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The Civil War was a little more than a year old in the first days of September 1862, and Confederate general Robert E. Lee knew the South could not win a prolonged struggle against the manpower and industrial might of the Union. He hoped for a decisive victory that would lift the South’s spirits, weaken the North’s will to fight, and bring European recognition of the Confederacy—and, with that recognition, a halt to the war. Lee planned to invade Maryland, strike Pennsylvania, and ultimately move on Washington, D.C.
Union commander George McClellan marched his army across the Potomac from Washington to meet Lee’s challenge. The two armies arrived on either side of Antietam Creek in northern Maryland on the afternoon of September 15. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia numbered about 40,000 men. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac totaled more than twice that number, about 87,000. A skirmish occurred on the afternoon of September 16, but it was a prelude to the climactic battle, which commenced at dawn on September 17, 1862.1
More than 6,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died that day in the farm fields outside Sharpsburg, making it the single bloodiest day in American military history. More soldiers died that day than died in combat in all other wars fought by America in the nineteenth century combined: the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the Spanish–American War, and the Indian wars. Beyond the statistics was the indescribable carnage. “Words are inadequate to portray the scene,” wrote one soldier. Another, in charge of a burial party, described the dead “in every state of mutilation, sans arms, sans legs, heads, and intestines, and in greater number than on any field we have seen before.” It was said that a person could walk a mile or more atop the bodies without touching ground.2
An estimated 5,000 people watched the fighting from a hill a safe distance away. Edwin Forbes of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported that the battle took place on open ground and was fully visible from the hillside, which was “black with spectators.” “No battle of the war, I think, was witnessed by so many people,” he reported. It is possible the photographers Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson were among them. The two men, employees of Mathew Brady, had been following the Union army for about two weeks, primarily photographing soldiers in their camps. When exactly they arrived at Antietam is uncertain, but they were on the field with their equipment the day after the battle; no other American battlefield had been photographed so soon after the fighting. The pair exposed seventy glass negatives within five days of the battle. Their images include landmarks of the field, hastily dug graves, and the corpses of horses and men. A union surgeon described bodies “stretched along, in one straight line, ready for interment, at least a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.”3
Gardner and Gibson’s photographs were the first of dead soldiers on American [End Page 80] soil. They would be displayed in Brady’s New York studio a few weeks later, presenting the public with a previously unseen, shocking aspect of war. That the two men had managed to take photographs at all under the conditions was a technological and psychological feat. “But it is not the technical expertise that is ultimately Gardner’s accomplishment,” wrote his biographer Mark Katz. “[R...