Timothy O'Sullivan:Civil War Photographs

:Fredericksburg rappahannock 1863.jpg
:Fredericksburg rappahannock 1863.jpg | Source

Some of Timothy O’ Sullivan’s Civil War photos were erroneously attributed to Mathew Brady. It might be because he worked for Brady and pictures often got credited to the studio. O’Sullivan did do exceptional pictures of the Civil War. He also did great work on Western America photography. He and Mathew Brady were friends and he studied Brady’s Civil War images.

Born in 1840 Sullivan died in 1882. He was a well-known Civil War photographer as well as a Western United States photographer. He started working for Brady as a teenager. When the Civil War started he went into the Union army with the rank of First Lieutenant and fought in several battles. After the war he returned to work for Brady.

Imagine if you will, what it was like to take Civil War pictures. It is not like you do in taking photos with you digital camera, which you might slip into you pocket and later download the pictures to your computer. Maybe to a laptop.

What a photographer like O’Sullivan had to do was bring along a heavy 8 x 10 inch camera and the rest of the equipment needed. “He lugged his cumbersome camera and equipment…from one battlefield to and other,” Horan tell us in his book, Sullivan America’s Forgotten Photographer. ”He followed the Army of the Potomac, bouncing along the rutted roads in his traveling studio, setting his negatives in the canvas darkroom that reeked of chemicals,”

Imagine again, heavy cumbersome equipment, developing breakable glass plates. And yet, according to Horan, O’Sullivan took many Civil War photos ”more revealing, more laden with character and simple brute horror of war than some…polished prints…produced in World War II,” Horan continues.

The photo process at that time was wet plate technique. He had to make his own plate in the field just before exposing it, and then develop it right away in a portable dark room.

Hugh Judson Kilpatrick Sep 1863
Hugh Judson Kilpatrick Sep 1863 | Source
Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg
Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg | Source

Church of San Miquel


After the war he continued to lug his equipment and take photos from Death Valley to Virginia City. During the late 1860’s and early 1870’s he was official photographer for the government geographical surveys.

Who was Timothy O’Sullivan?

An article from the University of Virginia American studies dept reveals an interest in the photographer as an artist and to his elusive personality. He was, they note, “one of the first people to call himself a photographer.” He was “A pioneer of the medium in its infancy, he was among the first to take photography out of the portrait studios and into the field.” Out of thousands of photos of the Civil War and the frontier, they note, his have often “been singled out as some of the most sensitive, powerful and enduring.”

In the West “O’Sullivan explored and photographed California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho as a member of two different expeditions.” According to the University of Virginia article. With another group he went to Panama.

James D. Horan mentions that O’sullivan was shy. That may have been a reason that not too much is known about him. We know that he was born in Ireland, served in the Civil War. We also know that he worked for Mathew Brady and later with Alexander Gardner, who had left Brady earlier. But “…there is little to shed light on the meaning of his work…His photographs must speak for themselves,” Virginia University paper.

Section of South Side of Zuni Pueblo
Section of South Side of Zuni Pueblo | Source
Union Photo Wagon Ft Steadman.
Union Photo Wagon Ft Steadman. | Source

O’Sullivan worked in two photographic genres of the nineteenth century which are:” confined to a realistic style by the conventions and limitations or the medium…” the Virginia University article says. Later it says that the audience. “…was not prepared to think of war views as ‘subjective impressions’ or as ‘personal interpretations…”

Similarly with western photography at that time there was a fundamental difference from most photography of that time or with today’s photography. “…photographs within both genres…are overwhelmingly similar in appearance and subject matter.” Yet there is something that makes O’Sullivan’s pictures stand out. Timothy Sweet is quoted as “…if the Civil War and Frontier photographers did not think of themselves as artists, O’Sullivan, at least, behaved as one.”

Perhaps, as someone noted, some photographers such as O’Sullivan thought of themselves as storytellers. It does seem that he and some other photographers do tell the story of not only The Civil War but also war in general with his Civil War photographs. With his pictures of the Civil War he does tell the story. Much the same is true of his western photos. Whatever the case, to many people O’Sullivan's Civil War photos stood out. The same is true of his western images.

Sources: Timothy Sullivan America’s Forgotten Photographer by James D. Horan copyright 1996 by James D. Horan

University of Virginia American Studies http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma99/paul/tim/recovery.html

Copyright 2011 Don Hoglund

© 2011 Don A. Hoglund

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Comments 32 comments

ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada


As a Civil War buff I have been exposed to a myriad of Matthew Brady photos...I can't help but wonder if they were actually Timothy O'Sullivan photos? I would love to see more of his frontier photos!



PS...Pushing all the awesome buttons!

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thoughtsandwiches. When he worked for Brady the photos would be stamped with the Brady studio ID.There are more pictures on wikimedia. I would have added more to the hub but I didn't want it to look cluttered.Thanks for your comment and votes.

Wealthmadehealthy profile image

Wealthmadehealthy 5 years ago from Somewhere in the Lone Star State

dahoglund: This is one of the most interesting writings. I am totally intrigued by the fact of all this photographer had to bear in the way of weight of the equipment, chemicals to develop and they pics are marvelous!!

Thank you so much for introducing me to his work! Blessings to you and yours....

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author


Thanks for your comment.I remember in a college class I had that the instructor said that the pictures made back then were often better because it took so much work to take a picture that the photographer had to make every picture count.

Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 5 years ago from Central Texas

Absolutely fascinating read and the pics are awesome -- I enjoyed every minute of this HUB -- have a huge interest in the Civil War and you gave me my "fix" for this week. Thanks! Best, Sis

Becky Katz profile image

Becky Katz 5 years ago from Hereford, AZ

Wonderful, informative hub. I learn a lot from yours and this is no different. The pictures were awesome.

Dexter Yarbrough profile image

Dexter Yarbrough 5 years ago from United States

Hi Dahoglund! Great hub on the Civil War times and Timothy O'Sullivan. I like the photographs and enjoy the history of photographers from the earlier days of picture taking. Voted up, up and away!

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Angela,Nice to see you here again. I am glad you liked the pictures and the hub.The Civil War photographers were very dedicated people or they would never have done the job they did.Thanks for commenting.

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dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Becky, thanks for commenting. Glad you found it informative and enjoyed the pictures.I like it if people find something new in my hubs.

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dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Dexter, There is so much to say about this photographer and his art. Even when I was in school a lot of people did not consider photography to be an art form.Thanks for reading this and voting.

tammyswallow profile image

tammyswallow 5 years ago from North Carolina

Excellent! When I see photos like these, I am in constant amazement of what people used to be made of. Awesome!

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Very interesting hub about the Civil War photographs and also about the photographer, Timothy O'Sullivan. As you pointed out...the taking of photographs was not an easy feat as compared to today. Loved seeing these examples of those early photos. Up votes!

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

tammyswallow,Thanks for commenting, I appreciate it.The early photographers were very dedicated people and produced exceptional work.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Peggy. Glad you like the Timothy O'Sullivan photos. I think it did take the eye of an artist to take great pictures under such conditions.

sligobay profile image

sligobay 5 years ago from east of the equator

dahoglund... this is a great article with excellent images. I love history and photography and you've satisfied this reader's appetites for each.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author


Thanks for commenting. Photographers like Bardy and O'Sullivan felt the need to record the Civil War and we can be grateful they did. It was difficult work but they learned much and,I believe, it helped their careers.

WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I once ran across a book of Civil War photos, but I didn't buy it, an error I now regret.

Excellent, Don!

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks will.There is many a book I bought and later wondered why I spent the money. Other times, like you, I have passed by things of value and later regretted that.Often some of the best books you can pick up at very little cost at sales.

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Hubertsvoice 5 years ago

Your story is well written and interesting. I appreciate and enjoy stories and pictures of the people and events of the past. Thank you

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hurbertsvoice,Thanks for commenting.I am glad you enjoyed this hub.

prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

I had never seen the picture like this. I believe that the picture can say everything and you have done this very well, brother. Thanks for share with us. Rated up! Happy Thanksgiving....


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author


Thank you for your comment on my hub about Timothy O'Sullivan.That period of photography was outstanding, I believe.

ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 5 years ago

Dahoglund , Immagine , essentially one photographer for the entire civil war! Interesting too is the amount of time he must have spent at each photo site , each battlefield, each body laying at eternal rest . Excellent history lesson !

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi ahorseback. I am glad to have your comments. There were other photographers, Mathew Brady being the best known. I think there were also other Brady employees. A big job whatever the case.I have always been impressed that despite all the technical advances in equipment that so many photos from that era stand up to those done in later years. O'Sullivan had impressive artistic expression for a time when it was not really called for.

moonlake profile image

moonlake 5 years ago from America

Very interesting hub. Thank goodness we have those photos. I wish there were more of the civil war and just of the people from those times.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi moonlake.Yes, the photos made by such photographers are a treasure. I think these along with stories collected by folklorists are important to understanding the regular folks back then.

KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

dahoglund, these pictures are indeed powerful. What an intriguing look into the Civil War. Great write-up.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Koffeeklatch gals,

Thank you for your comments. The photographer had to get it right the first time, I think.

bethperry profile image

bethperry 5 years ago from Tennesee

Very interesting and I'm so glad you posted some of the photos with the article. I think my fave is the one of San Miquel, but they are all fascinating.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I wish there were room to post more photos.However,I hope that people get a taste for his work by those I did include. Thanks very much for commenting.

thelyricwriter profile image

thelyricwriter 5 years ago from West Virginia

Up, useful, awesome, and interesting votes Dahoglund. I know personally, I wouldn't have been able to take photos in the Civil War. It must have been very difficult and dangerous also. I do enjoy his style of photography. This is a great article. Well done.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

lyricwriter, thanks for the comment and votes.These photographers were the pioneers from which we learn.

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