Timothy H. O'Sullivan

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O'Sullivan circa 1871-74

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (c. 1840 – January 14, 1882) was a photographer widely known for his work related to the American Civil War and the Western United States.


O'Sullivan's history and personal life remains a mystery for many historians as there is little information to work from. For example, he was either born in Ireland and came to New York City two years later with his parents or his parents traveled to New York before he was born. There is no way of finding out which of the two stories is true. We do know that as a teenager, he was employed by Mathew Brady. We also know when the Civil War began in early 1861, he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Union Army (though Joel Snyder, O'Sullivan's biographer, could find no definitive proof of this claim in Army records[citation needed]) and, over the next year, was present at Beaufort, Port Royal, Fort Walker, and Fort Pulaski. There is no record of him fighting. He most likely did civilian work for the army, such as surveying, while taking photographs in his spare time.[1][page needed]

After being honorably discharged, he rejoined Brady's team. In July 1862, O'Sullivan followed Maj. Gen. John Pope's Northern Virginia Campaign. By joining Alexander Gardner's studio, he had his forty-four photographs published in the first Civil War photographs collection, Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War.[2] In July 1863, he created his most famous photograph, "The Harvest of Death," depicting dead soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg.

He took many other photographs documenting the battle, including "Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top",[3] "Field where General Reynolds fell",[4] "View in wheatfield opposite our extreme left",[5] "Confederate dead gathered for burial at the southwestern edge of the Rose woods",[6] "Bodies of Federal soldiers near the McPherson woods",[7] "Slaughter pen",[8] and others.

In 1864, following Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's trail, he photographed the Siege of Petersburg before briefly heading to North Carolina to document the siege of Fort Fisher. That brought him to the Appomattox Court House, the site of Robert E. Lee's surrender in April 1865.

From 1867 to 1869, he was the official photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel under Clarence King. The expedition began at Virginia City, Nevada, where he photographed the mines, and worked eastward. His job was to photograph the West to attract settlers. In so doing, he became one of the pioneers in the field of geophotography. O'Sullivan's pictures were among the first to record the prehistoric ruins, Navajo weavers, and pueblo villages of the Southwest.[citation needed] In contrast to the Asian and Eastern landscape fronts, the subject matter he focused on was a new concept. It involved taking pictures of nature as an untamed, pre-industrialized land without the use of landscape painting conventions. O'Sullivan combined science and art, making exact records of extraordinary beauty.

In 1870 he joined a survey team in Panama to survey for a canal across the isthmus. From 1871 to 1874 he returned to the southwestern United States to join Lt. George M. Wheeler's survey west of the 100th meridian west. He faced starvation on the Colorado River when some of the expedition's boats capsized; few of the 300 negatives he took survived the trip back East.[citation needed] He spent the last years of his short life in Washington, D.C., as official photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Treasury Department.

O'Sullivan died in Staten Island of tuberculosis at age 42.

Gallery of O'Sullivan photographs[edit]


  1. ^ Horan, James D. (1966). Timothy O'Sullivan, America's Forgotten Photographer. New York: Bonanza Books. ISBN 0-517-00259-0.
  2. ^ "Timothy H. O'Sullivan". The Getty. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  3. ^ "Battle-field of Gettysburg--Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top [i.e., Devil's Den]". Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  4. ^ "Field where General Reynolds fell, Gettysburg". Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  5. ^ "Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. View in wheatfield opposite our extreme left". Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  6. ^ "Gettysburg, Pa. Confederate dead gathered for burial at the southwestern edge of the Rose woods, July 5, 1863". Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  7. ^ "Gettysburg, Pa. Bodies of Federal soldiers, killed on July 1, near the McPherson woods". Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  8. ^ "Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. "Slaughter pen" on left wing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  9. ^ Frassanito, pp. 315, 317.


Further reading[edit]

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