Born in Paisley, Scotland to James and Jean Glenn Gardner on October 17, 1821, Alexander Gardner was the oldest of four children. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Glasgow, where young Alexander studied astronomy, botany, and chemistry. At the age of 15, the teenager served as a silversmith apprentice for a local jeweler. By 1847, he was manager of the Clydesdale Discount and Loan Company and spent his spare time reading about utopian communities. Four years' later, Mr. Gardner purchased the Glasgow Sentinel and penned several editorials celebrating the working class. He became interested in photography in the early 1850s and began providing professional services in 1855. The following spring, Mr. Gardner, his wife, the former Margaret Sinclair, and their two children along with his mother and brother boarded a ship for the United States. They settled in New York, where Mr. Gardner quickly found work with fellow photographer Mathew Brady. Within a few years, he was managing Mr. Brady's Washington, DC gallery, where he applied both his creative and accounting abilities. He is credited with introducing the 2x4" carte de visite photograph, which quickly became one of the Brady gallery's best sellers.
When the Civil War erupted, it was Mr. Gardner and his junior photographers that took to the battlefield, but it was their employer, Mathew Brady, who received the credit and considerable notoriety for their combat photographs. Mr. Gardner and his assistant, James Gibson, employed a wagon team to carry their glass plates and photographic equipment. Mr. Gardner was appointed staff photographer for Union General George B. McClellan, a position he held until President Lincoln removed McClellan as General-in-Chief in March 1862. Mr. Gardner continued to photography the war, famously capturing the horrific aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, in which more than 22,000 casualties were incurred on September 17, 1862. His engraved plates were published the following month in Harper’s Weekly. During the Civil War years, Mr. Gardner demonstrated how a camera could be used for more than capturing images. It could convey emotions of fear, heartache, and despair. His photographs of the carnage at Gettysburg, particularly in Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, depict the finality of death and an ugliness that belies patriotic rhetoric.
In 1863, Mr. Gardner left Mr. Brady's employ and opened his own gallery in Washington, DC. His portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken just five days before his assassination, shows the ravages of war etched in the President's weary face. He also recorded for posterity the image of the presidential conspirators following their execution. Mr. Gardner released a two-volume compilation of more than 100 of his Civil War plates entitled Gardner's Sketchbook of the War in 1866. During the late 1860s, he chronicled the Kansas Pacific Railroad construction and served as official photographer for the Office of Indian Affairs. His later years were spent pursuing philanthropic interests as an active member of the Masonic Mutual Relief Organization and the Washington Beneficial Endowment Association. After a brief illness, 61-year-old Alexander Gardner died on December 10, 1882. Although the name of Mathew Brady has now become synonymous with Civil War photography, at the time of his death, Mr. Gardner's fame and reputation eclipsed that of his former employer.
2001 The Civil War at Sea (Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books/Millbrook Press), p. 13.
2000 Encyclopedia of the American Civil War (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO), pp. 806-808.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 571-572.
2013 The Faces at Antietam (URL: http://www.cob-net.org/antietam/faces.htm).
1959 Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.), Plate 41.
2002 Photography: A Cultural History (London: Lawrence King Publishing Ltd.), pp. 110-111.
2013 The Routledge Encyclopedia of Civil War Era Biographies (New York: Routledge), p. 210.
1999 Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books), p. 1.
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