|Photo by M. Brady (far right, leaning against tree) of Union Gen. Potter & his staff before the battle of the Wilderness, VA, in early May 1864.|
Surely the most sweeping and scarring drama America would experience in the 19th century was that of the Civil War. Brady
immediately recognized the opportunity the war afforded his lens for preserving history and shaping attitudes. Beginning
with the Battle of Bull Run in 1862, Brady organized twenty teams of photographers to cover the subsequent major engagements
of the war: at Mechanicsville, Fair Oaks, the seven day Battles, Sharpsburg, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg,
the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor. Though the enterprise would nearly bankrupt him, Brady and his crews produced over
3,500 Civil War photographs.
Brady's subject matter focused less on the actually shooting--his crew generally moved behind the troop lines--and more on the quotidian aspects of war: the protagonists--soldiers and generals--their camp life, their work building bridges, digging trenches, and fortifying positions, their exchanges in living and dying. In Brady's chronicle the war, itself, is a curiously elusive character. What his lens captures, instead, are the results of war: the ravages on man and landscape, the toll taken on human faces, human bodies, and in human hearts. As Walt Whitman, who had nursed the soldiers in the battlefield hospitals of Washington and Virginia, would write in DRUM TAPS: "The real war will never get in the books." It was this war which Brady documented so brilliantly: the rending conflict which cut down youth in their flowering, which pitted brother against brother, and which resulted in the highest loss of human life this nation has ever experienced in battle. Among Brady's most famous images are his photographs of Lincoln and Gettysburg. Together with Whitman's words they have inspired several contemporary song cycles, among them Ned Rorem's WAR SCENES and John Adams' THE WOUND DRESSER.
After the Civil War Brady, his name and his images having become household words, returned to private practice as a portraitist. His stunningly perceptive images, such as his 1867 study of Whitman, foreshadowed the work of the late 19th century painters of realism, among them Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent.
"And so goodbye to the war. I know not how it may have been to others. To me the main interest was in the rank and file of the armies, both sides, and even the dead on the field...The points illustrating the latent character of the American young were of more significance than the political interests involved. Future years will never know the seething hell of countless minor scenes. The real war will never get in the books, perhaps must not, and should not be. The whole land, North and South, was one vast hospital, greater (like life's) than the few distortions ever told. Think how much, and of importance, will be--has already been--buried in the grave."