Editor’s Note: Some of the photos presented may be disturbing to some viewers. Discretion is advised. 

Photographs captured during the American Civil War-era are an eerie reminder of a once divided nation dominated by rifle and cannon fire and inevitable casualties.

Many of these vivid photographs currently reside in vast rooms at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit known as “Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872” features photographs taken by Alexander Gardner between the years of 1859 to 1872.

The exhibit opened at the National Portrait Gallery Sept. 17 and will be on display until March 13, 2016.

Alexander Gardner immigrated to the U.S from Glasgow, Scotland in 1856 and found a job as a photographer for Matthew Brady. However, after his employer’s eyesight began to fail, Gardner gained more responsibilities and he was placed in charge of Brady’s entire gallery in 1858, according to the Civil War Trust.

Gardner’s camera skills transcended past portrait photography. He was frequently dispatched to capture battle scenes. These battles included the battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and the siege of Petersburg, according to the Civil War Trust.

Gardner’s photographs at battles highlighted the aftermath and destruction of war. These photographs captured lifeless Confederate soldiers who seemed to be facing the camera.

“I think it looks lonely and isolated, because all you really focus on is the deceased because the background is way too hazy,” said sophomore kinesiology major Tevin Luckie.

An image of the twisted body of a dead Confederate soldier. (Courtesy of Alexander Gardner and the National Park Service)
An image of the twisted body of a dead Confederate soldier. (Courtesy of Alexander Gardner and the National Park Service)

The images depicted the death that encompassed many of the battles, Luckie said.

Gardner was President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite photographer and was often tasked with taking photographs of Lincoln, according to the National Portrait Gallery. He is believed to have taken the last photograph of Lincoln before his assassination, according to The Civil War Trust.

Although Gardner is largely known for his battle and portrait photographs, his most notable work came after the assassination of Lincoln. Gardner was the only photographer given permission to photograph the executions of the four conspirators tied to the Lincoln assassination.

These executions and photographs were monumental because they marked the first time the federal government had decided to execute a woman, according to the National Portrait Gallery.

Sept. 19, 1862 - Confederate dead gathered for burial. (Courtesy of Alexander Gardner and the National Park Service)
Sept. 19, 1862 – Confederate dead gathered for burial. (Courtesy of Alexander Gardner and the National Park Service)

Some prefer to view a photograph, as opposed to interpreting texts, because it allows one to see an event through another’s eyes.

“I think it is important that the photograph was taken, because it allows others to visualize what happened,” said sophomore psychology major Cheikh Thiam.

A picture of a dead confederate sharp-shooter was among one of many images Gardner’s camera captured. One student believes that the death of this single soldier wasn’t of great significance to the Union and their cause.

“There were plenty of other sharp-shooters to take his place,” said sophomore economics major Kobie Lane. “This photo is just a picture of a temporary fix.”

The “Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872” exhibit showcased an array of photography. This impressive collection also included photographs of Native Americans taken after the war.

This collection of photographs was made possible through numerous contributions, including one from the National Museum of the American Indian.

Featured Photo Credit: Burial crew of Union soldiers. (Courtesy of Alexander Gardner and the National Park Service)

Joel Valley is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at joel.valley@gmail.com.

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