Thousands of Civil War photographs are available online for free. Many of these are scanned from the original glass plate negatives at ultra-high resolution. All Civil War photographs are now in the public domain, and reproductions can be used in any fashion by anyone. Users are strongly encouraged, however, to properly credit their sources for photographs and to abide by the rules and requirements of institutions that are providing images.
In many cases, Civil War images that are being sold online by stock photo companies, often at exorbitant prices, are available for free from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, or other sites. We encourage you to check the sites below before spending significant sums to acquire a reproduction and use rights to an image that is available elsewhere for no cost. In some cases, however, a rare Civil War image may be available only from a single institution or source, and it is customary for those institutions and sources to charge a fee for a reproduction of the image as well as a separate use fee for publication or broadcast. Please abide by the institution rules and regulations, and please include proper credit to the original source when using Civil War photos.
If you are looking for a photograph of an ancestor or an individual, please see the information at the bottom of this page.
The Library of Congress
The single best source for Civil War photographs is the U.S. Library of Congress, which holds the core collections of original Civil War documentary photographic negatives produced by Alexander Gardner, Mathew Brady and the E. & H.T. Anthony & Co. The library has more than 5,000 original glass plate negatives and several thousand more original prints that are available online for free download. Most are available at different resolution levels, including high resolution.
More than 2,000 of these images were photographed stereoscopically for viewing in 3-D. Most are still available in their stereo format, either by downloading a single, uncut stereo negative or by downloading two separate half-stereo negatives. Many of the home pages for individual images show two, three or even more separate negatives. In many cases, pages with two negatives are showing both halves, separated, of a stereo negative. But many pages with multiple negatives also show copy glass negatives, which are of lesser quality than the originals. Copy negatives are always displayed below original negatives. The available download links are shown below the thumbnails of each image. When publishing or using these images, please credit The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. By providing the digital ID number as well, you will allow others to easily track down the image.
Here is the link to the search engine for the library’s Civil War photographs:
We recommend that researchers also check the full online catalog of the library’s Prints and Photographs division, which includes prints and engravings.
A search of the comprehensive P&P online catalog will cover the Brady-Handy Collection, a largely post-war collection of some 5,000 images, nearly all of them portrait negatives by Mathew Brady that include many prominent Civil War personalities. Most of the Brady-Handy Collection is not covered in a search of Civil War photographs. The Brady-Handy Collection is, of course, included in the full P&P search. Here is a separate link to search the Brady-Handy Collection.
The National Archives
The National Archives and Records Administration’s College Park, Maryland, headquarters, known as Archives II, is the home of some 9,000 original Civil War photographic negatives and prints, mostly negatives. This assemblage includes a collection of almost 6,000 Civil War negatives, mostly portraits, that Mathew B. Brady sold to the United States for $25,000 in 1875. It also includes negatives shot for the U.S. Army by various contract photographers during the war. This includes images taken for the government during Sherman’s campaign in Tennessee and Georgia by contract photographer George B. Barnard, as well as images taken by Capt. Andrew J. Russell for the U.S. Military Railroad and many other images taken by unidentified contract photographers. The National Archives also has more than 100 original stereo view cards produced by Samuel Cooley.
Nearly all of them, grouped by subject matter, are available online at the below link at several resolution levels. A search engine on the page allows one to refine searches within the archives’ photostream, but may also pull in non-Civil War images.
The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center
The MOLLUS-Massachusetts collection of Civil War photographic prints is available online at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pa. The MOLLUS-Massachusetts (Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States-Massachusetts chapter) collection was assembled by former Union officers in the 1880s and put in 117 volumes that contain some 23,000 images. They are available online only as low-resolution images in PDF files of the separate pages of each volume, usually with multiple images displayed on each page.
Once at this page, click on the “MOLLUS-Massachusetts Photograph Collection” at the lower right.
The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History
The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History has more than 3,800 Civil War photographs available online. Low-resolution digital images are available at the first link, which is a specific search for “Civil War photograph.” The search engine for the institute’s digital collections follows.
Southern Methodist University
The DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University features an online collection of Civil War photographs at low resolution. Higher quality versions of the images may be obtained from SMU at a fee by contacting
New York Historical Society
More than 700 Civil War stereographic prints (stereo view cards) owned by the New York Historical Society are shown at low resolution online as part of the American Memories collection of the Library of Congress. The below page also features 80 images from a volume of original Civil War photographic prints.
Chrysler Museum of Art
The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., is the home of the David L. Hack Collection of Civil War Photographs. The museum displays 325 images online here.
New York Public Library
More than 300 Civil War images are featured at low resolution online at the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery. Search “Civil War” at this page. The link to the main page for the entire digital gallery follows.
Civil War Richmond
National Park Service historian Michael D. Gorman provides a wealth of information and links about Richmond-related Civil War photography at his “Civil War Richmond” website. Here’s the photography home page:
The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes
This famous compilation by Francis T Miller, published in 1911, reproduces more than 3,300 Civil War photographs. The copyright has expired, so all images in these books can be freely copied and used, although you should still give credit. Be careful about using the written information that accompanies the photographs. It is sometimes inaccurate. DVDs or a flash drive containing high quality scans of all the images in all 10 volumes are available for a fee at:
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies contain a wealth of documentary information about photography during the Civil War as it related to the armies. The search engine at the below page is an invaluable tool for researching the 128 volumes of the ORs, not only for photography, but for any other subject as well.
SEARCHING FOR PHOTOGRAPHS OF INDIVIDUAL CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
Trying to locate a Civil War photograph of your Union or Confederate ancestor is the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack search. The odds of finding an identified image are slim, indeed. Although nearly every soldier who fought in the war had his photograph taken, tens of thousands of the images have been lost over the past 150 years. And of the tens of thousands of soldier images that survive, the vast majority are not identified. Most people, then as today, did not write down the name of the soldier and keep it with the image because, after all, they already knew who he was. David Wynn Vaughan, a premier collector of Confederate soldier images, estimates that no more than 10 or 20 percent of the images he’s seen during his more than 25 years of collecting are identified.
The potentially most fruitful avenue of research is with other family members, especially those with an interest in family history and geneology. Try to find the genealogist in the family and contact them. They can often provide other leads.
You should also search the public records related to your ancestor, especially the service records and pension records at the National Archives. In very rare instances, there are actually photographs that are part of these records. But the records themselves often provide fascinating insights into your ancestor’s service and may also provide new leads for your photograph search.
Check with the libraries and/or historical societies in or near the community where your ancestor lived, or the community or region his unit hailed from. Try to determine if there’s a regimental history for his regiment; often they contain photographs.
Check with reenactors who reenact your ancestor’s unit, or other units from the same state. Reenactors are often extremely knowledgeable about the history of the units they represent.
If your ancestor is a higher ranking officer, by all means check the various other sources listed above. The MOLLUS-Massachusetts collection at the Army Heritage and Education Center in particular includes hundreds of images of identified individual officers.
Even if you don’t find an image, a dedicated search is likely to reveal a wealth of other fascinating facts and information that will enhance your knowledge of your own ancestor’s role in our nation’s greatest conflict.
Good luck searching!
The Center for Civil War Photography
CCWP is a private, non-profit organization and we rely on membership donations to help fulfill our mission. Please consider joining our organization as a member.