Although he is known for capturing a variety of historically significant events with a camera, Alexander Gardner is most remembered for his Civil War photography. At the start of the war, there were very few photographers who took portraits of soldiers before they left for the battlefield, so his services were in high demand. And, for a time, this is what he did. However, it wasn't long before he was tasked with taking his skills to the field, where he staged American Civil War photos – a fact that went uncovered for over a century.
The Battle of Antietam really boosted Alexander Gardner's Civil War photography. His images made a huge impact on those who had not seen the ravages of war firsthand, introducing them to the horrors of the battlefield. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War staged photo became part of his repertoire. Gardner wasn't trying to deceive the American public with his fake photographs, though he knew the public had a hunger for sensational images; he was trying to educate them. As a result, he moved bodies, added props, and and made minor adjustments to make the battlefield scenes more compelling. Moreover, in Gardner's defense, he wasn't the first war photographer to stage corpses on the battlefield. The first-ever war photographer to capture images of corpses, Felice Beato, started that grand old tradition himself.
Alexander Gardner, a Scottish immigrant, started taking photographs in the United States in the mid-1850s. When the Civil War started in 1861, he was tasked with taking portraits of soldiers before they left for the front lines. He shifted gears after his mentor, Mathew Brady, saw the battle at Manassas, Virginia. Brady asked 20 photographers to document the war in person. Gardner and others were sent into the field with cameras and portable darkrooms.
General George McClellan made Gardner an honorary captain in November 1861. This allowed the photographer to get close access to the battlefield following the Battle of Antietam, which is known as the bloodiest single day in American history (over 22,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing in action). Gardner documented the aftermath on September 19, 1862, and was the first of Brady's apprentices to take photos of corpses on the battlefield.
During the late 1850s and early 1860s, photography was just starting to pick up momentum in the United States. Then, when the Civil War broke out, Americans were able to see the effects of battle through shocking images. Gardner had a penchant for the dramatic and wanted to make sure Americans saw the reality of war. If he was unable to get the perfect shot, he would rearrange the bodies and sometimes insert objects into the scenes to make them more interesting.
Two days following the Battle of Gettysburg (July 5, 1863), Gardner and his assistant Timothy O'Sullivan arrived at the battlefield where many bodies had yet to be buried. The pair spent several days documenting the slaughter. On July 6, Gardner photographed a Confederate soldier in the infamous "Devil's Den." Unsatisfied with the image, he and his partner decided they could create a more compelling image. They moved a soldier's body 40 yards over into a spot they thought would have been the perfect place for the sharpshooter to set his sight on the enemy.
Gardner's manipulated photos of the sharpshooters at Gettysburg were some of the most memorable and moving images to come out of the Civil War. Gardner put them in his book, Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. The photographer included some details about the soldier, writing that he died slowly and remembered his family before taking his last breath. Gardner claimed that four months following the battle, the body and his gun were in the exact same spot. Scholars didn't question the authenticity of the photos for more than 100 years.