Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Twice Told Tuesday - Irish Photographer Of The Civil War

Twice Told Tuesday features a photography related article reprinted from
my collection of old photography books, magazines, and newspapers.

Sure and he was Irish. Mathew B. Brady, the Irish Photographer Of The Civil War, tells it again for Twice Told Tuesday on St. Patrick's Day.

Mathew B. Brady

Recently 3,500 original photographs of the Civil War were discovered, after remaining hidden for half a century. They are extraordinarily lifelike and bring vividly before the eye the passion and pathos of that bloody time. They were the work of an Irishman Mathew B. Brady, a famous photographer in New York, an artist, a camera genius, having headquarters at the time on Broadway, where he charged as much as one hundred dollars for a single photograph. He knew more about the art than any other man in the United States, having studied in France, where photography was born.

Brady was above all things an artist, and when the first gun of the war was fired he became eager to try out his genius on the field of battle. Thinking (like everybody else) that the struggle would last about three months, he gave up his big business and went to the front—armed not with a gun, but with the instrument that was to hand down to posterity the most accurate story of the war in existence; for the eye of the camera sees all things and cannot tell aught but the truth.

He obtained the protection of the Secret Service under Allan Pinkerton, dispatched photographers right and left after the armies (one of them Alexander Gardner, whom Brady had brought over from Scotland and made a camera artist like himself), then for four years he and his followers, with typical Irish pluck, braved death in a dozen forms; and handed down to this generation the superb record of the worst conflict the world has ever seen.

Brady and the photographers he led were everywhere—at Gettysburg—New Orleans—Vicksburg—Petersburg—in Andersonville—on board the ships-of-war—on the battle-line—in the prisons—in the hospitals—in camp.

At the end of the war Brady offered his unique series of photographs to the Federal Government, and that government, overwhelmed by debt, faced by ruin, paid $27,840 for that collection, impossible to duplicate, and secured at enormous expense and risk. Even today the 3,500 pictures would cost much more than that to take; but fifty years ago, when very heavy cameras had to be used and a dark room moved about from camp to camp, the expense was much greater. Brady had sunk in the adventure every cent of his own, and had borrowed heavily. At the end of the war he was bankrupt. As if to pile on misfortune, the Government did not pay him his little money until eight years after the war was over. Brady never recovered. He broke down—wandered about, wretchedly poor and unhappy—and died in the almsward of a hospital in New York.

That was the fate of a man who created a work which General Garfield and General Benj. F. Butler said was worth $150,000 to the Government as a secret record of its warfare!
But fortunately for posterity Brady had made an extra set of the plates for himself. After his bankruptcy these were knocked from pillar to post—first in one man's hands, then in another's, Brady himself lost track of them—twenty-five years they lay in a tumbledown garret in New York. Occasionally one or two would be reproduced by a crude wood-cut process. It is amazing that they were not destroyed.


Handy, Levin C. [Photographer Mathew B. Brady, three-quarter length portrait, facing front]. Photograph. 1939. From Library of Congress, American Memory, Civil War glass negative collection. Link (March 2009).

Murray, Thomas Hamilton. Journal of the American Irish Historical Society. New York: The Society. 1911.


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