Colorized Civil War Photos: The American Civil War, In Full Color

February 1, 2021

Seeing The Men Committing The Acts In Color Really Drives It Home

In this recently-colorized photograph taken by James Gibson on May 31, 1862 at Fair Oaks, Va., Lt. James B. Washington, a Confederate prisoner, is with Capt. George A. Custer of the 5th Cavalry. The battle at Fair Oaks was one of the battles fought in the Seven Days Battles. Days prior, Custer, who seems to be chummy with this captured enemy, discovered one of his classmates from West Point, a Confederate Soldier, wounded, and took him to be treated in a hospital set up in a barn.

Civil War era photos always look like they're straight out of a history book, most of them are. However, when the same photos are colorized they take on a more lifelike quality. It's easier to put them in context with our every day world. We no longer see these soldiers as pieces of history to be studied, but as young men who were giving their lives to a cause and going to battle with their brothers.

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Soldiers from opposite sides often knew each other, and you often hear the reference to “brother fighting brother,” which was especially true in the border states. After South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, initially joined by seven others, all part of the Deep South. The seven states sent representatives to Montgomery, Alabama to establish the Confederacy, with Jefferson Davis at its head. The seceding states demanded that all United States property should be turned over to the now confederate states. Lincoln refused, but instead sent survival necessities south to support soldiers at Fort Sumter, although he did not send munitions, only survival necessities. On April 12, 1861, the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter. The next day, the garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered Fort Sumter. During this brief opening battle, no people lost their lives during the battle itself; one soldier died during the evacuation, and one died accidentally after an explosion during a planned 100-gun salute. After Fort Sumter, the remaining four states, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederacy.

Prior to the war, Robert E. Lee had served as superintendent at West Point, leaving the academy to join the cavalry in 1855, and four years later, he ended John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. In 1861, Lincoln offered him command of the Union forces, but Virginia seceded in April, and Lee refused Lincoln’s offer, and resigned from the army because he would not fight against the people from his own state; after then accepting the general’s commission in the Confederate Army, Lee fought and lost his first battle of the war, at Cheat Mountain from September 12-15, 1861. Davis recalled Lee to Richmond, where he acted as military advisor to Davis until 1862. After General Sidney Johnston was killed at Shiloh, Davis gave Lee control of his army, which he renamed the Army of Northern Virginia. After this, Lee fought the Seven Days Battle, a battle which was fought for seven consecutive days from June 25-July 1 1862; Lee won every day except for the last, which was a draw.

The war destroyed the country, literally

Source: (PBS/Library of Congress)

The war wreaked havoc on the landscape as well, as this photograph of the ruins of Henry House after the First Battle of Bull Run shows. The First Battle of Bull Run was not noted for its casualties, but for its spectators. The photo was taken by Matthew Brady, who, with his team of photographers, documented much of the destruction of the Civil War. Images like this one brought the reality of war to the public.

The First Battle of Bull Run on July 1, 1861 when 35,000 troops marched from Washington to engage a force of 20,000 Confederates at Bull Run, a small river near Manassas Junction, Virginia (hence the Southern name for the battle). The Union army moved slowly, and since the Confederates had a spy network, they knew in advance that the Union was coming. Both armies were unprepared for battle as they were comprised of volunteers and amateurs. The battle attracted picnickers, including legislators, who were there to watch the battle. At this point in the war, they expected the Union would win a fast victory. The Confederates screamed the “rebel yell” as they broke through the Union lines, and the Union soldiers began retreating. Henry Wilson, a future vice president, passed out sandwiches to the retreating soldiers. In this battle, 2,800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured, while the Confederates suffered over 1.900 casualties and took one prisoner: Alfred Ely, a congressman from New York. During this battle, General Barnard Bee tried to reassure his men, pointing out Thomas J. Jackson, who stood like a “stone wall” giving Jackson his enduring nickname. At the Second Battle of Bull Run, there were no spectators, as people learned their lesson.