[President Abraham Lincoln, Major General John A. McClernand (right), and E. J. Allen (Allan Pinkerton, left), Chief of the Secret Service of the United States, at Secret Service Department, Headquarters Army of the Potomac, near Antietam, Maryland]
Two weeks after he recorded the carnage at Antietam, Alexander Gardner returned to the battlefield to photograph the visit of President Abraham Lincoln. The president made the seventy-mile journey to Maryland to pay his respects to the wounded on both sides and to confer with his field generals. Gardner made about twenty-five photographs, mostly portraits of a strained meeting between Lincoln and General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. He also made this formal field portrait of Lincoln posed with Allan Pinkerton, his diminutive Secret Service chief (left), and General John McClernand. Founder in 1850 of the eponymous detective agency, Pinkerton proved to be a particularly poor gatherer of military intelligence in his advisory role as a spy for the army. Many believe he significantly overestimated the strength of Robert E. Lee’s forces—an error that dramatically prolonged the war by contributing to McClellan’s extreme caution at attacking the enemy.
Alexander Gardner (American, Glasgow, Scotland 1821–1882 Washington, D.C.)
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.