The Civil War was perhaps the most destructive conflict ever fought by the United States and it was extensively photographed. While the causes were complicated, they boiled down to the issue of slavery. Here are some remarkable photographs of the people and places of the American Civil War.
Remarkable Rare Photographs From the American Civil WarPublished 1 month ago
Today, we’ve got spy satellites that can clearly read license plate numbers and thermal imaging systems that can see people through walls. During the Civil War, field commanders also understood the strategic importance of getting an overhead view of battlefields. The Union forces formed the Union Army Balloon Corps, founded by the self-taught American scientist Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, to spy on the Confederate forces.
The balloons were filled with hydrogen gas generated via a hose. One of their seven balloons, the Intrepid, was used successfully at the Battle of Seven Pines at Fair Oaks, in Virginia in 1862. Here we see Lowe preparing the Intrepid that morning by filling it with hydrogen gas from a smaller balloon. The intelligence provided by the Intrepid turned the tides of the battle.
In addition to aviation, maritime technology was also growing quickly during the Civil War. The Confederate side directed their attention to submarines, creating some of the first underwater vessels used in combat. The CSS H. L. Hunley was a Confederate submarine that saw some success by sinking the USS Housatonic but also sunk three times, killing its crew each time.
The Union, on the other hand, focused more on developing simple boats that could be quickly assembled which would allow their soldiers to cross rivers and lakes easily. They took the idea from a pontoon bridge, which uses floating cylinders lashed together to make a quick, temporary bridge. Union engineers developed pontoon boats such as the one above from 1863, which were designed for scouting operations by lone Union soldiers.
One of the earliest photographic glimpses into the American Civil War, this image captures a moment in the Union Army's history circa 1861. As the conflict unfolded, the camera lens began to document the immense changes and challenges facing the nation.
Beyond the historical significance, it's a snapshot that speaks to the courage and sacrifice of those who served during that tumultuous era. The Civil War, with its profound impact on the nation, was a pivotal chapter in American history, ultimately shaping the course of the United States.
The woman pictured sitting below was no ordinary 19th-century American; she was the Mata Hari of the Civil War. Rose O'Neal Greenhow, seen with her daughter, was a Washington DC socialite before the war and a close companion of presidents like President Buchanan and congressmen. When the war broke out, she supported the Confederacy and secretly started slipping military information to the Southern forces.
In 1861, she was put in charge of a network of southern spies, led by Confederate Army Captain Thomas Jordan, who took on the role of her handler. Confederate President Jefferson Davis later said she was instrumental in the South’s triumphant victory in the July battle of 1861. The following year, the Union discovered her treachery and jailed her and her daughter for five months before deporting them to the South. She was treated like a hero.
One of the most famous battles of the Civil War actually has two names. The Union forces called it the Battle of Bull Run, while the Confederate Army called it the Battle of First Manassas. It took place on July 21, 1861, in Virginia, about 30 miles west-southwest of Washington, DC. Public opinion in the Union wanted the Army to march to the Confederate capital of Richmond, so General McDowell gave in to the pressure and marched 18,000 inexperienced and untrained men toward the city.
18,000 Confederate troops who came by train waited for them nearby, and the two sides fought. Both sides suffered heavy losses and everyone present was horrified at the violence. It was at this battle that the North realized the war would be long and arduous and would cost many lives on both sides. This photo is of the area a few months later.
During the Civil War, there was a huge problem with counterfeiting; at one point, it was estimated that almost one-third of all the currency in circulation was fake. President Lincoln needed to do something about it, so on July 5, 1865, he created the Secret Service in Washington. There were only a handful of other federal law enforcement agencies in existence at the time, and none of them knew anything about counterfeiting.
Unfortunately for Lincoln, the Secret Service would not be responsible for guarding the life of the President until 1901, after the assassination of another president, William McKinley. Here, we see a rare photograph of President Lincoln from October 3, 1862, taken at the headquarters for the Army of the Potomac near Antietam, Maryland. With him is General John A. McClernand on the right, and E. J. Allen, Chief of the Secret Service, left.
The American Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865, had profound and enduring consequences for the United States. It resulted in the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery, fundamentally altering the nation's course. The conflict was marked by immense human sacrifice, with battlefields like Antietam, Maryland (as shown below), bearing witness to the immense toll of human life, making it painfully evident how challenging it was to confront the haunting sight of fallen soldiers.
The war introduced transformative military strategies and technologies, shaping the future of warfare. Moreover, it triggered a complex period of Reconstruction, striving to rebuild the South and secure civil rights for African Americans.
In the mid-1800s, the railways were revolutionizing travel across the United States. When the Civil War broke out, there was only one line that ran between the capital cities of the opposing sides: the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Running from Richmond, Virginia through Orange County, to the city of Alexandria, and on to Washington DC seven miles further, the O&A, as it’s known, was of strategic importance to both sides.
The railroad changed hands several times during the war and played a major role in both Battles of Bull Run in 1861 and 1862. Colonel Herman Haupt was the engineer that was put in charge of building and running the Union’s military railroad system, and in this photo from 1865, you can see him personally supervising the repair of a bridge on the Orange & Alexandria line. After the war, Haupt returned to civil enginnering, designing railroads, tunnels, bridges, and pipelines.
This photograph, captured around 1862, bears the title "Contrabands at Headquarters of General Lafayette." In the context of the Civil War, "contrabands" referred to enslaved individuals who had sought refuge by escaping from their slaveholders.
This term reflected the profound social and political changes of the era, as many enslaved people sought freedom within the protective umbrella of Union forces. General Lafayette's headquarters, a symbol of Union authority, became a place of sanctuary for these individuals.
The First Battle of Bull Run, also called the Battle of First Manassas, was fought in only one day, July 21, 1861, and ended in a decisive Confederate victory. It was the first major battle of the entire Civil War, and both sides were unprepared, and mostly wanted to simply feel each other out. The Union felt that the Confederacy would be easy to defeat, but realized by the end of the battle that the war would be long and drawn out, with many casualties on both sides.
The Union was slow to respond, which allowed the South to bring in more troops by train and ultimately claim victory. Bull Run is located between the Union capital of Washington DC and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and was therefore very strategic ground. A train from the Orange and Alexandria Railroad can be seen here rolling through the devastated countryside.
The First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, was the first major battle of the war and set the tone for the fighting that followed. One year later, the two sides met again at the same location. By then, both sides knew what to expect and were more prepared, and understood what was needed in terms of equipment and strategy. The second battle was much bigger, with about 77,000 men fighting for the Union and 50,000 on the Confederate side.
By the time it was over, more than 21,000 men on both sides had been killed, captured, or gone missing, with twice as many casualties on the Union side than the Confederacy. In this photograph, men are surveying damaged railway tracks at Manassas Junction in March 1862, in between the two battles. Those tracks were repaired and destroyed several times over during the war.
This iconic image encapsulates the profound impact of the conflict, which not only preserved the Union but also brought about the emancipation of enslaved individuals. A soldier from the 8th Pennsylvania Reserve Regiment proudly holds aloft a weathered American flag, symbolizing the resilience and sacrifice of those who fought in the American Civil War.
The war's high human toll, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, underscored the nation's determination to address its deep-seated divisions.
The First Battle of the Bull Run was the first major battle of the Civil War, but the taking of Fort Sumter was really the first conflict. Fort Sumter was an American fort located near Charleston, South Carolina, and when the South seceded, they demanded that the US Army abandon it. When they refused, the Confederates gave them an ultimatum. Leave by 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, or be destroyed. They chose to stay.
The South bombarded Fort Sumter with dozens of cannons that were located on boats offshore. The Fort tried to fire back but was badly outgunned. After 34 hours, the US Army agreed to evacuate the fort. This photo of the evacuation shows only a handful of the 85 men who quickly gathered their personal belongings and left the fort for the Confederacy. No one from either side was killed, but the North was left embarrassed.
In the short time that the Confederate States of America was an independent nation, they did their best to establish foreign relations. Rose O'Neal Greenhow, the Confederate spy who was a hero to the South was sent to France and Britain in 1863-64 on a diplomatic mission. Also in 1863, the German inventor and general Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, seen below with the white mustache, traveled to Virginia to observe troops of the North’s Army of the Potomac.
While in the US, Count Zeppelin met Thaddeus Lowe and saw the balloon camp that he had established. In Saint Paul, Minnesota, the Count took his first aerial flight in a balloon, and he loved it. After he returned to his home in Germany, he set to work creating a new kind of transportation. His invention, the Zeppelin airship, became the leading way to fly until the invention of the airplane.
Most of the combatants in any war are from the countries involved in the conflict, but there are always a few people who come from another place and join the fight for love, money or both. The Civil War was no exception. One of the most storied foreign fighters of the Civil War was a man named George Henry Doré. Doré was an Englishman who was born on June 24, 1845, on the Isle of Wight.
He made his way to the United States and joined the 126th New York Infantry in New York on August 22, 1862. After the Battle of Harpers Ferry, he was captured, but released just a day later. He fought at the Battle of Gettysburg, at which he earned himself a Medal of Honor by facing gunfire from all sides while saving a Union flag. Doré died in New York on February 8, 1927.
By 1865, after a long siege, the Confederates’ capital city of Richmond, Virginia was on the verge of falling. On April 2nd of that year, a date which came to be known as Evacuation Sunday, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet finally decided to evacuate Richmond and the nearby city of Petersburg. They got on a train running on the only line that was still operational, the Richmond and Danville.
Before they left, though, they gave one final order to the troops who had been faithfully guarding the city- burn it all. The retreating Confederate soldiers burned warehouses, armories, and bridges as they fled. The fires spread and destroyed the rest of the city, as can be seen in this photograph of Carey Street in Richmond after the evacuation of the city. Within a week after the fall of Richmond, the war was over and President Lincoln was dead.
After the Union’s shocking defeat at Bull Run, they knew they had to quickly improve Washington DC’s defenses. South of Alexandria, an elevated area near Mount Eagle called Ballenger's Hill overlooks all the southern approaches to Washington as well as the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, the Columbia and LIttle River Turnpikes, and Telegraph Road. On top of that hill, the Union built Fort Lyon out of mud and timber.
Generals Horatio Wright and John Newton were put in charge of construction, and soon the Fort was ready. The 34th Massachusetts Infantry was stationed there, and they can be seen in this photograph of their encampment near the fort. The tents in which they slept can be clearly seen behind the men as they stand in formation. Today, the only thing that remains of Fort Lyon is a historical marker that was put up by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
During the war, over 200,000 African-Americans fought for the Union side. Some were former slaves who escaped to the north via the Underground Railroad, an informal network of safe houses that led to freedom. Others were never slaves, but fought for the Union out of patriotism or to help the slaves down south. One remarkable soldier, seen here in this tintype photograph, was a man named Creed Miller.
Creed Miller was a soldier in Kentucky’s 107th Regiment and had this photo taken of himself. A tintype is an old type of photography technique that uses a thin sheet of metal that has been coated with a dark enamel. The detail in both the photo and the case in which it’s kept is remarkable. Mr. Miller can be seen wearing a dark coat and bow tie, and his military identification pin is displayed in the red velvet-lined case.
Mortars are large, cannon-like guns that can fire enormous shells at great distances. In the final years of the Civil War, Union forces were trying to take Petersburg, Virginia, near the Confederate capital. When General Ulysses S. Grant failed to take Petersburg directly, he put the city under a long and grueling siege. He also subjected the city to continuous artillery fire. In this photo, we see Union soldiers standing on a bridge in Petersburg manning a giant mortar that they named “Dictator”.
The largest mortar in the Union arsenal, the Dictator had a 13-inch bore and weighed over 17,000 pounds. It was too heavy to be used on the battlefield, and so it was best suited for defensive fortification and for use in sieges. Each time it was fired, it used 20 pounds of gunpowder to fire a 218-pound shell up to two and a half miles.
This is a photo of Union Army General Philip Henry Sheridan, who was known as "Little Phil" and "Fightin' Phil", and who was a career US Army officer who fought in the Civil War. He became close with General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant and quickly rose through the ranks to become a general himself. As head of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, he defeated Confederate General Jubal Early in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in 1864.
As part of his victory at Shenandoah, Sheridan burned much of the economic infrastructure of the valley which was considered the first case of using scorched-earth tactics in the war. His infantry also played a key role in forcing the surrender of General Lee at The Battle of Sailor's Creek, which quickly led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Here, he can be seen sitting in front of his tent on the battlefield.
Virginia’s Port Royal is located on the Rappahannock River and played a very strategic role in the Civil War. Located about 70 miles south of Washington, DC, the Rappahannock runs parallel to the Potomac River which itself leads directly to the national capital. The people who lived at Port Royal quickly joined the Confederacy and fought with the Union at Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Richmond, and participated in fighting the Union Army of Virginia during the Siege of Petersburg.
Port Royal was not only a significant military post, but it also was an important supply depot. Located close to many of the richest families in Virginia, they counted on ship traffic at the port to bring them all the goods they were used to receiving and was the main location from which their crops could be shipped around the country and the world. Here, we see a wagon train at the port.
Fort Putnam was located on Morris Island in South Carolina south of Charleston and not far from Fort Sumter in the easternmost part of the state. The Confederates kept a small garrison stationed there, and in the early morning hours of Monday, September 7, 1863, Union troops attacked the Fort. The Union had a siege on the island, and by September 6th, the Confederate forces knew the end was in sight and abandoned the fort.
Union troops quickly moved in and occupied the fort. On the next day, Union forces, amped up on their recent victories, tried to take the nearby Fort Sumter but they failed. Fort Putnam was quickly razed to the ground. This photograph, taken sometime between 1861 and 1865, shows mounted cannons inside the fort. It is not known who took the photo, but it’s now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
One of the most important protracted battles of the Civil War was the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. It took place from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, and was not a traditional siege. Usually, a siege is when a city is surrounded by enemy forces that do not allow any goods to go in or out of the city, thus starving the people inside. The Siege of Petersburg consisted of eight months of trench warfare in the city and its surroundings.
Petersburg was close to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and was an important target for Union forces on their way to destroying the enemy capital and winning the war. General Grant first tried to attack directly, and when that didn’t work, he set up a series of trenches outside the city from which he would fire mortars on the city. Here you can see Union soldiers in those trenches.
The Zouaves were a group of soldiers in the French Army, most of whom served in North Africa. The name comes from the Zwawa people, a tribe of African Berbers who initially made up the fighting force, although soon anyone could join, and many French warriors did. In the American Civil War, various groups of fighters took on the name Zouaves and modeled their tactics and uniforms on the French group.
Elmer E. Ellsworth, who coincidentally was the first person killed in the Civil War from either side, brought the Zouaves to the attention of the US. By the end of the war, there were 70 Zouave regiments fighting for the Union and about 25 regiments who fought for the Confederates. Here we see a wounded Zouave soldier being offered a drink from a canteen after the Battle of Chancellorsville. His distinctive uniform was modeled after the original French uniforms.
Harpers Ferry is a small town in West Virginia located where the Potomac River and the Shenandoah River meet. It became an important place in the Revolutionary War when General George Washington established a Federal arsenal there in 1799. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown initiated a slave revolt there in order to capture weapons to be used against the North.
John Brown’s raid was a precursor to the Civil War, and during the war itself, an important battle was fought at Harpers Ferry in September of 1862. Robert E. Lee sent Stonewall Jackson to the Union Garrison there, and he took it fairly easily. It was one of the greatest Southern victories of the war. In this photo, Union soldiers sit in their camp awaiting the next phase of the battle. Note the American flag hanging in their tent, as well as the various faces.
When the Civil War first broke out, free Black men in the North rushed to join the Army, but most were turned away. It wasn’t until 1861 that the United States began to look for ways to recruit African Americans. 1861, two important acts were passed by Congress to further that end. The Second Confiscation Act freed any slave whose master joined the Confederacy or in any other way committed treason.
The Militia Act said that any state that could not recruit enough soldiers could implement a draft. Both became law on July 17, 1862, and on January 1st of the following year, Lincoln made his famous Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in the Confederate states. These events led to a mass migration of African Americans to the north, and many of them joined the fight in the hope that after the war, they would become full citizens.
It’s certainly no fun being in a war, and Civil War soldiers were kept very busy. When they weren’t actively fighting, they were making camp and preparing for the next battle. However, in the meager free time they did have, soldiers amused themselves in a variety of ways. The game of Baseball wouldn’t exist as we know it until after the war, but variations had been played since the 1700s, and Lincoln was said to have been a fan.
Union soldiers played baseball, and those that were captured by the South taught it to their Confederate captors. As seen in this photograph, card games were also a popular way for soldiers to pass the time. Games such as 5-card stud poker were commonplace, as were trick-taking games such as Whist. They also played a card game known as Beggar My Neighbour, which was similar to the modern card game War.
The Tennessee River is a tributary of the mighty Ohio River and acts as a sort of gateway to the south. When Fort Henry, a defensive fort where the Tennessee River begins, fell in 1862, it was the first major victory of the Union over the South and opened up a way for Union forces to move into the heart of the Confederate States. Steamboats were most commonly used on rivers in the south to ferry men and equipment to the fight.
On February 6, 1862, the first exploratory flotilla made its way down the river. Led by Commander Seth Phelps on the armored gunboat Champion, three ships made their way down the river. Confederate forces ended up destroying the flotilla, but Union forces were eventually able to use the river to move deep into the southern states and attack from within. Here, we see steamboats on the Tennessee River.
In this photograph, we see members of the 153rd New York Infantry. The 153rd was formed in Fonda, a small town on the Mohawk River about 45 miles northwest of Albany. The 153rd was created on August 23, 1862, for the Civil War, and was disbanded on October 2, 1865, after the war, in Savannah, Georgia, where they ended up. The infantry was commanded by Colonel Duncan McMartin of the Union Army.
Their first assignment was to guard Washington DC, and from there they were sent to join the campaign in the south. They fought in the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads in Lousiana on April 8, 1864, and at Alexandria, Virginia, on April 26-May 13. They then returned to Washington DC and fought in the Battle of Fort Stevens in July. They lost 200 men during their time of service; 40 were to war injuries and 160 to disease.
Another important infantry regiment was the 83rd Pennsylvania, made up of volunteers. They fought as part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps, in the Army of the Potomac, and saw action in almost every major battle fought in the East. They also suffered the second-most number of deaths of any infantry unit in the Union forces (second only to the 5th New Hampshire regiment).
During their time serving in the war, they lost a total of 435 men, which was about 25% of their entire regiment. 282 men died in combat and 153 died of disease. They were led by the awesomely-named Colonel Strong Vincent, who died as a result of wounds suffered defending Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. He was replaced by Colonel John McLane, who had nothing to do with Bruce Willis. Here, we see Sergeant Alex Rogers displaying the unit’s battle flag.
For the soldiers themselves, the timing of the Civil War couldn't have been worse. The war came at a time when military technology was advancing but before the modernization of medicine and health care. This led to a huge number of casualties, due to both combat injuries and disease. Fully 2% of the American population died in the war. Weapons were more lethal, yet doctors of that era knew nothing about germs and didn’t even attempt to keep surgeries sterile.
Even small wounds invariably became infected, and when the infected limb was amputated without sterilization or anesthetic, systemic sepsis would set in and the soldier would die. Many soldiers also died of typhoid or dysentery. Doctors even thought that the appearance of pus was a good sign which indicated healing, when in fact the exact opposite was true. In this image, we see a wartime hospital ward in Alexandria Virginia.
Writing letters home was a common pastime for Civil War soldiers, and was the primary way they could communicate with loved ones back home. In their letters, the soldiers described the brutal conditions in which they lived, but also expressed a remarkable amount of optimism and hope for the future. Their loved ones would write back, evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of their lives wherever they were from.
A soldier’s family could also sometimes send them a pie or cake, and receiving a package at home was certainly a special occasion for the men. Post Offices were set up inside forts and camps, and soldiers would buy paper, envelopes, pens, and ink from merchants that followed the army selling supplies. Union soldiers could send letters free of charge as long as they wrote "Soldier's Letter" on the envelope. Confederate soldiers weren’t as fortunate; they had to use postage stamps.
Captain John Caldwell Tidball was born in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), and grew up on a farm in Ohio. He graduated from the United States Military Academy Class at West Point in 1848 and started his service. By the time the Civil War broke out, he was quickly promoted to captain and became the commander of Company A in the 2nd US Artillery.
Captain Tidball participated in all the major campaigns in the eastern theater of war, from the First Battle of Bull Run through the Siege of Petersburg. President Lincoln himself commended him for his bravery and intelligent use of tactics at Gettysburg. Interestingly, Tidball is credited with being the first one to have Taps played at military funerals, a tradition that is still in effect today. Here we see Captain Tidball posing with his staff at Fair Oakes, Virginia. After the war, he retired to Alaska.
After the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia acts, African Americans were able to join the Union army, but at first, recruitment was slow. When the Emancipation Proclamation was announced about six months later, the Union Army began recruiting African Americans in earnest, but they were reluctant to fight for a country that didn’t claim them as citizens. However, black leaders soon began advising those who followed them to join.
The famous orator, writer, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass encouraged African Americans to join the Army, saying that their service would force the government to offer them citizenship. He said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
About 200,000 African Americans served during the Civil War, with almost 40,000 dying during the conflict. Racism meant that African Americans weren’t given combat assignments, and some were afraid of giving them guns in case they turned against their white commanders.
So they performed all the noncombat wartime jobs that were necessary for supporting the Army. They were spies and surgeons, steamboat captains and teamsters, scouts, guards, chaplains, and cooks.
President Lincoln is regarded as one of the most important and successful US presidents. Leading a country through civil war and out the other side is a daunting task, but he left a striking impression with his self-taught legal education, his distinctive top hat, and his imposing height. In the photo below, Lincoln can be seen visiting soldiers encamped at the battlefield of Antietam in Maryland.
Antietam was one of the bloodiest battles in the entire Civil War, with over 22,000 casualties on both sides. The battle led to a stunning victory for the Union troops, who were perhaps inspired by the presidential visit. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces were being chased by a Union army under the command of Major General George B. McClellan when the southern army took a defensive position behind a small creek called Antietam. The Union victory was a turning point in the war.
The US Civil War was the most devastating war ever fought on US soil, and the deadliest war in US history if you count deaths due to disease as well as combat. After the war, the country stood traumatized and divided, and it took decades to heal the damage.
The assassination of Lincoln right after the war ended evinced not only the continued national division but also indicated how difficult recovery would be. Here you can see two soldiers who were once the enemy of one another.
On January 17, 1863, a warship was launched from the Philadelphia Navy Yard and quickly joined the Civil War. The new ship was a Passaic-class monitor. A monitor is a kind of warship that is fairly small and does not have a lot of armor, speed, or maneuvering capabilities.
What a monitor does have, however, are big guns- much bigger than one might expect considering the size of the ship.
By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the barracks and other facilities had been modernized, along with the weapons and tactics training. 294 graduates served as officers in the Union Army, and 151 graduates were officers in the Confederate Army.
In some battles, West Point classmates faced each other across the battlefield commanding opposite sides. Almost every battle of the Civil War was led by a West Point graduate.