The False Heroism of a Civil War Photographer

Taking a closer look at the legendary Mathew Brady

Library of Congress

When Mathew Brady set off 150 years ago, in July, to photograph what would be the first great battle of the Civil War, at Bull Run, he wore a cross tie and white shirt under a long white linen dustcoat. A gold watch chain drooped below his belt, and a straw hat would protect him from the sun, if nothing else. He looked like a French landscape painter.

These details appear in the only known Brady image related to Bull Run, one taken of him in his Washington, D.C., studio on Pennsylvania Avenue the day after the battle. He was a master of promotion, and this photo, the words inked over it in white asserting that he was at the battle, would contribute mightily to the myth of Mathew Brady the Civil War photographer, whose name appears on thousands of wartime shots that form our first national memories of war.

The pose is meant to be heroic: beneath the dustcoat, one can see the outline of a sword, given to him, the story goes, by a member of the New York Fire Zouaves for protection during the ignominious Union retreat back to Washington. The mud on his boots and the grime near the hem of his duster might signify a harrowing night of walking in the rain, his wagons lost, his glass negatives destroyed, his new sword at the ready. But is this the image of the first in a long line of romantically courageous war photographers, or of a man deeply unnerved by his first experience of battle?

Already famous as Brady of Broadway, a studio photographer of those more famous than himself, from presidents to stage actors, Brady likely left Washington for Bull Run on July 16, 1861, with a group of more than two dozen newspaper correspondents, accompanying the first brigades of Major General Irvin McDowell’s 35,000-man Union army. McDowell wanted the reporters to travel together, adding that they “should wear a white uniform to indicate the purity of their character.” In a newspaper interview three decades later, Brady would recall that he took two wagons of photographic equipment to Bull Run, and gave a lift to Ned House of the New York Tribune and Richard C. McCormick of the New-York Evening Post (who had accompanied Lincoln to Brady’s Broadway studio to be photographed on the day of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech).

Brady recalled that they “got as far as Blackburn’s Ford,” near Manassas, in time to witness a skirmish on July 18, when a Union brigade probed the Confederate defenses on Bull Run to see if the rebels would fall back, as they had earlier when McDowell’s army approached the town of Fairfax Court House and the village of Centreville. They did not, and the resulting musket and cannon fire caused dozens of casualties on both sides. Several reporters, including House and McCormick, viewed the battle from a small rise above the ford, and came under fire. William Tecumseh Sherman, a colonel then, brought his brigade up in support, and wrote in his Memoirs,

For the first time in my life I saw cannonballs strike men and crash through the trees and saplings above and around us, and realized the always sickening confusion as one approaches a fight from the rear.

The reporters, most of whom were also seeing warfare for the first time, put on a brave face in their dispatches.

Blackburn’s Ford was a skirmish only when compared with the real battle of Bull Run, which happened three days later, several miles to the west. One fairly reliable report puts Brady on the battlefield on July 21, the brutally hot Sunday when the inexperienced recruits of the two vast armies first went at each other in earnest—infantry, cavalry, and artillery all in. Another Tribune reporter, William A. Croffut, wrote in his memoirs that he ran into Brady that morning before the battle began, and that “strapped to his shoulders was a box as large as a beehive.” Later, he saw Brady “dodging shells on the battlefield.”

Nobody knows just where Brady went that day, but he likely took at least one of his wagons as close to the front as possible, traveling west on the Warrenton Turnpike from Centreville, where the Union army was encamped. If he did reach the battlefield, as Croffut wrote, he might well have crossed Bull Run after a mid-morning Union flanking attack drew the Confederates’ attention away from the turnpike crossing at Stone Bridge. Jim Burgess, a museum specialist at Manassas National Battlefield Park, who has steeped himself in the accounts of that day, supports this surmise.

Union troops drove the Confederates back for several hours, but once the momentum of the battle changed, Brady was likely caught up in the chaos of the Union panic late in the afternoon, when the raw soldiers, and even their officers, broke ranks and hightailed it toward Centreville and beyond, many not stopping until they had walked or ridden the 25 miles back to Washington.

One of the most vivid accounts of the retreat was written by William Howard Russell, a seasoned correspondent for The Times of London, who was in the thick of it. He was widely accused in the North of having exaggerated the rout, but in his memoirs, Russell wrote that he later visited Brady in his Washington studio, where the photographer told him that “he and his assistants were on the spot trying to get away their photographic van and apparatus” and that the panic was even worse than Russell had reported. Union supply wagons, and presumably Brady’s wagons as well, were abandoned when Confederate artillery fire clogged up a small bridge on the turnpike. Brady said in an interview late in life, “Our apparatus was a good deal damaged on the way back to Washington.” But nowhere does he ever admit the whole truth: no photograph by him or anyone else survived the battle.

And Brady, the celebrated war photographer, never again deliberately put himself in harm’s way.