This is a historic photo. Hands down, historic. This photo shows a naval attack underway on a specific date. In the annals of combat photography, this was a first.
The Library of Congress record on this photo carries the caption, “View from parapet of Fort Sumter, Sept. 8, 1863, showing Federal ironclads Weehawken, Montauk, and Passaic; taken by a Confederate photographer.”
The caption is probably incorrect in some particulars. The Weehawken was grounded about 1,200 yards from Fort Sumter, and to the southeast. It would be hard to frame that monitor with the others.
The other ironclads moved up the main channel that morning to get between the grounded monitor and Sullivan’s Island. The Montauk and Passaic operated closely together during the day, so this might capture those two. And the third may be the New Ironsides. So with that minor caption edit suggested, does this photograph really capture the action on September 8, 1863?
The photographer was George S. Cook, a native of Connecticut. He had setup shop in Charleston before the war. There are newspaper accounts which place the photographer in the fort at that time, recording the act of taking the photograph in dramatic fashion. And there is also a passage from Admiral John Dahlgren’s report on the September 8 action stating, “Some movement in Sumter seemed to draw the attention from the Weehawken, which, with a few well-directed shells, settled the that business.”
Fine… newspaper accounts we might brush aside as embellished. And Dahlgren’s mention is not specific. And besides, how and why would a photographer be in Fort Sumter on that day in September? The Confederates had just evacuated Morris Island. Fort Sumter was under threat of attack at any moment. Every boat was needed to shuffle troops, supplies, and equipment. And yet a photographer, his assistant, and equipment were shipped out to the fort just so they could take some pictures?
Captain John Johnson was IN Fort Sumter at that time, and was in position to observe Cook at work:
During the heavy cannonade of Sullivan’s Island by the ironclad squadron on the 8th of September an artist from Charleston, Mr. G.S. Cook, was engaged in taking photographs of the interior of Fort Sumter. A comprehensive view of the interior was obtained by him from a point in the parade looking northward to the chief salient.
To me that establishes Cook’s presence and purpose. “Engaged in taking photographs” for who? Just a photographer out taking pictures as a leisure activity? Consider this receipt posted to Cook’s citizens file:
In July 1863, he made several copies – “photograph of Plan of attack on Fort Sumter on 7 April,” Devils, Fort Sumter, and Monitors. Cook was sort of the Kinko’s of wartime Charleston. Although it does not say, one can assume Cook took the photos being reproduced (and, although those ‘photograhs’ were of drawings pertaining to the April 7 attack, wouldn’t it be nice to stumble across a few of those?).
Johnson stated he was in Fort Sumter specifically to take photographs of the interior. In the remainder of the paragraph cited above, Johnson continues on to describe the damage to the fort as if he was describing one of those photographs. Cook was in Fort Sumter at the suggestion, or even on contract for, the Confederate Army. His job that day was to photograph the interior of the fort so that engineers could examine the damage from a safe distance in Charleston. So not only was Cook taking historic photos, he was also providing photos for a fledgling technique – photo analysis.
While he was there taking pictures of the interior of Fort Sumter, he really captured what the interior looked like:
Retouched a bit, but complete with exploding mortar shells.