Arts & Antiques

Photos From the Civil War

150 years later, images from our nation’s bloodiest war are still popular collectibles.

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Look into their eyes. Whether they are infantrymen or generals, teenagers or grandfathers, union supporters or confederate soldiers, their faces command our attention and draw us into their story. We feel an immediate connection to them and to the cataclysmic events they were part of during our nation’s bloodiest conflict. No wonder photographs from the Civil War are such popular collectibles.

Photography came of age at just the right time for documenting the war. The 1839 invention in France of the daguerreotype (a reverse image produced on a silver-coated copper plate) progressed rapidly to the ambrotype (glass) and tintype or ferrotype (iron). These images, which could not be duplicated, were housed in small folding cases to protect them.

The advance that made pictures affordable by the masses was the carte de visite, or CDV, introduced in the United States from France in 1859. Multiple copies of these 2.5 x 4-inch albumen silver prints could be made from one negative. Mounted on card stock, the pictures were ideal calling cards. CDVs were often sold with albums so people could store and display pictures of their relatives, fellow soldiers, or famous people. 

Practitioners in this exciting new artistic medium took advantage of its increasing popularity. One such photographer was Mathew Brady (c. 1823-1896). He started with daguerreotypes, opening a New York portrait studio in 1844. Brady’s skills as a businessman were equal to his talents as a photographer. In 1856 he hired Alexander Gardner (1821-1882), a skilled photographer in his own right. By 1858, Brady had two New York galleries; Gardner was sent to Washington, D.C. to manage a third. 

When the Civil War began, Brady, who is remembered as the first photojournalist, sent photographers and support personnel to document the events and do portraiture of camp life. The graphic pictures taken in the field shocked the world when Brady displayed them in an exhibit called The Dead of Antietam. This was the first conflict in which the public saw realistic visuals of the carnage, not an artist’s rendition. Before the end of the war more than 750,000 would be dead, and the power of photography as a medium for generating a collective memory—as well as to heal the nation when peace returned—would be sealed.

In 1862, Alexander Gardner left Mathew Brady, establishing his own Washington gallery in direct competition with his former employer. Gardner sent a team of photographers to follow the Union armies. They produced almost three thousand negatives, including at least 87 from Gettysburg, where the team arrived with their cameras, chemicals, and glass plates on July 5, 1863, just two days after the fighting ended. Gardner would later select and print one hundred of the photos in his 1866 anthology, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.   

Photography had some unexpected uses, too. Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou assembled more than 570 cartes de visite of ill and wounded soldiers into a medical teaching album. And within 24 hours of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the police distributed CDV of John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. A week later, someone recognized Booth and David Herold from the poster; both were apprehended.  

Hundreds of thousands of cartes de visite were produced by small-town and itinerant studios during the war years, so a collector looking for Civil War portraits should keep in mind the usual advice about scarcity, condition, and provenance. “Confederate photographs command about three times the price of Union pictures,” says Matthew Fleming, proprietor of the Civil War Image Shop. “Due to the North’s successful blockade of southern ports, the large majority of photos were taken by northern photographers.

“I highly recommend that people purchase only from a reputable dealer,” adds Fleming. “There are plenty of fakes out there.” Make sure the photographs are returnable so you can get them checked by an expert before parting with your money. Photos go for several hundred to several thousand dollars, with $30,000 not unheard of.

Ambrotypes and tintypes of children wearing patriotic costumes, especially if they are pictured with a parent, are very collectible. And speaking of costumes, pictures of soldiers wearing Zouave outfits while drilling in the field are extremely scarce. A fez, short jacket, sash, and brightly colored pantaloons made their way from Algeria to France to America, where volunteer militias wore them.

Recently, Fleming sold an ambrotype of a Confederate officer for over $10,000. It was photographed and signed by Charles R. Rees, whose pictures are stunning works of art in composition and execution. Rees’ works are some of the most valuable and sought-after on the market. 

Images of African-Americans are highly prized as well. The power of photographs was evident to African-Americans even during the war. For example, in December 1863, almost a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, Colonel George Hanks of the Eighteenth Infantry, Corps d’Afrique, traveled with eight emancipated slaves from New Orleans to northern photography studios. The goal of the publicity campaign was to raise money to build schools and hire teachers to educate former slaves in Louisiana.

Sometimes the story behind the picture makes it exceptional. “My favorite image is a young man seated with his wife,” says Fleming. “I took the picture out of the case and behind the image he had written his name and his wife’s name in calligraphy. On the bottom there was something written in pencil; I couldn’t quite make it out. Finally it became clear that it read, `For our son, when we have one.’ The soldier died of typhoid fever in 1863. When I got his service records they list him having the photograph on him at the time of his death.” Looking into the eyes of the handsome soldier whose dreams would never be realized, we become part of his story. 

Resources:

Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff L. Rosenheim, catalogue published in
conjunction with the exhibit that originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Center for Civil War Photography – www.CivilWarPhotography.org

Matthew Fleming – www.thecivilwarimageshop.com

List of dealers in Civil War items – www.civilwardealers.com

Library of Congress Civil War photographs – www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cwp/

The National Archives – www.archives.gov

Medhurst & Company, Mike Medhurst – www.mikemedhurst.com

The Hunt Spring 2015  Issue

This article was published in Arts & Antiques from the Spring 2015 issue.
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