The Man Who Photographed the Civil War

The Man Who Photographed the Civil War

George N. Barnard was one of 22 photographers Matthew Brady sent to record the Civil War.

<bt>In early March 1862, Union scouts began to pick up indications of a hasty and massive Confederate troop movement. On March 11, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan personally inspected the Rebel positions around Centreville and confirmed that Joseph Johnston's army had abandoned its mighty fortification line. As Union troops occupied the empty Confederate positions, curious civilians and newspaper reporters rushed out of Washington to see the fearsome Rebel defenses and winter quarters firsthand.

AMONG THEM was George N. Barnard, a photographer. As one of the pioneers in the new field of photography, he had opened a daguerreotype studio in Oswego, N.Y., and established a nationally known reputation for the quality of his portraits. He later went to work for Matthew Brady's studio in New York City and eventually became one of the 22 photographers Brady sent into the field to record the Civil War. Along with Timothy O'Sullivan, John Reekie and Alexander Gardner, Barnard photo-documented the war's early stages for Brady's organization. It was at a time when Brady took credit for all the photographs produced by his employees. Since Barnard worked in Northern Virginia in 1861 and 1862, many of the photos taken in the Centreville and Manassas region and attributed to Brady were actually taken by George Barnard.

Later in the war, after leaving Brady's firm, Barnard became the photographer for Gen. William T. Sherman and accompanied his army on its famous march through Georgia. Barnard's 1866 publication, titled "Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign," is considered to be a masterwork of early American photo publishing. It was also extremely expensive, selling for $100 a copy in its early editions.

Barnard was working in Chicago when the great fire destroyed his studio in October 1871. He quickly located new supplies and photographed the city's smoking ruins to document the disaster. He then moved to the South and operated a studio in Charleston, S.C., from 1873 to 1880. After returning to the North, he worked as the spokesman for the new line of photographic supplies being manufactured by the inventor George Eastman.

ALTHOUGH HE traveled with the armies and photographed the destruction of war, George Barnard was a gentle and modest man. He spent his last years residing at his son-in-law's farm, taking pictures of school children, friends and neighbors. He died in 1902 at the age of 82 and was buried in a quiet country cemetery in Cedarvale, N.Y. In 1964, the Onondaga County Historical Society placed a marker on his grave commemorating his role in the development of early photography. Today, originals of Barnard's Civil War work command prices ranging from $800 to $4,000, depending on the subject matter. His renowned photographs hang in the collections of many museums, including the Getty. The man who took pictures in Centreville in March 1862 deserves to be remembered for his skill in using the cumbersome cameras of his time. Not only did he leave us a photographic record of the Civil War, he helped make photography what it is today.

Karl Reiner is the author of "Sgt. Bellnapp's Secret," a historical novel set in the Centreville area.