Book Review | “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War”

816rsZHtFILReview by Francene DePrez

“Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War” offers a unique look at the Civil War, and just in time for Jefferson’s Pilgrimage Weekend on May 2-5, 2019.

This is a new edition first published in 1959, but it is an unabridged and unaltered reproduction of the first edition published in 1866.

Alexander Gardner, a Scot, and Mathew Brady, an Irish American, were two great artist-photographers. Brady is known as “Lincoln’s photographer.” Gardner, less well known, came to New York in 1865 to work for Brady and was his right-hand man for seven years.

The introduction says that the book is designed to speak for itself and contains 100 plates (photographs – all original size) actually taken during the Civil War. Each photograph is prefaced by a short explanation, written during the same era, to give a true sense of the War.

One fascinating photo, Plate 45, is entitled “Studying the Art of War, June 1863.” These words best described this book. It is a great pictorial of the Civil War. The back of the book says that this is “now among the rarest American books.”

We are fortunate to see this view of history in the reproduction available for checkout at Jefferson Carnegie Library. “Gardner’s photographs are among the greatest war pictures ever taken and are also among the most prized records of American history.

Photography today, one hundred years later, is far easier, but it is no better.” Today, we whip out our phones to take pictures that are immediately visible and ready to be shared instantly.

In contrast, Gardner had to develop his pictures in the field using wet plates that required long exposures, long drying times and imperfect chemicals, all while hearing the nearby sounds of battle.

One reviewer calls it the most important book published at the end of the Civil War. Another reviewer describes it best: “Mr. Gardner’s images immediately drew my attention. Although done over 135 years ago, they are masterpieces of the photographic art. What a nice surprise it was to find that each image came with a mini-essay that explained the significance of the place, explained more about the details of what was portrayed, and extended the observations to other situations and circumstances in the Civil War. As much as I liked the photographs, I found the mini-essays even better. The combination was incomparable!”

If you are a history buff, or just want to learn more about the Civil War, please step into the Library and check out this book.

The Library also has a companion book: “Mathew Brady’s illustrated history of the Civil War, 1861-65, and the causes that led up to the great conflict.” As we all enjoy the pageantry of our Pilgrimage celebration, these books serve as a reminder of the reality of the Civil War conflict.



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