Finding Civil War Pictures

Finding Civil War Pictures

Play your cards right and you might discover a picture of a Civil War ancestor.

The Civil War is the first military conflict for which we have an extensive photographic record. But pictures from the Civil War aren’t all works by Mathew Brady and the like—some are as common as business cards are today.

Cartes de visite—from the French for “calling card” and pronounced “cart-de-vee-zeet”—abound even today because of the extremely high number of them made. The daguerreotype was introduced in 1839, but by the time of the Civil War, photographs were cheaper and more accessible. The 1851 invention of the negative/print process, which used glass plates for negatives and printing paper coated with egg white (“albumen paper”), meant that duplicate prints were possible.

Since albumen prints were printed on thin, smooth paper, they were mounted on cardboard to make them sturdier. The size of the mounts varied depending on the size of the prints. The smallest, the carte de visite, was favored for portraits like this image of the Bufords. The size — 4 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches — made it popular to use as a calling card. These cards quickly became collectibles, as evidenced in the fact that this example—showing Brig. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford and his wife on Aug. 6, 1864—was part of a set collected by Col. John G. Hudson of the Union soldiers and officers stationed at Helena, Ark., in 1863 and 1864.

So who was the colorfully named Napoleon Bonaparte Buford? From Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner (Louisiana State University Press), we learn that the Kentucky-born and West Point-educated Buford came to command the District of Arkansas at Helena late in the war. Buford had recruited the 27th Illinois Regiment, of which he became colonel. In 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general.

How much might Buford have paid for this photograph? Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Arkansas in the Civil War (University of Arkansas Press) states that a Little Rock photographer named Slatter a year earlier charged $2.50 per dozen for cartes de visite.

Are there other clues? In an attempt to raise revenue late in the war, Congress passed legislation to tax luxury items. Those who sold photographs were required to affix stamps on photographs sold between Aug. 1, 1864, and August 1, 1866, according to the cost of the photograph. (See “The 1864 Luxury Tax on Photographs.”) As there is not stamp on the back of Buford’s photographs, the price remains a mystery. Perhaps this is an indication that the Aug. 6, 1864, date on the photo is inaccurate, that stamps had not yet reached Helena or that the photographer was amiss.

Fortunately, we can identify the photographer. Many photographers took advantage of the carte de visite’s popularity for advertising purposes by printing their name and often their address on the cardboard mounts. The Buford photograph was taken by T. W. Bankes at Helena, Ark., who also recorded scenes of Helena under Union occupation.

Do you have a Civil War-era ancestor? If so, be sure to add the carte de visite to your search list—you may find your ancestor’s calling card and a photographic glimpse into yesterday. (For more on tracing your Civil War roots, see The Mystic Chords of Memory.)

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