Civil War's Photographic Milestone
In the spring of 1864, Timothy O'Sullivan captured the most famous sequence of photographs of the Civil War.
By Nick Farley
A milestone in photographic history occurred during spring 1864 in Virginia, when the first sequential photographs of an outdoor event of significant historical importance were shot. The images on glass-plate negatives captured the impromptu gathering of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of all Union armies; Major General George G. Meade, commanding general of the Army of the Potomac; staff officers; civilian dignitaries; enlisted men and curious onlookers. Three excellent photographs were made from a second-floor church window. Pews had been dragged outdoors to a shady spot beneath trees to provide seating for the generals.
Two particular locations have been cited in various sources as possible sites of the meeting, Massaponax Baptist Church or Bethesda Baptist Church. Events in late May and early June 1864 are well documented, and each location is associated with a particular phase of Grant's Overland campaign.
If Massaponax Baptist Church was the location, then the photographs date from May 21. This church is nine miles south of Fredericksburg and four miles east of Spotsylvania, at the northwest corner of the intersection of Massaponax and Telegraph roads. Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to vacate the Spotsylvania Court House area on May 20, a move that ended the two-week-long battles for Spotsylvania. Late that night Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and his II Corps spearheaded the movement by swinging around the Army of Northern Virginia's right flank and moving east, then south toward Richmond. Grant stopped briefly at Massaponax Baptist Church around noon on May 21 on his way to Guinea Station. Since the church is situated between Spotsylvania and Guinea Station, the time and place correlate to suggest that it was the location of the famous photographs.
If, however, the site was Bethesda Baptist Church, then June 2 was the date of the gathering. Bethesda Church was 10 miles northeast of Richmond, at the southeast corner of the intersection of Walnut Grove Road and Mechanicsville Turnpike. The church witnessed extensive fighting from May 30 to June 3 and was on the right flank of Grant's forces facing the Confederates' well-entrenched line during the Battle of Cold Harbor.
A close inspection of the photographs is required to determine which church is correct. In the images the camera is facing nearly due south, and the time of day appears to be a little before noon. This can be deduced from the shadows in the photograph of Grant bending over Meade's shoulder looking at the map (see photograph A). The shadows indicate that the camera was aimed mostly in line with the position of the sun overhead because Grant's left leg is nearly in line with its shadow on the ground. Since the front of Massaponax Baptist Church faces south, it must have been close to noon to produce such shadows. The church still exists, and its front faces toward 160 degrees on the compass. If the camera was square with the church building, this position would indicate that the time of day for the photographs would have been about 10:45 a.m.
The original Bethesda Baptist Church was destroyed by fire in 1868. There are no known photographs of it, but the structure does appear in a sketch by Edwin Forbes that shows a two-story, wood-frame building with side windows on each floor. Scenes similar to those in the three photographs could have been made from one of the structure's second-floor windows, but the window positions indicate that if the images were taken there, the camera position would have faced about 260 degrees on the compass, or nearly due west. The shadows already mentioned in photograph A indicate that if the pictures were taken at Bethesda Baptist Church, the time would have been around 5 p.m.
At that time, the sun would have cast a horizontal shadow on the ground nearly twice as long as the object's vertical height. Looking at the photograph of Grant leaning over Meade, it is obvious that the length of Grant's shadow is about half the length of the pew on which Meade is seated. Estimating the length of these pews at about 7 or 8 feet, this portion of Grant's shadow can be no longer than 3 1/2 or 4 feet. Grant was 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and bending over in this position, his height from the ground to the bend of his back would have been around 3 1/2 feet. Since the shadow appears about the same length as its object, the photograph must have been taken near noon, when the high sun casts short shadows, not late in the afternoon, when the sun is low and produces long shadows.
A heavy rain fell late in the afternoon on June 2, 1864, in the Cold Harbor area, according to contemporary reports. It thus seems unlikely that the sun would have been able to penetrate the afternoon's heavy clouds to produce any shadows. All three photographs also show dry terrain. Shadow, time of day and weather conditions all seem to rule out Bethesda Baptist Church as a possible location and June 2 as the date of the meeting, leaving Massaponax Baptist Church as the actual location and the time a little before noon on May 21.
During the Civil War, it was not standard practice to give credit to a photographer for his work when it was published; the photographer's employer was credited instead. Some employers, including Mathew Brady, considered the photographer merely a technician and, as such, his identity did not matter. Alexander Gardner thought otherwise. Brady employed Gardner in 1856, and by April 1858 he was the manager of Brady's Washington gallery. Gardner believed that the photographer was as important in the creative photographic process as the printmaker, employer or publisher. He eventually left Brady's employment in November 1862 and started his own photographic business. Gardner lured Timothy O'Sullivan and James F. Gibson, top assistants and field photographers, away from Brady in the spring of 1863.
At one time or another, Brady, Gardner and O'Sullivan have each been credited with taking the three photographs. Brady can be ruled out because he disliked taking pictures outside the studio and quite possibly never did so after his eyesight began failing around the time the Civil War began in 1861. After tracing O'Sullivan's field movements and photographic work in 1864 and 1865, modern author William A. Frassanito has persuasively identified him as the photographer at Massaponax Baptist Church on May 21, 1864. Frassanito furthermore found O'Sullivan's name, the negative number, location, subject and date on each of the glass-plate negatives.