General Grant's Council of War, Massaponax Church, Virginia
This small, candid photograph—likely a half-stereo view—offers an illuminating “snapshot” of a typical late war meeting of Union generals, a “Council of War,” in a field near Massaponax, Virginia. The chaotic study is one of the most daring made by any Union photographer. To compose it, Timothy H. O’Sullivan transported his equipment to an upper window in the gallery of a Baptist church that offered a useful elevated perspective from which to view the scene. Ulysses S. Grant’s soldiers have removed the church pews and placed them under the trees; staff officers gather around to discuss the situation. Evidence suggests that it had been a disastrous day for the Union troops, as the losses were heavy and no strategic advantage had been gained. In the background are rows of horse-drawn baggage wagons and ambulances transporting supplies for the next day’s engagement and the wounded to field hospitals. In the foreground General Grant bends over a pew and looks over his shoulder at a large map held in the lap of General George Meade, head of the Army of the Potomac.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan (American, born Ireland, 1840–1882)
Hundreds of photographers whose names may never be known made their living following the armies during the Civil War. They worked out in the field tents and traveled at a moment’s notice. Photographers recorded the faces of tens of thousands of soldiers: new recruits and veterans—producing a vast likeness of American society. Many Civil War photographers began their careers as apprentices to Mathew B. Brady, America's self-appointed photographic "historian." Initially, a small corps of photographers copied maps and charts for the Union's Secret Service, which were distributed as photographic prints to both field and division commanders. During the Civil War, most photographers worked with the collodion-on-glass negatives, which required delicate and laborious procedures even in the studio. When the photographer was ready for action, a sheet of glass was cleaned, coated with collodion, partially dried, dipped carefully into a bath containing nitrate of silver, then exposed in the camera for several seconds and processed in the field darkroom tent--all before the silver collodion mixture had dried. Given the danger of their situation and the technical difficulty of their task, front-line photographers rarely if ever attempted action scenes. Civil War photographers produced vast photographic documentation of the Civil War. Despite decades of painstaking research by dedicated historians and Civil War buffs, a large number of the era's photographs remain unidentified.