Finding Clues in Civil War Photographs

The following is a guest post by Nina Iskandarsjach, Prints & Photographs Division Stanford in Government Liljenquist Fellow.

As an intern at the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, I spent much of my summer researching images from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Much of my work involved identifying and researching lesser-known photographers who had otherwise been forgotten with time. This information has been helpful for providing more context in catalog records as well as gaining a deeper understanding of Civil War photography.

During my research, I came across this image of an unidentified African American boy standing in front of a painted backdrop.

Unidentified African American boy standing in front of painted backdrop showing American flag and tents ; campaign button with portraits of Lincoln on one side and Johnson on the opposite side are attached to inside cover of case. Between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36463

Unidentified African American boy standing in front of painted backdrop showing American flag and tents ; campaign button with portraits of Lincoln on one side and Johnson on the opposite side are attached to inside cover of case. Between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36463

The backdrop displays tents, cannons, and an American flag, much like what a military encampment at the time might have looked like. Additionally, attached to the inside cover of the photograph case is a campaign button with President Lincoln’s portrait.

Of the many images I discovered over the course of my internship, this one has always been the most intriguing to me, because so much is unknown. Who was this little boy? Was he formerly enslaved? How did he come to get his picture taken in front of a military backdrop? Why is his picture encased with a Lincoln campaign button? I wanted to learn as much about this photograph as I could, and despite the challenges involved in identifying a subject or photographer with little provided information, I knew I had to at least try.

In order to learn more about this photograph, I tried to find other images in the Library’s catalog with the same backdrop. Painted backdrops were frequently used in photographic studios during the Civil War, often displaying patriotic themes and motifs. I figured that if I could find other images with the same backdrop, I might be able to narrow down the location of the image or the photographic studio it was taken in.

I was able to find two images in the Library’s records with the same backdrop. This image of an unidentified soldier wearing a Zouave fez:

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform, Zouave fez, and New York buckle with cap box, musket, and U.S. Model 1862 "Zouave" sword bayonet in front of painted backdrop showing military camp. Between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.27235

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform, Zouave fez, and New York buckle with cap box, musket, and U.S. Model 1862 “Zouave” sword bayonet in front of painted backdrop showing military camp. Between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.27235

And this image of an unidentified soldier carrying revolvers and swords:

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with two Colt revolvers and cavalry sword in front of painted backdrop showing encampment (handwritten note in case). Between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32077

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with two Colt revolvers and cavalry sword in front of painted backdrop showing encampment. Between 1861 and 1865.
//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32077

The second image contains a handwritten note on its case: “Cyrus hear [sic] I will send you my likeness to remember me dear brother.”

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with two Colt revolvers and cavalry sword in front of painted backdrop showing encampment (handwritten note in case). Between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32078

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with two Colt revolvers and cavalry sword in front of painted backdrop showing encampment (handwritten note in case). Between 1861 and 1865. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32078

Unfortunately, neither subject nor photographer nor photographic gallery is identified in these images.

Without any textual clues as to who might be pictured and where the photograph was made, I decided to look more closely into the actual backdrop for any identifying information. Many Civil War photographs with painted backdrops were made in areas where large groups of soldiers gathered, such as military encampments or recruitment centers. Additionally, backdrops sometimes reflected the areas where the studios were located. The backdrop present in these photographs displays a bridge over a small body of water, possibly a river. There are also several trees present. The trees appear to be deciduous, possibly located somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeastern regions of the United States.  Could they give an idea of the landscape where the photographer set up their studio?

The arched bridge bears a resemblance to one on the Antietam battlefield. Could it have been made to commemorate the battle? These guesses, however, are simply speculation, and there were too many military encampments to narrow down the location any further.

Burnside Bridge, eastern view. Photo by Gardner & Gibson, 1862. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02927

Ultimately, with little information to start with, it is not possible to identify everyone. During my time researching at the Library of Congress, I hit dead-ends and came away empty-handed many times. There is currently very little scholarly research on painted backdrops, despite their popularity in Civil War portraiture. More research dedicated to this topic could help us uncover the identities of many more soldiers and photographers who served and worked during the Civil War.

Regardless of the inevitable frustration that these dead-ends can cause, it is still possible to appreciate the rarity and the power of an image, despite not knowing the story behind it. If you recognize the backdrop and connect it to a photographer, P&P would love to hear from you.

Learn More:

11 Comments

  1. Carol Johnson
    August 18, 2021 at 7:01 pm

    Painted backdrops are fascinating. I like your use of photos to try to identify the maker.

  2. Kit Arrington
    August 18, 2021 at 7:12 pm

    How creative to try to use the painted backdrop to help with the process of identification! I appreciated seeing your success finding other images that shared the backdrop, and I shared your frustration at not finding the answer that you were looking for. Nonetheless, I learned from your journey – thank you for sharing it. Hopefully you’ve planted some ideas encouraging others to continue the quest.

  3. melanie tirey
    August 18, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    Attempting to find photo “Mother of the Civil War” Sarah Barker Brandon pictured with seventeen sons who fought in the American Civil War from Belmont county, Ohio.

    • Melissa Lindberg
      August 20, 2021 at 8:57 am

      Thanks for your message, Melanie! We’ve added it to the Prints & Photographs Division “Ask a Librarian” queue and will respond soon. Keep an eye on your inbox!

  4. Walt Frankhauser
    August 18, 2021 at 11:40 pm

    Nina – Thanks for your interesting article about Civil War photography.

    A question arises from my reading of images in the collection. Many of the images appear to be contained in wooden display cases.

    Do the photographs include the cases, or does LC actually have the physical cases?

    Thanks for your attention.

  5. Nina Iskandarsjach
    August 19, 2021 at 10:03 am

    Thanks to all for the supportive comments!

    To Walt’s question about the cases of these photographs –

    In most instances, ambrotypes and tintypes in the Liljenquist collection are in physical cases, which the Library owns. While most cases aren’t shown in the digitized images, catalog records describe the case style. Many reference an identification, like Berg 3-95 for the photograph of the African American boy. This comes from Paul Berg’s book, 19th Century Photographic Cases and Wall Frames: //lccn.loc.gov/2002096025. The other primary guide is American Miniature Case Art by Floyd and Marion Rinhart: //lccn.loc.gov/68027207

    I hope this answers your question!

  6. Walt Frankhauser
    August 19, 2021 at 11:30 pm

    Nina – Thanks for your timely and helpful response to my question.

    Would it be too delicate to remove each cased print before digitizing it? Is there any useful imagery hidden behind the frame in the case?

  7. Micah Messenheimer, Curator of Photography
    August 20, 2021 at 9:53 am

    Walt, thank you for your additional comments.

    Unfortunately, for preservation and workflow reasons we do not remove ambrotypes and tintypes (or daguerreotypes) from their cases as part of the digitization process. Each time one of these photographs is taken out of its case, there’s a potential for damage to the image surface, the brass preserver, or the case.

    Occasionally, plates have been removed from their cases by collectors before their arrival at the Library or during conservation treatment at the Library. In these instances, any inscriptions, notes, or locks of hair that are found beneath the photograph are recorded and documented in our catalog records.

  8. Elisabeth Parker
    August 22, 2021 at 2:35 pm

    An excellent description of a creative approach in trying to identify this image. Use of the painted backdrop as a clue should help others in their research.

  9. Joi S. Granger
    August 23, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing these images. Just a comment: The unidentified soldier carrying revolvers and swords looks as though he is missing part of a middle finger. It may be the way he is holding the sword handle–or perhaps my imagination? I have seen photos of injured soldiers; I am reminded of such images.

  10. Elisabeth Parker
    August 25, 2021 at 8:47 am

    An excellent description and a creative approach in trying to identify this image. Use of the painted backdrop as a clue should help others in doing their research.

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