[The Wilderness Battlefield, near Spotsylvania, Virginia]
The Battle of the Wilderness was fought May 5-7, 1864, in the same Virginia forest disputed a year before in the Chancellorsville campaign. When the soldiers took their positions in the woods, the ground was already littered with skulls. The densely wooded landscape made conventional field warfare impossible. Artillery was all but useless. Musketry fire splintered and gnawed the young trees. The thick undergrowth of thorny brambles, thickets, and roots, which made earthen defenses hard to build, could not itself stop stray bullets. Fighting virtually blind, soldiers often mistook their own forces for the enemy. Unable either to attack or to defend themselves, the armies of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant fought to a bloody draw. Although no statistics of Confederate losses are known, Union losses at Wilderness were staggering: 2,246 killed, 12,137 wounded, and 3,383 missing--second only to Gettysburg in their numbers. These three scenes were probably made after the war's end, when cleanup operations were under way. Formerly attributed to Alexander Gardner, these views are drawn from a group of twenty-eight that appear illuminated by an unearthly light. Printed from negatives that were probably unintentionally solarized during development, the photographs are tonally reversed, the black sky becoming an appropriate symbol for the terrible place called Wilderness.
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.