Some of my more dedicated readers might remember my fondness for Ed Bearss and taking his history tours through the Smithsonian, exploring Civil War battlefields. Ed passed away on September 16 at the ripe age of 97. I remember seeing him speaking in public and taking that tour with him in 2017 when at the age of 94, he was still leading groups with more energy than many people I know half his age. He used that microphone and mini-speaker he had not because his voice was weak but because his crowds of groupies on his tours would regularly number over 50 people, and he needed the boost so the folks in the back could hear. I can still hear the echoes of his narration in my head… “And, MISTER Lincoln… “. Semper Fi, Ed, and know that you’ll never be forgotten. I have linked to his obituary
A new acquisition to the CDV collection – another Civil War soldier (definitely Union this time!) complete with sword, cap, and patriotic studio backdrop. The sword, his youth, and the overall style of his uniform suggest to me junior grade officer. Some non-commissioned officers did carry swords, particularly in the cavalry and artillery, but they would have had rank insignia on their sleeves.
This is the first soldier portrait from the period that I have which has a patriotic battle-themed background (notice the cannon to his right just above the table, along with the field tents and flag). This was a popular thing to do during the Civil War for soldiers. Many itinerant photographers had backdrops painted to depict scenes of camp life in front of which they would pose the soldiers. These backdrops served as positive propaganda back home, as it gave the soldiers’ loved ones a sense of normalcy to the life of their son/brother/husband/father. This one was done in a proper studio in Washington DC, just a few doors down the street from Matthew Brady’s parlor. I would guess based on the rather healthy looking condition of the young man that this was taken before he first marched into the field, and probably early in the war.
On a separate but not entirely unrelated note – if you observe carefully, you can see the foot of the posing stand peeking out from behind his legs. I’ve been seeing a lot of comments on Facebook lately about how some at best tragically uninformed and at worst scandalously unscrupulous people out there on Ebay and other online venues have been describing ANY photo of this period where the posing stand is visible as a post-mortem. I want to debunk this myth as strenuously and vigorously as possible. Posing stands were NOT meant to keep corpses in the upright position while they were being photographed. For that matter, most genuine post-mortems I’ve seen have shown the deceased in a prone position if an adult, sometimes sitting up or being held by a parent if a child, but even then children were not uncommonly posed in their coffins.
I would say that this young man is very definitely, obviously alive and well at the time of the taking of this photograph, wouldn’t you agree?
The latest acquisition in my collection – an unnamed Corporal in the US Army, photographed by Alexander Gardner.
If you look carefully you can see the service stripe on his sleeve. This designates three years of service, so in all likelihood this was taken in 1864, as Gardner was working for Mathew Brady until late 1862, and opened his own Washington DC studio in 1863. Soldiers with the three year service stripe would have been quite rare before 1864 due to the politics of enlistment in the first years of the war and the relatively small size of the army prior to 1861. I’m not sure how long after the War ended he continued to use the “Photographer to the Army of the Potomac” logo, but it most likely ceased within a year or two after the war, as the civilian population quickly tired of reminders of the irrepressible bloody conflict.
I just discovered one reason why Gardner studio imprint CDVs are so much less common than Brady studio imprint CDVs – Gardner ceased photographing in 1871 and opened an insurance firm, whereas Brady continued working as a photographer until his death three decades after the war.
While I’m on the topic of military themed images, I thought I’d do a (for the most part) no-words review of the military images in my collection.
My latest acquisition. This is probably in a three-way tie for the best piece (by my own accounting, not on a financial basis) in my cased images collection, and still in the top 5 if you include my CDVs. Quite the rarity, it depicts a pair of Confederate soldiers arm-in-arm, smoking cigars. The case is a sought-after Union case (the Union in Union Case has nothing to do with the Union vs. the Confederacy, but rather it was a term for the case style, coined in the mid-1850s) depicting crossed cannon. As the Civil War encroached, patriotic designs became increasingly popular, and I can see how and why a pair of Confederate soldiers would want such a case design for their image.
Here is the image in its brass mat –
And a scan of the bare plate without the mat. I have done some dust removal for the purpose of clarifying the image, and applied a little unsharp mask to the image to bring out detail that would be softened in the scanning process, but otherwise this is an accurate representation of the plate and its condition. The image and the case have condition issues, but it’s an unique piece – where are you ever going to find another copy of this image? Despite the plate condition, you can clearly see the hand-coloring of the uniforms, the flesh-tones, and even the lit ends of the cigars have been tinted red!
The case as a whole is generally in good shape, but the lid is missing the velvet pad. This isn’t such a horrible problem, as the velvet pad can always be replaced, but it would have been terrific if it had remained, as the pad might well have had identifying information about the photographer and his location.
I know I’ve harped on the topic of Victorian-era images of affectionate men before, but I’ll do it again, especially since an image like this can be so fraught with meaning mis-applied by modern sensibilities.
Here we have a pair of Confederate soldiers. They are arm-in-arm, casually smoking cigars. I read the gesture as being purely affectionate, bonding between two soldiers who may be not only deep friends but it also reads to me as reassurance in the face of potential mortality. This one lacks any suggestion of sexuality, but I love the way it humanizes two soldiers that it would be easy for us 150 years after the fact to pigeonhole for their support of a cause we today condemn.
My latest cased image acquisition. In contrast to the daguerreotype pair I just purchased, this is a tintype in a brass mat and frame in a gutta-percha (thermoplastic) case.
The case on this was even lovelier than I expected – there are no major chips or cracks, and the lock is in good working order. Oftentimes the clasping mechanism has become bent over the last 150 years and either tries to form a hermetic seal or refuses to hold the two halves together at all.
When you buy something like this, you never know entirely what you’re getting. Sellers don’t always describe everything with 100% accuracy, as much out of ignorance as anything else (rarely is it ill-will – lots of people just don’t know a lot about what they’re selling). This was described as of a post-Civil War US Army soldier. The fact that it is a tintype and not an ambrotype or a CDV would lend credence to that theory, as tintypes were immensely popular after the war, and although not exclusively an American phenomenon, their greatest popularity was in the United States. However, several things about the uniform suggest that A: it is not American, and B: it is potentially pre- or inter-war. In researching US Army uniforms, I found several uniform stylings from the 1840s-50s that bear a resemblance to the jacket he is wearing. But in my understanding of US Army uniforms (hardly encyclopedic) there was never a pith helmet issued. The rifle appears to be a percussion-cap rifle, which if American, could be an 1840s Harpers Ferry Arsenal product.
Another possibility is that this is a cadet at one of the private military academies. I can rule out The Citadel, VMI, and West Point as possibilities as their uniforms are sufficiently different, particularly in the cuffs of the sleeves.
This photo was taken out-of-doors as can be seen from the grass in the foreground stopping at the canvas backdrop.
You can also see on the scan of the tintype out of its packet that there are scuff marks from the mat. They appear to match the mat, but this is not definitive. The case just feels wrong for the image – it seems to be earlier than the image, and much fancier than you would associate with a tintype. My instinct tells me that sometime after the image was made, someone decided to do a case-ectomy and swap the original case, be it leather or a paper sleeve, for this one. The scratches to the emulsion also seem to suggest that this image was not in a case for its entire life.
Into every life a little rain must fall now and again. Here is the latest arrival to my collection – a pair of British soldiers posing atop a cheetah skin rug. I’m not sure of the date – perhaps some military history buffs out there will be able to identify the time period more precisely (my best guess is between 1890-1910, perhaps as old as the 1880s) but more likely in the 19th century. In any case, the seller shipped it in a plastic sleeve that was loose, and held down with tape. The card either through direct action of the seller or carelessness got attached to the tape, and a big chunk of the emulsion lifted off the card. FORTUNATELY, A: I didn’t pay a lot for the image, and B: the big chunk stayed intact, so it is possible it can be re-attached without being too terribly obvious.
This ‘restoration’ is a purely photoshop restoration, quick-and-dirty with my limited photoshop skills. You can see what the card SHOULD look like with the chunk re-attached.
When I bought this, I saw it as a wonderful example of that genre of homosocial images of men being affectionate that you saw so very much of in the 19th century but faded out by World War I and pretty much disappeared by World War II. This very much has the feel of two soldiers of the Raj, or given the cheetah pelt, somewhere in Imperial Africa. Although probably it was in a London studio. These kinds of photos disappeared as changing attitudes toward men and women and their relationships evolved. The rise of urbanization, factory work, and the buddings of gender equality transformed the personal social sphere, particularly for unmarried people, and what had previously been mono-gendered changed to become heterogenous. With that heterogeneity came the rising expectation of directing your affections, at least in public, toward the “appropriate” gender. Even if the homosocial relationships didn’t go away, the practice of documenting them was suppressed.
Here is a Japanese carte-de-visite sized cabinet card of a young soldier, possibly a recent graduate from military academy and newly commissioned officer. This appears to be circa 1900, so it could be from as early as the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, or somewhere in between. He’s quite dashing looking in his uniform, and he has the look of someone anxious about his future (thus the wartime attribution). Any uniform and military experts out there who can correct my timeline are more than welcome to chime in. And if anyone knows anything about the studio, information as always will be greatly appreciated. Looking at the back of the card, it was once glued into an album, and only a numeric marking in pencil exists on the back, so whoever removed it from the album has eliminated a prime means of identifying the sitter.
The young couple in the previous post are Clara Barton and John J. Elwell, the young man she was linked to romantically.
While there is no evidence that they were ever sexually intimate, some time after the war, General Elwell wrote to her that he loved her “all the law allows (and a little more perhaps)”. What exactly that meant remains the realm of speculation, as it is certainly cryptic by intent; General Elwell was a married man. Given that he was married at the time of his association with Clara Barton, this photograph becomes an act of bravery and defiance (or brazenness depending on your take of Victorian social mores), although perhaps it could have been passed off as innocent as Ms. Barton and General Elwell both served together in South Carolina at the assault on Fort Wagner, he with the Quartermaster’s Corps, she as a civilian nurse. Certainly at the time she was already famous, and he would have been so as well by the time the photo was taken in 1865, so it may have been at Mathew Brady’s urging that they posed together or it may have been of their own choosing.
Here is an image of General Elwell:
and Clara Barton:
And my photo for comparison:
I bought this image because it has so much interesting history to it. Not only is the sitter known, but so is the date of the card, and the photographer, and the recipient of the card. Señor Maunoury was a franchisee of Nadar’s studio in Paris, operating in Lima, Peru. The handwritten note says “To my distinguished friend Juan Antonio Pacheco as a token of friendship, Miguel Criado”. So here we have a photograph that has traveled halfway around the world, just a few years shy of its 150th birthday, created by a French-trained photographer, collected by an American. What a fascinating nexus of connections. I wonder what the provenance of the image was before I bought it. I think it’s very important especially in the globalized world of today to contemplate these peregrinations through space and time that allow items like this to come into our hands, much like my Black Star, Osage Brave image that began life in Fort Smith, Arkansas, was collected in New York State, then went to Paris before arriving in my collection, or the Paris Opera image that spent time in Bulgaria before being auctioned off on Ebay by another French dealer, and now resides in Washington DC. In some ways, this is really the purpose of photography – to connect people across space and time, allowing someone dead and gone more than a century past to live on in the minds of people in a place they never would have been to.