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Alexander Gardner: Scottish Photographer of the Civil War

(This article appeared as 'War Photo Book Hailed as a Masterpiece' in 'Crossfire' the magazine of the ACWRT(UK) No. 57 August 1998 - With Acknowledgements to 'Golden Threads - A Look at Paisley's Past')

President Abraham Lincoln posed in front of a camera lens for a series of studio portraits. Five days later, on April 14, 1865, he was assassinated. The man who 'got the scoop' of these last historic pictures was a remarkable Paisley man called Alexander Gardner.

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK HEritage / Lincoln

Gardner, born in Paisley in 1821, became an apprentice silversmith jeweller at the age of fourteen. To further his education, he took evening classes at the Glasgow Athenaeum, studying astronomy, optics, physics and chemistry.

However, it was not jewellery that was to interest Gardner, but photography, which, by the 1850s, was flourishing in Paisley. His expertise in the wet-plate process soon gained him recognition. Gardner, a keen socialist, became editor of the 'Glasgow Sentinel' newspaper, then noted for its support of Chartism, socialism and for its attacks against capitalism.

He published pamphlets promoting emigration to a colony called Clydesdale in the wilderness of Iowa, USA. Gardner persuaded many of his friends and relatives to settle in this semi-socialist "Utopia". He intended to join them but, because of an epidemic in the settlement, never did.

Instead in 1856, he arrived in New York. His fare to America had been paid by one of that city's internationally known portrait photographers, Mathew Brady. Brady had invited Gardner to join him as his right hand man. There, in sumptuous studio surroundings, Gardner took portraits of presidents, state governors, famous authors, millionaires and royalty. Gardner created a sensation when he first produced his 'Imperial' photographs. These life size, hand-tinted portraits were eagerly sought by the rich and famous.

In 1858, Gardner was made manager of the Washington studio and busied himself with

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / Gardner

experiments in lighting by electricity. Soon he had constructed a crude machine producing artificial light. When the American Civil War began in 1861, Brady was appointed official photographer of the Union armies. Gardner also set off to the battlefields in a wagon fitted out as a darkroom, to record the war.

He photographed the Army of the Potomac and took evocative, macabre pictures of the Battle of Antietam in 1862, where "the two lines almost tore themselves to pieces" leaving 20,000 dead or wounded. In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Gardner recorded scenes which shocked America, the most famous picture being 'Death of a Rebel Sniper.' He also worked with the government Secret Service and made copies of maps at their general headquarters. There he befriended fellow Scot, Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective who was head of the American Secret Service and bodyguard of Abraham Lincoln.

Gardner was a quiet, dour intelligent man. He wished to make his name as a photographer, but all the pictures that he had taken of the war were credited to Brady. Due to this dispute over copyright and attribution of photographs, Gardner left Brady's studio and set up his own business in 1863. In 1865, a famous client was Abraham Lincoln. Later, he took dramatic pictures of the men who conspired in the assassination of Lincoln and their execution.

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / Gardner

He also photographed the parties accused of war crimes during the civil war, including their summary executions. He published his classic, two volume work 'Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War' in 1866. Each book contained 100 hand-mounted original prints carefully pasted in place, an expensive production

This venture was a commercial failure as Americans were more concerned, with forgetting the Civil War than looking at Gardner's views of ruined buildings, shattered bridges and corpse-strewn battlefields. Today, this extremely rare work is hailed as a photographic masterpiece.

Back in Washington after the war, Gardner ran a portrait gallery and found a new use for photography. He was the first man to compile a 'rogues gallery' for the Washington police! In 1867, he was commissioned to record the progress of the Union Pacific Railway across the vast plains of Kansas, Texas, and the Chisholm Trail. His portraits of frontiersmen and Plains Indians brought the 'Wild West' to life for the city dwellers. Surprisingly, during this long assignment, Gardner never found the 'Utopian' wilderness that he had dreamt of, but returned to Washington. He died there in 1882 and is buried in Arlington cemetery among America's heroes.

click image to zoom

Paisley is proud of one of her most distinguished sons, who assembled over three thousand negatives of the American Civil War, covering every campaign. Of this work he said; "It is designed to speak for itself. As mementoes of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest." How right he was!

© ACWRT(UK) 1998 & 2001

Picture Credit

Abraham Lincoln: - all rights reserved

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