and early scenes of the American West.

Gardner also captured Native American delegates visiting Washington DC in 1866 and was commissioned by the government to document the 1868 peace conference at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. He temporarily left the railroad expedition to travel by train to the conference site, where he photographed members of various tribes including the Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Sac and Fox, Iowa, among others.

Additionally, Gardner photographed prominent political figures like William T. Sherman, a Union general involved in negotiating treaties with Plains Native American groups as part of the Peace Commission. These images were compiled in another book called Scenes of Indian Country. His exceptional work led to his appointment as the official photographer for the Office of Indian Affairs in 1872.

Aside from his photography career, Gardner ventured into the insurance business in 1871 and also provided photographic services for the police in Washington DC, capturing images of criminals. In his later years, he dedicated himself to charitable causes, supporting widows, children, and the less fortunate. Alexander Gardner passed away on December 10, 1882, in Washington DC.

The Dispute and Impact of Alexander Gardner

One of the famous photos taken at Gettysburg, known as “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,” features a deceased Confederate soldier who may have been moved by Alexander Gardner or his team to create a more compelling image. This incident is considered an isolated case of manipulation in Gardner’s extensive career. While some critics find it odd that certain landscape shots lack bodies, these images were often taken after the dead had been removed.

As both an artist and editor, Gardner made deliberate choices not only in capturing photographs but also in selecting which ones to publish and how to present them. Themes of democracy and the empowerment of the working class are prevalent throughout his body of work.

Gardner’s photography not only advanced the art and science of the medium but also played a crucial role in shaping historical memory. His images significantly influenced public perceptions of war and continue to define how we remember conflicts. The photographs of Abraham Lincoln, in particular, helped solidify his status as a national symbol during the Civil War and as an American hero thereafter. Additionally, Gardner’s documentation of the Western expansion captured a pivotal period of contact and conflict between the Federal government, private entities, and various social classes with Indigenous communities. These images and Gardner himself deserve recognition as essential components of mid-1800s American history.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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