17 Oct 1821 1
Paisley, United Kingdom 1
10 Dec 1882 1
Washington, D.C. 1

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Full Name:
Alexander Gardner 1
17 Oct 1821 1
Paisley, United Kingdom 1
Male 1
10 Dec 1882 1
Washington, D.C. 1
Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C. 1

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Photography at Antietam

Alexander Gardner image of a Union burial crew at Antietam.  

The ability to capture a moment in time has fascinated us ever since an image was first produced in 1839. First a novelty, then a powerful medium of information and emotion, photography and photojournalism came of age during the American Civil War. No other conflict had ever been recorded in such detail. Nowhere else is this truer than at Antietam, the first battlefield photographed before the dead were buried.

It started with just a few, but by 1865 dozens of photographers were hauling glass plates and volatile chemicals across the war-torn countryside. Today, because of their work, we can still look into the faces of soldiers and visit the locations of tragic events.

Louis Daguerre produced the first known image on polished silver plates in his studio in France. His invention quickly captivated the Europeans. Other inventors looked for new ways to produce their photographs. After a decade of silver plates and paper experiments, Englishman Frederick Archer started working with glass plates. This critical breakthrough, the glass negative, allowed positive copies to be transferred or created on light sensitized paper.

The initial problem with glass plates was keeping the light-sensitive chemicals on the glass. Archer overcame this problem by using a sticky transparent liquid called "collodion." For this new process a puddle of collodion was poured onto a glass or iron plate. Then the plate was tilted so that the collodion flowed over the entire plate leaving an even coating. When the coating began to set, the plate was then taken into the "darkroom" and then lowered into a bath of silver nitrate where it received its light-sensitive coating. The plates had to be sensitized just minutes prior to making the exposure and then developed before the coating dried - thus the name "wet plate" photography. After exposing the plate – "taking the picture" – the photographer had to quickly fix and wash the plate thoroughly. Then the finished image was dried over an alcohol lamp and coated with a varnish for protection.

Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was in Europe and he helped bring the magic of photography to the United States. One of his students was Matthew Brady. Brady opened his photographic studio in New York City in 1844 where he became almost as famous as the notables who sat for their portraits. Brady’s gallery was still using the Daguerre silver plate process. In 1856, glass plate photography made it to the States and no one perfected its process, or used it more effectively, than Brady’s employee Alexander Gardner.

Alexander Gardner at Antietam

When war threatened the nation in the spring of 1861, thousands of soldiers flocked to Washington, D.C., to defend the capital. Photographers followed in their footsteps capturing camp scenes and portraits of untested, jubilant greenhorns in their new uniforms. It so happened that Alexander Gardner had just opened a new studio in the capital for the most notable photographer of his era - Mathew Brady. Gardner also took advantage of the coming storm to increase his business. All of the early war photographs were taken in studios or tents. No one had produced images in the field.

It wasn’t until September of 1862 that the first true images of war were produced. Antietam was the first battle to depict the grim and bloody truth of civil war through the lens of photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant James Gibson. Gardner made two trips to Antietam. The first was just two days after the battle, the second, two weeks later when President Abraham Lincoln visited the battlefield.

During both of his trips, Gardner moved across the battlefield taking advantage of another new photographic technique that increased the impact of war images – stereograph. Two lenses capture two simultaneous photographs, and when seen through a viewer, the mind creates a three-dimensional image. Parlors were filled with cards and viewers as stereo views became the rage in America. Of the approximately ninety images Gardner took at Antietam, about seventy were in stereo, adding a new, horrific view of the American landscape to home collections.

Newspapers could not reproduce photographs, but woodcuts from the Antietam images spread across the country. Gardner’s original images were put on display in New York City at Brady’s gallery. New Yorkers were shocked and appalled. The New York Times stated that Brady was able to "bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it…"

Types of Photographic Images

The following five forms of photographic technology were used during the Civil War to make the miracle of photographic images possible:

1. Daguerreotype - This was the earliest form of photography, invented in 1839 by Frenchman Louis Daguerre. It used polished silver plates as the base for the image. Few Daguerreotypes were taken during the Civil War.

2. Ambrotype - Invented in the early 1850s, the ambrotype resembled a daguerreotype except glass, instead of a silver plate, was used for the base of the image. The ambrotype was a thin or light collodion negative on a glass plate. When backed with black varnish, paper or cloth the negative turned into a positive photograph. This technique was popular until the 1860s.

3. Ferrotypes or "Tin-Types" - This process was invented soon after the ambrotype. These photographs became the most common form for inexpensive images made during the Civil War. The tintype was very similar to the Ambrotype, except a blackened piece of sheet iron was used, instead of glass, as the base of the photograph.

4. Carte de Visite - The carte de visite (French for "visiting card) was a small paper print made from a glass negative. This new ability to mass-produce prints from a collodion negative fascinated the nation, both North and South.


Stereo card viewer or stereoscope

5. Stereograph, Stereoview or Stereocard - Many of the greatest Civil War photographs, including the majority taken at Antietam, were actually produced as a stereo negatives. The camera had two lenses about the same distance apart as human eyes. Two images were taken at the same time, reproduced on a rectangular card, and when seen through a special viewer a three dimensional effect was produced.



Many photographers would provide us with an unbelievably rich photographic history of America’s most costly war. Interest in the War has endured because of men like Timothy O’Sullivan, Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and James Gibson. More recently Ken Burns in his profound PBS documentary relied heavily on the work of America’s first great photojournalists to inspire and educate us.

Today, the stark black and white images of the Civil War are as eloquent and as wrenching as they were 140 years ago when the New York Times described Gardner’s Antietam photographs and stated that "...broken hearts cannot be photographed."

Alexander Gardner's traveling darkroom wagon at the Burnside Bridge

Alexander Gardner USA PHOTOGRAPHER OCTOBER 17, 1821 – DECEMBER 10, 1882

Alexander Gardner’s work as a Civil War photographer has often been attributed to his better known contemporary, Mathew Brady. It is only in recent years that the true extent of Gardner’s work has been recognized, and he has been given the credit he deserves.

Gardner was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1821, later moving with his family to Glasgow. In 1850, he and his brother James travelled to the United States to establish a cooperative community in Iowa. Returning to Scotland to raise more money, Gardner purchased the Glasgow Sentinel, quickly turning it into the second largest newspaper in the city. 

On his return to the United States in 1851, Gardner paid a visit to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, New York, where he saw the photographs of Mathew Brady for the first time. Shortly afterward, Gardner began reviewing exhibitions of photographs in the Glasgow Sentinel, as well as experimenting with photography on his own.

In 1856, Gardner decided to immigrate to America, eventually settling in New York. He soon found employment with Mathew Brady as a photographer. At first, Gardner specialized in making large photographic prints, called Imperial photographs, but as Brady’s eyesight began to fail, Gardner took on more and more responsibilities. In 1858, Brady put him in charge of the entire gallery.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, the demand for portrait photography increased, as soldiers on their way to the front posed for images to leave behind for their loved ones. Gardner became one of the top photographers in this field.

After witnessing the battle at Manassas, Virginia, Brady decided that he wanted to make a record of the war using photographs. Brady dispatched over 20 photographers, including Gardner, throughout the country to record the images of the conflict. Each man was equipped with his own travelling darkroom so that he could process the photographs on site.

In November of 1861, Gardner was granted the rank of honorary Captain on the staff of General George McClellan. This put him in an excellent position to photograph the aftermath of America’s bloodiest day, the Battle of Antietam. On September 19, 1862, two days after the battle, Gardner became the first of Brady’s photographers to take images of the dead on the field. Over 70 of his photographs were put on display at Brady’s New York gallery. In reviewing the exhibit, the New York Times stated that Brady was able to “bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it…” Unfortunately, Gardner’s name was not mentioned in the review.

Gardner went on to cover more of the war’s terrible battles, including Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the siege of Petersburg. He also took what is considered to be the last photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, just 5 days before his assassination. Gardner would go on to photograph the conspirators who were convicted of killing Lincoln, as well as their execution.

After the war, Brady established a gallery for Gardner in Washington, DC. In 1867, Gardner was appointed the official photographer of the Union Pacific Railroad, documenting the building of the railroad in Kansas as well as numerous Native American tribes that he encountered.

In 1871, Gardner gave up photography to start an insurance company. He lived in Washington until his death in 1882. Regarding his work he said, “It is designed to speak for itself. As mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest.”

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