Timothy O’Sullivan: The Irish Photographer Who Captured the Civil War

Timothy O'Sullivan, Irish Photographer of the Civil War (Image via Wikipedia)

The American Civil War of 1861-65 took place some 150 years ago. It is very difficult for us to imagine what is was like to experience the upheaval of that period, or to have borne witness to the horrors of battlefields such as Gettysburg and Petersburg. However, there is one medium that has left us with imagery taken direct from these fields of conflict- photography. Famous practitioners such as Irish-American Mathew Brady and Scotsman Alexander Gardner remain well known, and many of their photographs still achieve a wide circulation today. Another was Irishman Timothy O’Sullivan, who worked for both Brady and Gardner during the war. He succeeded in capturing some of the most recognisable and emotive images of the Civil War. 

There is some question as to Timothy O’Sullivan’s place of birth. O’Sullivan himself once claimed on a job application that he was born in New York, but his death certificate records his place of birth as Ireland. It is possible that O’Sullivan lied about his place of birth to improve his chances of winning the position. He is now variously described as being born in New York or Ireland, with institutions such as the Smithsonian listing him as being of Irish birth. (1)

O’Sullivan learned his trade from Brady before the outbreak of the war, initially being based in the Irish-American’s New York studio. He was later moved to Brady’s Washington D.C. office, which was then run by Alexander Gardner. When war broke out O’Sullivan initially worked with Brady, and one of his cameras was reportedly blown up at the first Battle of Bull Run. As it became apparent that the fighting would drag on, the Irishman was sent to locations such as South Carolina where he took photographs with Union armies in the field. In 1862, Gardner ended his association with Brady and set up his own business. O’Sullivan decided to join the Scotsman and work as his assistant, a position he held for the remainder of the war. (2)

Manassas 1862

The Photographer and his kit. Image taken by Timothy O'Sullivan at Manassas, July 1862 (Library of Congress)

It was while working with Gardner in 1863 that O’Sullivan captured some of his most famous images. Gardner and his team were the first photographers to arrive at the Gettysburg battlefield, taking their first shots on 5th July 1863.The Irishman was responsible for the famous images ‘Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter’ taken in Devil’s Den and ‘A Harvest of Death’ which showed Union dead on the field. Research by William A. Frassanito has established that the Confederate sharpshooter image was set up by the photographers, as the dead Rebel in the image appears in a number of other photographs placed in different positions. Scott Hartwig, Supervisory Historian at Gettysburg National Military Park has recently presented a compelling argument at the From the Fields of Gettysburg blog that the men in the ‘Harvest of Death’ images are soldiers of the 121st Pennsylvania on McPherson’s Ridge. (3)

Confederate Sharpshooter

The image of the Confederate Sharpshooter taken by Timothy O'Sullivan on the Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania in July 1863 (Library of Congress)

O’Sullivan continued to take photographs throughout the remainder of the war, and was present at Petersburg and Appomattox, where he shot the McLean House in which Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant. When Gardner published his Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War in 1866, many of the images were credited to the Irishman. O’Sullivan’s sense of adventure did not end with the conclusion of the war. In 1867 he joined Clarence King’s geological survey of the fortieth parallel as a photographer, with a mission to document the territory between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains. He was back in the West again in 1871 when he accompanied the geological surveys west of the one hundredth meridian. He would go on to lead an expedition himself in 1873 where he took some notable images of Apache scouts. (4)

Harvest of Death

'A Harvest of Death' taken by Timothy O'Sullivan on the Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania, July 1863 (Library of Congress)

Unfortunately the Irishman was not destined to have the opportunity for a long career; he contracted tuberculosis at the age of 42 and died on Staten Island on 14th January 1882, where he is buried in an unmarked grave at St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery. Despite his premature death, O’Sullivan’s work has proved a fitting legacy. The photographs he created continue to fascinate and horrify in equal measure, standing as testament to the brutal realities of conflict during the American Civil War.

McLean House Appomattox

The McLean House at Appomattox Court House, site of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant. Image by Timothy O'Sullivan taken in April 1865 (Library of Congress)

(1) McGinn: Through Irish Eyes, Foresta 1996: Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Regan 2003: Life of Timothy H. O’Sullivan; (2) Regan 2003: Life of Timothy H. O’Sullivan, McGinn: Through Irish Eyes,University of Virginia: Timothy O’Sullivan; (3) Frassanito 1975: 24-27, ibid 1975: 190-192, ibid 1975: 228-229, Hartwig 2011: A Mystery Solved? Part 2; (4) McGinn: Through Irish Eyes, Foresta 1996: Timothy H. O’Sullivan (5) McGinn: Through Irish Eyes;

References & Further Reading

Foresta, Merry A. 1996. Smithsonian American Art Museum: Timothy H. O’Sullivan taken from American Photographs: The First Century

Frassanito, William A. 1975. Gettysburg: A Journey in Time

Hartwig, Scott 2011. ‘A Mystery Solved? Part 2′ at From the Fields of Gettysburg

Horan, James David 1966. Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer

Regan, Margaret 2003. The Life of Timothy H. O’Sullivan in the Tuscon Weekly

McGinn, Brian. Through Irish Eyes: The Civil War Photography of Timothy O’Sullivan

University of Virginia America Studies: Timothy O’Sullivan, A Portrait

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue

The Center for Civil War Photography

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Categories: Non Combatant, Photography

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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  1. 150 Years Ago: An Irish Photographer Captures the Overland Campaign | Irish in the American Civil War - May 2, 2014

    […] the best known was photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, an individual who has been the topic of a previous post and is also featured in my book. Some of O’Sullivan’s images from around May 1864 are […]

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