Top of page

Collection Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints

Mathew Brady: Biographical Note

Early Career

Mathew Brady arrived in New York City at the age of sixteen. He worked as a department store clerk, and started his own small business manufacturing jewelry cases. He also learned the new daguerreotype process, the first practical method of making photographic portraits. By 1844, he had his own daguerreotype studio on New York's Broadway (see the Background and Scope section of the Daguerreotype Collection for further information).

Brady acquired a reputation as one of America's greatest photographers -- producer of portraits of the famous. In 1858 he opened Brady's National Photographic Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. The city provided him with access to the nation's leaders and foreign dignitaries. As he himself said, "From the first, I regarded myself as under obligation to my country to preserve the faces of its historic men and mothers." He became one of the first photographers to use photography to chronicle national history.

Brady, the photographer, returned from Bull Run

Photographing the Civil War

At the peak of his success as a portrait photographer, Brady turned his attention to the Civil War. Planning to document the war on a grand scale, he organized a corps of photographers to follow the troops in the field. Friends tried to discourage him, citing battlefield dangers and financial risks, but Brady persisted. He later said, "I felt that I had to go. A spirit in my feet said 'Go,' and I went."

Mathew Brady did not actually take many of the Civil War photographs attributed to him. More of a project manager, he spent most of his time supervising his corps of traveling photographers, preserving their negatives and buying others from private photographers fresh from the battlefield, so that his collection would be as comprehensive as possible. When photographs from his collection were published, whether printed by Brady or adapted as engravings in publications, they were credited with Brady's name (e.g., "Photograph by Brady" or "Negative by M. B. Brady, New York"), although they were actually the work of many different people.

In 1862 Brady shocked America by displaying Alexander Gardner's and James Gibson's photographs of battlefield corpses from Antietam. This exhibition marked the first time most people witnessed the carnage of war. The New York Times said that Brady had brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war."

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies of dead, Louisiana Regiment

Business Setback

After the Civil War, Brady was faced with mounting debts. In an effort to save his business, he tried to sell his collection of war views. Having risked his fortune on his Civil War enterprise, Brady lost the gamble and fell into bankruptcy. His negatives were neglected until 1875, when Congress purchased the entire archive for $25,000. Brady's debts swallowed the entire sum. He died in 1896, penniless and underappreciated. In his final years, Brady said, "No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life."

Brady's Legacy

Despite his financial failure, Mathew Brady had a great and lasting effect on the art of photography. His war scenes demonstrated that photographs could be more than posed portraits, and his efforts represent the first instance of the comprehensive photo-documentation of a war.

A selected bibliography relating to Mathew Brady is available.