The Broken Glass Plate of Lincoln and McClellan

Black and white photo of President Abraham Lincoln and Major General George McClellan sitting together in a tent.Library of Congress

This broken glass plate of President Abraham Lincoln and Major General George McClellan is part of Alexander Gardner’s “Incidents of the War” collection.

Broken but somehow whole, this 7-by-9-inch plate of the historic 1862 meeting between President Abraham Lincoln and Major General George McClellan on the Antietam battlefield is a dramatic reminder that most of the documentary images of the Civil War were made on breakable panes of glass. Sometime in the last 162 years, this glass plate negative was broken. But the plate was preserved and has been scanned by the Library of Congress along with more than 1,800 stereoscopic and large plate negatives in Alexander Gardner’s “Incidents of the War” collection. Using modern digital photo editing tools, the broken plate could be restored to its original brilliance and stunning clarity.

Of some 950 large plate negatives that Gardner’s gallery is known to have produced during and right after the conflict, 753 survive, although 207 are damaged. Gardner’s 4-by-10 stereoscopic glass plates fared better, with 1,074 surviving from some 1,235 stereo images known to have been made. In 1944, the Library of Congress became the fifth owner of this vast collection of glass plates. On the rare occasions that a plate has been broken since then, each piece of glass has been preserved in its own stiff paper sleeve. Like with a puzzle, broken negatives were reassembled then scanned to create the digital images available online today, including this one.

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