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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 113

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This is the grave of Matthew Brady.

Probably born in 1822 in New York (there is a bit of conflicting testimony about both facts, with some believing he was born in Ireland), the young Brady studied locally to become an artist. But in 1839, he met Samuel F.B. Morse, who had brought daguerreotype technology back from France. Brady began working on this and became an American leader on the developing art of photography. He soon started teaching photography classes in New York. Opening his own studio in New York in 1844, Brady became the day’s leading photographer of the wealthy and powerful, a sort of Gilbert Stuart for the early photographic age. If a president or a business leader or a general wanted their photograph taken, it was Brady they went to. Brady photographed every president or ex-president at some point between John Quincy Adams and William McKinley except for William Henry Harrison. This includes the photograph of Lincoln used for the $5 bill and the very late life images of Adams and Andrew Jackson.

When the Civil War began, Brady wanted to travel with the Army to photograph it. Having friends among the powerful, he got the support of Winfield Scott and Lincoln agreed, with one stipulation. Brady would have to fund it himself. This would eventually prove his undoing. Brady’s mobile studio produced thousands of amazing images. Among those images he and his team of 17 assistants photographed was the dead at Antietam, which brought the horrors of the war home to American readers for the first time and helped define the conflict as the war went on. He created over 10,000 plates during the war. They were expensive. He spent over $100,000 and went into debt to do it. He did this on faith that the government would buy them at the war’s conclusion. That was a mistaken belief. He had to sell his studio and declare bankruptcy. Congress did finally grant him $25,000 in 1875 but that was not nearly enough to clear his name. Brady died in 1896 in the charity ward of a hospital after, by now blind, he was struck by a streetcar. The remaining veterans of the 7th New York Infantry paid for his burial out of appreciation for the work he had done to commemorate them and other Union soldiers.

Matthew Brady is buried at Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

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