The Dead of Antietam

1862
Photograph by Alexander Gardner

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.

New York Times

The Dead of Antietam

  • Alexander Gardner
  • 1862

It was at Antietam, the blood-churning battle in Sharpsburg, Md., where more Americans died in a single day than ever had before, that one Union soldier recalled how “the piles of dead ... were frightful.” The Scottish-born photographer Alexander Gardner arrived there two days after the September 17, 1862, slaughter. He set up his stereo wet-plate camera and started taking dozens of images of the body-strewn country­side, documenting fallen soldiers, burial crews and trench graves. Gardner worked for Mathew Brady, and when he returned to New York City his employer arranged an exhibition of the work. Visitors were greeted with a plain sign reading “The Dead of Antietam.” But what they saw was anything but simple. Genteel society came upon what are believed to be the first recorded images of war casualties. Gardner’s photographs are so sharp that people could make out ­faces. The death was unfiltered, and a war that had seemed remote suddenly became harrowingly immediate. Gardner helped make Americans realize the significance of the fratricide that by 1865 would take more than 600,000 lives. For in the hallowed fields fell not faceless strangers but sons, brothers, fathers, cousins and friends. And Gardner’s images of Antietam created a lasting legacy by establishing a painfully potent visual precedent for the way all wars have since been covered.

See Alexander Gardner's images of the Civil War's gruesome reality

Explore more iconic images that changed the world.Visit the TIME Shop to purchase prints, posters and more.

Visit the Shop
Return to the Collection