Gettysburg Photographers | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

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Gettysburg Photographers

At the Gettysburg Battlefield with Traveling Photographers.

As Union and Confederate troops converged on the Adams County community of Gettysburg in mid-summer 1863 to wage what has been described the pivotal battle of the American Civil War, little did they know how long it would take for the rest of the world to discover the outcome.

Of the five hundred journalists who covered the war, forty-five reported on the Battle of Gettysburg waged from Wednesday through Friday, July 1-3. Many news organizations assigned reporters to follow the battles and skirmishes, among them prominent New York Times correspondent Samuel Wilkeson, whose nineteen-year-old son was killed on the first day of battle at Gettysburg; Thomas Morris Chester (1834-1892) of the Philadelphia Press, the war's only African American reporter; and Uriah Hunt Painter (1837-1897), a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, all of whom reported from Gettysburg. Also at the scene were sketch artists Edwin Forbes (1839-1895), Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891), and Theodore R. Davies (1840-1894), who embedded with troops from both the North and the South. Gettysburg, a small rural town in the rolling hills of southcentral Pennsylvania, was isolated from metropolitan areas. The isolation and the perils of the battle hindered the itinerant journalists in their efforts to provide timely coverage for readers. Gettysburg was not equipped to transmit dispatches by telegraph, the only transmission method available to war correspondents which did not rely on tedious, tiresome, and time-consuming travel by train or horseback to deliver news.

"Gettysburg was a difficult battle to write about because the town was fairly remote from railroad depots and telegraph offices," wrote James Perry in A Bohemian Brigade: The Civil War Correspondents - Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready (2000). Despite the fact that days passed before news of the Union victory reached the rest of the country, Perry contended the reporting was much more sophisticated than during previous military conflicts. "The modern American journalist emerged for the first time during the Civil War," he explained. "It was the world's original instant-news war, made possible by the telegraph - 'lightning' they called it - a tremendous breakthrough in communications technology."

Although the nation's newspapers eventually caught up with news from the battlefield, there was one element that did not reach the general public: accurate visual documentation of the battle, also attributable to the limited technology of the period. Images today are vital components of newspapers, magazines, and journals, whether in print or online, but publications during the war did not have the capacity to reproduce photographs. Even the largest periodicals of the day, such as Harper's Weekly, could print nothing more than a sketch or drawing as an illustration. "Photography, just then coming into widespread use, certainly had promise and already was providing reference images for artists, but no method had yet been devised for directly converting a photograph into a printing plate," asserted Brayton Harris in Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War.

The Battle of Gettysburg, with fifty-one thousand casualties, remained largely an untold story for days, even weeks, after it had ended. Scenes of the epic battle were never captured by the camera, even though one local firm, Gettysburg's Tyson Brothers Photography Studio, was close to the major military actions.

As the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this year, many historians agree the visual documentation, albeit paltry, had something to do with the primitive photography equipment and much to do with circumstance, perhaps even luck. The first photographers on the battlefield were not local. A caravan of visiting photographers, most likely cognizant of the commercial value of battlefield photographs, traveled to Gettysburg from Washington, D.C., and New York. However, the earliest of those photographers and their assistants arrived after the warfare had ended.

"Literally, within days after the battle, photographers began arriving from the great metropolitan centers of the East. From Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City, came Alexander Gardner, Frederick Gutekunst, and M. B. Brady, respectively, men whose names were among the most prestigious in American photography at the time," historian William A. Frassanito wrote in Early Photography at Gettysburg, published in 1995. In his 1996 book, Gettysburg: A Journey In Time, he concluded Washington, D.C.-based Gardner and assistants Timothy H. O'Sullivan and James F. Gibson, arrived in Gettysburg after July 7 - at least four days after the battle ended. They immediately began documenting remnants of the battle: mostly war casualties, including corpses of soldiers and officers, carcasses of animals, shattered trees, and damaged or destroyed buildings and structures. After recording some, but not all, the bloodshed and destruction in key areas Gardner and his assistants returned to Washington to develop negatives and distribute their gruesome images of the fallen to the nation - and the world.

Gardner was followed several days later by Mathew B. Brady who, Frassanito believed, traveled from Manhattan where he had opened his first daguerreotype portrait studio at Broadway and Fulton Street in 1844. Brady managed to capture scenes that Gardner had apparently overlooked. Several of his images appeared in August 1863 in Harper's Weekly. His photographs stunned the nation and brought home the severity of the battle.

In 1856 Gardner emigrated from Scotland to the United States. A pioneer of wet plate photography, he was quickly hired to manage Brady's studio in the nation's capital. Just months before the Battle of Gettysburg, Gardner severed ties with Brady and established his own business, taking with him former Brady assistants O'Sullivan and Gibson. Frassanito speculated that all three made the seventy-seven-mile journey to Gettysburg together on horseback over muddy, hard to navigate dirt roads. Upon arrival in Gettysburg the trio immediately focused on the carnage. According to Frassanito, "Of the approximately sixty negatives produced by the Gardner team at Gettysburg, almost 75 percent contain as their main subject matter bloated corpses, open graves, dead horses and related details of the wholesale carnage." He also argued Gardner "was fully aware of the potential market value such views possessed."

Despite his early arrival in Gettysburg, Gardner missed many significant aspects of the battle and its aftermath. "Gardner's greatest advantage was also his greatest handicap," wrote Frassanito. "He simply arrived on the battlefield too soon after the fighting. It is frustrating today to consider the many scenes that could have been taken by Gardner and never were."

Brady did not arrive in Gettysburg until after Gardner, O'Sullivan, and Gibson had packed up and left. Although the exact date of his arrival remains unknown, the lack of corpses in his work suggests some time had passed since the fighting had ended and the dead had been buried. He made up for the lateness of his arrival by concentrating on images of the battleground and surrounding areas. Brady's work at Gettysburg is considered to be among the best.

"Inasmuch as Brady arrived on the battlefield too late to record scenes of carnage such as those taken by the Gardner team, his attention, as evidenced by his photographs, was focused on significant landmarks and general views of the terrain," contended Frassanito. "Brady's photographs, though lacking the dramatic impact of Gardner's series, nevertheless serve as an invaluable and unique guide to the field's appearance during the month of the battle. Brady chose to interpret his subject matter in a somber and bucolic manner, strongly reflecting the influence of 19th Century romantic thought."

The only local commercial studio, founded in 1859 by brothers Charles J. (1838-1906) and Isaac G. Tyson (1833-1913), and staffed with apprentice William H. Tipton (1850-1929), was located in the heart of Gettysburg and had the advantage of proximity. The brothers possessed vast knowledge of the terrain, but the studio never produced images of the battle and the war dead, even though they recognized their commercial potential. They made a number of portraits of visiting Union soldiers as early as 1861, two years before the battle began, and continued to operate their studio until the outbreak of the battle. Nevertheless, in the months and years after the skirmish, the Tyson brothers, although avoiding the gruesome images of war, widely distributed stunning images documenting the battlefield area and Gettysburg itself taken before and after that fateful July encounter.

Some historians, including Frassanito, agree the Tysons and Tipton did not photograph the casualties because of a critical factor, inadequate equipment for extended field work. But several Tyson family members believe there was another reason.

Historians identify the primary reason they missed the action: Isaac and Charles and his wife Maria left Gettysburg once the battle began and did not return until it ended. The second reason, researchers cite, is that the photographers did not possess the necessary equipment to conduct extensive outdoor photography. Taking pictures in the nineteenth century was a cumbersome task; film had not yet been invented and glass-plate negatives needed to be treated with light-sensitive chemicals and inserted, one at a time, in the bulky camera. The plates were removed in darkness after being exposed and then developed in a darkroom. The only practical way to take multiple pictures on location was to have a portable darkroom to prepare, load, and unload the glass negatives. Typically, the ideal solution was an enclosed, horse-drawn buggy that functioned as a portable darkroom.

The first point is not in dispute. In a letter written to a friend after he and Maria returned home, Charles recalled the frightening scene in Gettysburg once the battle commenced. "When I got nearly down to the square, I met one of our officers riding up the street, warning all women, children and non-combatants to leave the town as General [Robert E.] Lee intended to shell it. This caused quite a stir and the streets were full of people hurrying to and fro preparing to leave." Charles and Maria loaded their valuables into a trunk and fled to nearby Littlestown to avoid the fighting. When they returned on the final day of fighting, their house and business were intact, although there was a Confederate artillery shell embedded in the exterior wall of the studio. Still visible, the shell is one of the attractions on many battlefield tours.

Their house and studio were untouched, Charles wrote, "except for the cellar and pantry, which had been pretty well cleaned out" - presumably by Confederate soldiers. When he inspected his photographic chemical supplies in the basement, he discovered something missing, most likely because of thirsty soldiers. "They entered the cellar of that building and emptied the barrel of ninety-five percent alcohol. I had a gross of empty eight-ounce bottles. The men were seen carrying these away, presumably filled with the alcohol."

The second point about lacking equipment has been the subject of much debate and dispute over the years. The Tysons and Tipton did not at the time of the battle own the necessary equipment to sustain extended outdoor photography work, although their portfolio did include outside photographs taken before the battle. They quickly acquired an enclosed buggy shortly after the end of the battle and began photographing landmarks on the battlefield and in the community.

Tyson descendants believe there was a reason why the brothers avoided photographing the war dead. Their ancestors were Quakers and pacifists. Isaac was drafted for military service but claimed conscientious objector status and was excused from military duty. "It goes without saying that Quaker beliefs had some part in not photographing the dead soldiers," says John Tyson, great-grandson of Charles.

Regardless of not visually capturing the battle's bloody aftermath, Frassanito believed the Tysons and Tipton created an invaluable visual record of the battlefield because, among other things, they were the only photographers with extensive knowledge of the area. "Largely overlooked by historians, the Tysons' photographs, when added to the collections of Gardner and Brady, produce an amazingly well-balanced documentation of the Gettysburg battlefield as it appeared during the 1860s."

Timothy H. Smith, historian and author of a biography entitled Gettysburg's Battlefield Photographer - William H. Tipton: Selected Images from the Adams County Historical Society (2005) agreed about the work being overlooked; however, he believed there was yet another reason. "The Tysons were local photographers and their works were only available locally. Brady and Gardner were nationally known photographers, and their work was available on a larger scale," he wrote. A Gettysburg native, Tipton began working for the Tysons at the age of twelve. In 1866 Tipton and one of his employees, Robert A. Myers, purchased the studio from the brothers and renamed it Tipton and Myers Excelsior Gallery. In 1880 Tipton became sole owner and the firm became known as W. H. Tipton and Company.

After selling the business in Adams County, Isaac Tyson relocated to Philadelphia and opened a photography studio, acquiring an enviable reputation as an able portrait photographer. Charles and Maria Tyson moved to rural Adams County north of Biglerville. Charles entered the nursery business with his father-in-law Cyrus Griest. He later bought out Griest and expanded the operation to include fruit growing, primarily apples and peaches. Eventually Charles and Maria's son Chester J. took over the family farm. It remains in the family, managed by Charles and Maria's great-grandson.

Tipton, meanwhile, flourished in Gettysburg. He expanded the photography business and built a new studio and photography archive. He traveled to battlefields at Antietam in Maryland, and Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Spotsylvania, and Chancellorsville in Virginia, in his horse-drawn darkroom to further document battlefields and their landmarks. He served on the Gettysburg Town Council, was elected to the state legislature, and worked on President Theodore Roosevelt's campaign. Tipton also created a trolley line park with a tintype photographic studio and a food stand that became a local tourist attraction until the federal government acquired the property to expand Gettysburg National Military Park.

Looking back on his stint with the Tysons, Tipton wrote in 1922 that he regarded "the three years of apprenticeship as the most valuable of my life." His acquisition of the Tyson studio included the negatives of the work the brothers had completed on and surrounding Gettysburg's hallowed ground. A common practice at the time, Tipton began reproducing and selling prints of the Tysons' work under his name. The practice led to significant confusion for historians because many photographs by the brothers were attributed to Tipton. The amalgamated collection was acquired by the National Park Service from C. Tyson Tipton in 1935.

Several other photographers produced limited work at Gettysburg in the weeks and months following the battle.

Noted Philadelphia photographer Frederick Gutekunst visited several weeks after the end of the battle and made seven photographs, including views of battle sites, hospitals, and General George Gordon Meade's headquarters. He sold the set for $10, donating proceeds to sick and wounded soldiers and their families. Peter and Hanson Weaver of nearby Hanover photographed President Lincoln when he arrived to give his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. Interest in battlefield photography continued well after the battle had ended, Frassanito wrote. "Various photographic operations continued for the next four months, or until the last hospital complex, Camp Letterman, was dismantled; the Soldiers' National Cemetery was dedicated; and the onset of winter loomed on the horizon. By the fourth week of November 1863, the enthusiastic first phase in the history of battlefield photography at Gettysburg would effectively come to a close."

Despite the logistical and equipment limitations, he and others believe the photographic history of Gettysburg's battlefield is remarkable. "No other war prior to the twentieth century was as well documented as the American Civil War and, of all the battlefields of that war, none was as well documented as Gettysburg," he argued. Gardner focused on the casualties while Brady and the Tyson brothers, with apprentice Tipton, photographed living soldiers, battlefield, geography and buildings - both temporary and permanent. "And despite all the many differences between one artist and the other, there had emerged, by 1866, an amazingly well-balanced photographic record of great historic interest," Frassanito concluded.

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Written by Rae Tyson, a resident of Orrtanna, Adams County and the great-grandson of photographer Charles J. Tyson.

This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Volume XXXIX, Number 2 - Spring 2013.

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