Incidents of the War: Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery in Action

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Incidents of the War: Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery in Action
Timothy O'Sullivan
Albumen print from collodion wet plate negative
6 15/16 x 9 1/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Mrs. Everett Kovler

The gunners from Battery D have just taken their position and are ready to engage with the enemy. Looking down the long line of artillery we can see soldiers preparing for the battle ahead. The opponent is out of view. The cannons are ready to fire. In the distance we can see white tents where the troops have set up camp.

It was difficult to photograph the war. Photographers rarely tried to capture action scenes like this one on the battlefield. Not only was it dangerous but the bulky cameras, long exposures, and collodion-on-glass, or wet-plate, technology they were using made it difficult. Because of these limitations, photographers often documented strategic sites, camp scenes, preparation for battle, and the aftermath of battle rather than the fighting itself. In fact, in the caption for this photograph, it states that “This picture was made as the guns were engaging the enemy, the gunners…calling to the photographer to hurry his wagon out of the way, unless he was anxious to figure in the list of casualties.”

Photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan played a key role in capturing the military experience. He is best known for images that reveal the destructive power of modern warfare. Forty-four of O’Sullivan’s photographs, including this one, were printed in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War published by Alexander Gardner in 1865-66. It was one the first collection of Civil War photographs and has become the best-known visual representation of the conflict.

1. What do you think it would have been like to be at this battle?

2. How prepared do these troops look to face their enemies?

3. What details can you observe about the way battles were carried out?

Further reading:
Gardner, Alexander. Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the American Civil War 1861-1865. New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002.

Lee, Anthony W.  On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Cornell University Library. “Seven-Millionth Volume: Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.” Accessed February 29, 2012.

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