George Smith Cook was born in Connecticut in 1819, and was orphaned at a young age. Though he originally made his living painting portraits in New Orleans, began studying the infant art of photography, mastering the techniques and opening studios in scores of towns, north and south. His newfound talent allowed him to travel throughout the country, open new photography studios, train photographers, sell the studio to his students, and move on. He eventually worked for Mathew Brady, arguable America's most famous photographer, managing one of his New York studios.
Cook eventually settled in Charleston, South Carolina, which gave him the opportunity to record the effect of the Civil War on the city. He recorded the first portrait of Major Robert Anderson during the Fort Sumter crisis and on September 8, 1863, he captured what are considered to history's first combat photographs: two images of Union ironclads firing on Fort Moultrie. Cook worked closely with the Confederate army to record the gradual destruction of Charleston and Fort Sumter and the naval action of ironclads at Fort Sumter.