The Camera At War: Early War Photographs

Ever since 1914, we have been used to seeing images of wars. Soldiers, battles, and the mechanical weapons of war too. More recently, we can watch modern wars ‘live’ with reporters bringing us footage of battles as they are happening, in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.

But war photography goes back much further than that. In The Crimean War of 1853-1856, intrepid photographers travelled to Russia with the armies, to try to capture the life of the Victorian soldier.

A British Guards Sergeant, proudly posing in his uniform.

CRIMEAN WAR 1854-56 (Q 71631) Portrait of Sergeant William Knapp, Coldstream Guards, with his pack and equipment. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

British Lancers, from a regiment that would have charged into The ‘Valley of Death’, at Balaclava.
(Photo obviously ‘colourised’)

From 1899-1901, The British Empire fought the army of Dutch settlers in Africa, known as The Boers.
Both sides wanted to retain their influence in two areas of South Africa.

Boer fighters. They were a tough and determined enemy.

British Troops manning a machine gun, taken in 1900 during that war.

But no war was ever previously photographed as much as the US Civil War, from 1861-1865.

Boy drummers, who would have marched into action alongside fighting troops.

Freed slaves and free black men were allowed to fight in the Union Army, though they mainly had white officers commanding them.
Here, some new recruits pose with their weapons.

This was one of the first times that the carnage of war was photographed for public consumption.
The bodies of soldiers after the Battle of Antietam, in 1862.

Confederate dead in the trenches at Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1863.

The body of a dead confederate after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863.
It was later discovered that many such photos were ‘staged’ by some photographers.
The bodies would be moved into specific locations, or arranged in the pose of a supposedly ‘heroic’ death.

There was also some attempt to portray the devastation caused by this long war.
Here is the centre of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865.

26 thoughts on “The Camera At War: Early War Photographs

  1. War photography is a dangerous old game at the best of times and I’m sure modern photographers have an occasional moan about DSLR bodies, a few lenses and a laptop to get the digital images sent quickly but when you stop and think about how much kit some of those old photographers would have been hauling around with them….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Camera At War: Early War Photographs — beetleypete – Truth Troubles
  3. The video coverage of the Viet Nam War which brought the war into our living rooms had as dramatic effect I think as did Matthew Brady’s photos of the Civil War here. Hard to think war is glorious when you see these scenes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I recall reading that the newspaper photo of the girl burned by napalm in Vietnam was the one that really ‘turned around’ international opinion about that war. Photos can indeed change history.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. “Freed slaves and free black men were allowed to fight in the Union Army, though they mainly had white officers commanding them.”

    One of my earliest songs, “Osceola Blues,” was inspired by the Battle of Fort Pillow, which is mentioned in the lyrics. Wikipedia: “The battle ended with a massacre of African-American Union troops and their white officers attempting to surrender.”

    As a general comment, I’ve always been fascinated by early wartime photographs. Thanks for showing me a few more!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Given that they were mostly being developed ‘in the field’, usually in small wagons, I think the talents of the time far exceed those of today. ‘Real’ photographs definitely endure.
      Thanks, Mary.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

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