Lens on History: Civil War Photography on the Rappahannock

By Jane Kosa, CRRL Staff

Imagine living in Fredericksburg in the 1860s and seeing the bustling riverfront shut down during the first year of the war. Picture the remains of the railroad bridge across the Rappahannock that the retreating Confederates wrecked in April 1862. See the pontoon boats that the Army of the Potomac used to construct temporary bridges to cross the river. Stand at the southern end of Marye's Heights and relive the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Take a walk down Hanover and Liberty Streets in 1864 and view the shattered buildings. Such is the power of the photographic lens.

This webliography concentrates on only one of the basic forms of photography that existed during the Civil War: the photographs taken in the field. These are not the individual portraits of soldiers taken by itinerant army camp or small town photographers or the carte de visite which was usually a photograph of high-ranking officers. The works that emphasize the photography of the war instead of strategies and battles that this webliography denotes are but a minuscule portion of our library's collection.

Image Note: "Pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, VA." Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. Photo selected from Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: The Civil War as Photographed by Mathew Brady Web presentation.

From the Central Rappahannock Regional Library

Brady's Civil War by Webb Garrison.
This is a collection of Civil War images photographed by Mathew Brady and his assistants. On page 79, view the destruction on the Fredericksburg battlefield caused by a single projectile fired by gunners of the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. Pages 152 and 153 show federal engineers rebuilding the town's infrastructure. Although the caption states that the rail track near the Potomac is being repaired, the photograph clearly refers to the Rappahannock. The photograph on page 232 shows the remains of the Phillips house that had been seized by General Burnside during his assault on the town. Look on page 251 for the last Fredericksburg photograph that Brady took. He used a telescopic lens and climbed to the top of a railroad bridge to make this photo of a group of men under the command of Robert E. Lee.

The Civil War: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward.
This companion volume to the nine-part public television series contains more than 500 illustrations. Some of the photographs have never appeared before. The accounts of the Battle of Fredericksburg as well as some very memorable photographs of the area appear on pages 168 through 174. On page 185, one can almost feel the bitter January cold as the three Confederate pickets huddle around the fire and struggle to stay warm.

The Civil War through the Camera: Hundreds of Vivid Photographs Actually Taken in Civil War Times, Together with Elson's New History by Henry W. Elson.
Each of the sixteen parts of this two-volume set provides full accounts of one or more battles. Photographs by Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner illustrate the set. Ohio State University history professor Henry W. Elson provides the explanatory text, Elson's New History. The battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville appear in part seven. The Battle of Wilderness and Spotsylvania and the Bloody Angle appear in part eleven.

Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War by Alexander Gardner.
This unabridged reprint of the 1866 edition contains 100 photographs, all of which are the original size. Plates 29 through 33 relate to the Fredericksburg area. An explanatory page of text introduces each plate.

The Image of War, 1861-1865 edited by William C. Davis.
The National Historical Society spent ten years tracking down original wartime images to compile this six volume set which contains more than 4,000 images. According to the index, which appears in Volume VI, images relating to activities along the Rappahannock River appear in volumes II through V. Volumes I through III contain the major portion of the images involving the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Mathew Brady's Illustrated History of the Civil War, 1861-65 and the Causes That Led Up to the Great Conflict by Benson J. Lossing.
Lossing compiled this chronological summary and record of all of the engagements that occurred during the war from the official records of the War Department. In this work, Lossing reproduces the official Brady War Department photographs. The book is not indexed. It is a chronological account of the war. However, the photographs that appear on each page do not always correspond with the accompanying text. Some of the photographs are not identified in detail. Page 129 shows the effect of 32-pound shell from Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. The location is not identified as Fredericksburg. A photograph of a pontoon bridge on the Rappahannock appears on page 234. The accompanying text account is a discussion of activities in the Mississippi Valley in 1861. Pages 304 through 307 describe the Battle of Fredericksburg. Six photographs accompany the text. Although the activity described in Chapter XIX occurs in the Southwest, more photographs of the Fredericksburg area appear on pages 309, 311, 315, 317(?), 319, and 321.

The Photographic History of the Civil War edited by Francis Trevelyan Miller.
This 3,497-page, 10-volume set has 3,389 photographs taken during the war. In addition to battlefields, many photographs of camp scenes, hospitals, prisons, forts and artillery, army movements, and material also appear. Volume X contains the index to the entire set. According to the index, photographs of Fredericksburg appear in nine of the ten volumes. There are no photographs in volume VI. Photographs showing activity on the Rappahannock River appear in volumes I and II and volumes IV through IX.

Russell's Civil War Photographs: 116 Historic Prints by Andrew J. Russell.
Andrew J. Russell was possibly the only Civil War soldier who was also an official Civil War photographer. This work reproduces all the photographic prints in a scrapbook entitled "United States Military Railroad Photographic Album." The captions and the sequence of pictures have been altered. The first three photographs appearing in this edition are from Fredericksburg. Photographs number 15 through 23 also show scenes from the Fredericksburg area.

Touched by Fire: A Photographic Portrait of the Civil War edited by William C. Davis.
This two-volume project of the National Historical Society contains some images appearing in print for the first time. They have been reproduced from the original glass-plate negatives. The set includes indexes. Battlefield photographs of the Fredericksburg area appear on pages 60 through 62 in Volume I and pages 76 and 147 in Volume II.

On the Web

America's Civil War
From the Free Lance-Star, this site contains resources about our local battles. To access the photographs, select Images/Multimedia. Fifteen photographs of Fredericksburg appear. Click on the image to enlarge it and to read the short explanation of the photograph.

American Memory: Selected Civil War Photographs
The site contains 1,118 photographs and is part of the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress. Mathew Brady supervised the preparation of most of the images contained in this website. Search by keyword or browse the subject index to access this collection. There are at least 25 photographs of the Rappahannock/Fredericksburg area: two of Port Royal, nine of Fredericksburg, twelve of Falmouth, and two of the Rappahannock River.

This Web site contains over 1,000 Civil War images, photographs, and cartes de visite. To navigate, select from predefined categories. Under "Other locations," the following numbers refer to the Fredericksburg area: 95, 96, 115, 376. 377, 378, 381, and 771.

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park - Fredericksburg Battlefield
This Web site has a lot of links. You can see some photographs from the era by selecting "Walking Trails" and "Fire in the Streets," or you can choose "Battles" for links to some of the other battles in the area: Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and Wilderness.

National Archives and Records Administration
A good introduction to Brady's Civil War photography collection, this site has 16 photographs from the Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania area. Select "Digital Classroom," "Teaching with Documents," "Civil War and Reconstruction," and "The Civil War as Photographed by Mathew Brady." The site has sixteen photographs. At least seven photographs mention either the Rappahannock or Fredericksburg in their titles.