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At Ease: Looking at Fredericksburg through a Camera Lens in 1864

The Gardner Photographs of Fredericksburg


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We're in the process of "re-imagining" our At Ease Emails to bring you some more in-depth and interesting content about the Civil War in Central Virginia. There will be a video, a longer article, and a parting shot photograph as you'll find in this email. Some of the formatting might change over the next few weeks to make it even easier to access and view these features of the At Ease Emails.

We hope you'll enjoy the deeper, more focused look at topics related to Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House!


Civil War Fredericksburg

In 1864, James Gardner took a series of images around the town of Fredericksburg and the surrounding area. Here are a few from the collection presented in a video:


James Gardner: A Photographer Arrives in Civil War Fredericksburg

Overshadowed by his older brother. At first glance, that might be the summary of James Gardner’s life and photography work. However, whether he was working alongside Alexander Gardner or heading out on his own to capture war scenes, James had an interesting life and created some of the most useful photographs taken in Civil War Fredericksburg. Born in 1829, James grew up with his family in Glasgow, Scotland. Utopian societies intrigued his older brother and they formed a company to raise money, immigrate, buy land in the United States, and set up their own community. Although James traveled to the United States in 1850 and helped his brother buy land in Iowa, the Clyesdale Colony only lasted six years. Family members and other community residents contracted tuberculosis, forcing the social experiment to a close. After the end of the experimental utopia, James and his older brother relocated to New York where they met Matthew Brady, a rising star in American photography. Brady hired the Gardner brothers to work in his studio. The photography business boomed in 1861 as officers and men rushed to have their photographers taken in the studio setting to show off their new uniforms and send home an image to their families and friends. Many of the famous Union officers stopped by the Brady studio to sit for a photograph. However, Matthew Brady developed a new idea for photography beyond the permanent or mobile portrait studio. He wanted to document the war in the camps, on the battlefields, and in the damaged communities. Brady sent the Gardner brothers and at least 20 other skilled photographers into the field. Travelling with a mobile “darkroom,” these photographers created and processed the images on site, taking the rather complicated chemical process on the campaign march. At times, Alexander and James Gardner worked together in the field or sometimes separately, depending on circumstances. Alexander Gardner’s work seems to be better identified in the archives, but likely some of the shots were set up or processed by the younger brother. The Gardners photographed at McClellan’s headquarters during 1862 and captured images of battlefields at Bull Run, along the Virginia Peninsula, Cedar Mountain, and Antietam—usually topography or casualties after the fighting had ended. In May 1863, the Gardners staged a little secession movement of their own. The pair opened their own photographic studio in Washington D.C. and many of Brady’s staff followed them. Although it was rumored that the split occurred over a lack of photographer credit, it is more likely that Brady’s sketchy business practices and regular troubles paying his employed photographers prompted the move. The following year James Gardner returned to the field with his camera and equipment. Since the Union army used Fredericksburg, Virginia, as a hospital town and supply base during the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, the historic city was firmly in Federal control, allowing a photographer to finally explore and document the streets and structures which had already witnessed significant fighting during the war. James moved along the Rappahannock River, along Caroline Street, and out toward Marye’s Heights. The series of photographs revealed the situation in 1864 and the labels on the images also revealed a deep interest in what had previously happened at these locations. For example, one of the images of Marye’s Heights is archive-labeled “where the Irish Legion fell, December 1862.” Other photograph labels specifically noted the damages from the artillery barrage in that First Battle of Fredericksburg, nearly a year and a half earlier. His series of photographs taken in Fredericksburg in 1864 are some of the best war-era images of the town and area and are valuable resources for historians and historic preservationists. The series of 1864 Fredericksburg photographs created by James Gardner are notable for their visual content and also for being solely cataloged with his name—not his brother’s and not the pair of them. These photographs are now preserved by the Library of Congress and many have been digitized for online viewing and research.


Parting Shot

Here's the photograph labeled "Fredericksburg, Virginia. Marye's house where the Irish Legion fell, December [13], 1862." The Sunken Road runs below and to the front of this scene and the house in the photograph stands on the hill overlooking the plain where the Irish Brigade charged during the First Battle of Fredericksburg. If you look carefully, you'll see some rifle pits and other earthworks in front of the house which were dug by Confederate soldiers.


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.

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