Friday, February 20, 2009

Tell Me About These Civil War Soldiers

I’ve been collecting antique photo images for about 15 years, especially daguerreotypes (the first photographic process, revealed by Daguerre in 1839). Also ambrotypes, tintypes, CDV’s (cartes de visite) and Cabinet cards. My favorites are the cased images (housed in leather or gutta percha cases for their protection). Best and earliest of all are the dags.

Last Monday I went to Elizabeth’s Auctions in Auburn, MA, which regularly has sales of ephemera – books, advertising, newspapers, maps, posters, photographs – everything that is ephemeral. There were some cased images there which I bid on, including this super quarter-plate (about 4 by 3 inches) image in a leather case.

I call this a tintype but it’s also called a ferrotype. Daguerreotypes are photographic images on a copper plate which has been coated in silver. Ambrotypes are negative images on glass which turn into a positive image when you put something black—cloth, paper or painted metal—behind them.

About the time the Civil War was starting, tintypes became very popular because they didn’t need to be protected behind glass in a case (although this one is.) They were usually CDV- size (like a business card). A soldier going off to war could go to a studio, get his tintype image taken, and mail it to his loved ones or he could carry a tintype of his sweetheart in his pocket—unlike the bulkier and more fragile cased images.

When I opened this case at the auction I said “WOW!” The rarest things to find in an antique photograph are: a CW soldier, a gold miner with his gear, an animal (hard to get them to sit still for a photo) or, best of all Abe Lincoln—in a dag, ambro or tintype. (If you’ve got one of those, e-mail me immediately at Also Edgar Allan Poe or any other recognizable famous person whose image is very rare. Lincoln gave out tiny tintypes for his campaign photos—those go for big money too.)

Anyway, I said “Wow!” because this image had not only one civil war soldier but TWO, and they were each holding a rifle! And the rifles have bayonets! (You get extra points for all this.) On the negative side, there is some kind of blur or bend on the image below their waists, and the case itself has come apart on the spine, but this is very common.

These two soldiers, in their new uniforms, with their new guns, went to a photographer’s studio to have this image taken as a kind of farewell. If you look, you can see the bases of the posing stands which are bracing their heads so that they won’t move while the photo is being taken. Afterward, the photographer tinted their cheeks pink and tinted their brass buttons, belt buckles, etc. with gold paint.

Collectors of Civil War images are usually men, and they are very specialized and knowledgeable. If they have an image of a soldier and also his name, they can tell you where he fought, when he died, what unit he was in, etc.

I, on the other hand, am very ignorant about Civil War images –I know the hats are called kepis, and that’s about all.

So I’m asking you Civil War experts if you can tell me more about these two handsome soldiers, after looking at their image.

Before the auction, a young man looked at this image after I did, and when he opened it he, too, said “Wow! The only thing missing is if they were holding up name tags.”

Often if you take an image out of the case you will find an identification (or even a lock of hair) hidden behind the image—but not on this one.

I thought I wouldn’t have a chance at winning this great photograph but I did—I guess none of my Civil War collector pals was there last Monday. Now I’m really curious to find out more about these two handsome young men going off to war.

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