Capturing the Civil War: The Photographic Record

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I am thoroughly impressed with the photographic record of the American Civil War. In my ongoing search for “primary sources,” I have been exploring the National Archives and The Library of Congress. The photographic collections at both are simply excellent. Long time historians in the field are no doubt quite familiar with these. For me, humble graduate student, these are a real find. And as we all know, this kind of photographic record sets the American Civil War apart from previous wars. Because I want to have easy access to photographs, I’ve created a photographs “category” on the right nav bar. The following are the best two sources I’ve found to date.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Selected Civil War Photographs[Charleston Harbor, S.C. Deck and officers of U.S.S. monitor Catskill; Lt. Comdr. Edward Barrett seated on the turret].[Charleston Harbor, S.C. Deck and officers of U.S.S. monitor Catskill; Lt. Comdr. Edward Barrett seated on the turret].
The collection includes 1,118 photographs of “scenes of military personnel, preparations for battle, and battle after-effects.” Both Confederate and Union soldiers of officer and enlisted ranks are represented. Also in the collection are albums of CDVs (carte-de-visite) – with over 200 visiting card photos representing a “who’s who” of the time of the Lincoln presidential administration.

Many of the photos have been attributed to Matthew Brady who supervised or collected them and showed – for the first time in history – the horrors of war. More on him in a future post. Amazing fellow.

The photo above was taken in Charleston Harbor, S.C. and is of the deck and officers of U.S.S. monitor Catskill; Lt. Comdr. Edward Barrett seated on the turret. It is categorized as “Photographs of the Federal Navy, and seaborne expeditions against the Atlantic Coast of the Confederacy — the Federal Navy, 1861-1865″ [Call Number: LC-B811- 3412].

The National Archives: Pictures of the Civil War
Photos in this collection are organized as follows:
Activities – Army Life, Army Units, Cavalry, Civilians, Communications and intelligence, Councils, Engineering, Foreign Observers, Generals in the Field, Medical, Morale, Navies, Ordnance, Photographers and Their Equipment, Prisoners and Prisons, Quartermaster and Commissary, RailroadsConstruction of telegraph lines 1864
Places – Battle Areas, Richmond, Va., Washington, D.C., and Environs
Portraits – Abolitionists, Artists and Authors, Confederate Army Officers, Confederate Officials, Enlisted Men, Federal Army Officers, Federal Navy Officers, Foreign Diplomats, Government Officials, Women

Lincoln’s Assassination

The photograph above captures the “Constructing of telegraph lines, April 1864.” It was photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Reference number 165-SB-62.
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Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

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On Edward C. Pierce and CDVs

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Harry Smeltzer over at Bull Runnings, in his kind mention of Wig-Wags yesterday, provides insight into the photo that tops my blog. He identifies it as being of “the Union signal station on Elk Ridge during the 1862 Maryland Campaign.” He points out that the officer in the photo (middle and seated) has been identified as one Edward C. Pierce. His CDV and story can be read “on the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) website along with the full picture which I’ve also uploaded here for your viewing. Officer Pierce’s vitae is an interesting one and includes participation on Little Round Top at which time he held the rank of Captain. He remained, even though offered promotion in other areas, in the Signal Corps throughout the war.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-B815- 633]
Elk Mountain, Md. Signal tower overlooking Antietam battlefield
O’Sullivan, Timothy H., 1840-1882 photographer.

Dan Sickles CDV

I will set my ego aside for a moment and admit that I had to look up the term CDV. This may be familiar to most of you but since I’m a humble graduate student, I had to do a little research. It turns out that a CDV, or “carte-de-visite” (French for visiting card), is a small albumen print that – if of standard size – would be mounted on a backing card of 2.5 inches by 4 inches. This made them a handy size to use as a “photographic calling card” and they were exchanged and collected in albums. Debra Clifford, the “Town Historian of Ancestorville,” has provided an excellent history of the CDV on the Ancestorville.com site and indicates that “a young Civil War soldier would proudly send his “likeness” home to a waiting beau, mother and family.” 

Albumen (al-bu-men) means, by the way, “the white of eggs.” I assume that egg whites were used to provide a glossy finish to the photo. The technique was developed and patented by Andre Disderi in 1854 and, according to Clifford, introduced in the United States in 1859 which positioned it perfectly for adoption by young men going off to war. “…CDV’s were produced in the millions. The ease of size and paper format of this newfangled photograph allowed the CDV to be sent through the mail, a great benefit from the heavily glassed and protected and cased ambrotype and daguerreotype photos that were previously available.”

This CDV is of Daniel Edgar Sickles is a part of a collection wonderfully preserved and presented for our virtual viewing on the American Memory section of the Library of Congress site along with some two hundred others. These make up the collection of John Hay who was a personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and so had occasion to receive CDVs from an assortment of people of the era including “army and navy officers, politicians, and cultural figures.”

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-MSS-44297-33-116 (b&w negative)]
Photographer: Sarony, Napoleon (1821-1896)
Collection:
James Wadsworth Family Papers