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Photos offer glimpse of soldiers' lives between Civil War battles

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
David B. Woodbury
“Military Bridge Across the Chickahominy. Virginia” from “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War”
Alexander Gardner
'Mounting Guard'
Alexander Gardner
“Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, Brandy Station.”
Alexander Gardner
Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax, Va., from 'Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of The Civil War'
Alexander Gardner
“Camp Architecture–January 1864.”
Alexander Gardner
'Battery A, 4th US Artillery, Robertson’s Brigade,' from 'Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of The Civil War'

For many, the name Mathew Brady is synonymous with Civil War photography. Brady (1823-1896) was one of the most prolific photographers of the 19th century, creating a visual documentation of the Civil War period (1860-65) in the form of more than 10,000 images. But what many don't realize was that he didn't accomplish this alone.

In fact, in an effort to maintain studios in Washington, D.C., and New York City, where many influential politicians and war heroes sat for portraits, Brady employed more than 20 other men to work tirelessly alongside him.

One of them was Alexander Gardner (1821-82), a Scottish photographer who imigrated to the United States in 1856. It was Gardner who took many of the photographs in and alongside the battlefields. And it is his work that is the focus of “The Civil War,” the latest exhibit to open at Photo Antiquities on the North Side.

“The vintage albumen photographs allow visitors to step back in time and experience what took place when the soldiers were at rest and the war was at a lull,” says the museum's director, Bruce M. Klein.

Largely overshadowed by Brady in the 150 years since the Civil War was in full swing, Gardner would have gone largely unnoticed if not for the publication of “Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War” in 1866 by Philp & Solomons of Washington, D.C.

Each volume contained 50 hand-mounted original prints.

“The book didn't sell well,” Klein says. “So very few are in existence today.”

Brady's chief photographer during the early days of the Civil War, Gardner produced unforgettable pictures, among them Union troops in battle, Lincoln at Antietam, the ruins of Richmond and Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Klein says the technology of the time didn't allow photographs to be reproduced widely in newspapers or magazines, though woodcut prints based on photographs appeared in magazines such as Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

“It wasn't uncommon for people to visit Brady's galleries to view the photographs,” Klein says.

The images on display here are a selection that largely shows important sites and soldiers in encampments in and around various battlefields.

Among the more significant images on display is that of the historic Fairfax County Courthouse, one of the oldest buildings in Fairfax, Va., which is still in existence today.

Originally constructed in 1799 to serve as the seat of government in Fairfax County, during the Civil War, the first Confederate officer casualty took place on the courthouse grounds, and subsequently the building was occupied by both sides of the conflict, albeit at different times.

Klein says the soldiers stripped the building of all ornamental woodwork, leaving only the naked walls and roof. And in 1864, loopholes were cut through the sides of the building for riflemen and troops stationed in it to repel any pending attacks.

As noted in Gardner's sketchbook: “The records kept here were of great historical interest, dating from the early settlement of Virginia, and including many documents in the writing of General Washington. A great number of these were carried off by curiosity hunters in the sacking which took place in September 1862, and a still greater number were ruthlessly destroyed by the soldiery.”

The image “Battery A, 4th US Artillery, Robertson's Brigade” features one of the most celebrated horse batteries of the Army of the Potomac, the major Union Army in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War.

In the batteries designed for cavalry service, every man was mounted, except when in action. This picture includes four “12–pounder” cannons (the largest caliber of long-barreled field pieces used in battery), with limbers and caissons to the rear. To the left of the battery wagon there is a forge, ambulance and wagons for transportation, which were all that was necessary for light battery in the field. In the background, another battery can be seen in camp. And just on the edge of the woods, brigade headquarters.

Some of the images are surprisingly serene, such as “Camp Architecture — January 1864.” Here a soldier and a female companion are seen sitting outside of his summer quarters. Much like the camp depicted here, many a soldier's camp was surrounded with neat hedges and had arches bearing the corps badge and other devices.

Other military-architecture images on display include “Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, Brandy Station.” Picturing the general headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, it was enclosed with a net brush fence and planked foot walks connecting the officer's quarters. Attached to the headquarters were the offices of the adjutant-general, the chief quartermaster, chief commissary and provost marshal general, and heads of the engineer, signal and telegraph corps.

Not always a location of bustling wartime activity, headquarters like these also were places of relaxation in which soldiers and their visitors played chess or poker, often accompanied by live music being played by visiting musicians.

It's worth noting that not all of the images in “Gardner's Sketchbook” were by Gardner. “Military Bridge Across the Chickahominy. Virginia” was photographed by David B. Woodbury (birth and death dates unknown). It features a “grape-vine bridge,” so called for its “tortuous course through the swamp,” wrote Gardner. “Its construction was necessarily rude, as rough, unhewn, and twisted logs formed the material.”

A small but nevertheless important bridge, Gardner wrote of it: “If, in that fight, our troops had been defeated, the limited facilities of re-crossing the Chickahominy would probably have led to the capture of the greater portion of the corps.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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