Civil War Portraits

During the American Civil War, photography was coming into it’s own as an art form and widespread practice. For the first time, photographers ventured out into the battle field, sending home poignant images of the horrors of war. Soldiers lined up to have their portraits taken and requested the same from beloved and missed family members at home. As you read through the letters, at several points William specifically requests that pictures of Sarah and very specifically his daughter Melissa, be taken and sent to him.

There were several basic processes for photography during the civil war. These were daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, iron tintypes and cartes de visite (or card photographs) and stereographs. Tintypes were enormously popular during the Civil War because they were inexpensive, quickly produced, durable and could easily be mailed without fear of damage. During the civil war, it became common for soldiers who were about to leave to pose in uniform so their loved ones had a photo before they left. Itinerant photographers also visited the encampments, setting up temporary studios near the army camps to take portraits of the soldiers to be sent home.

Tintype photos are made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel and used as the support for the photographic emulsion. There were two different processes that could be used, wet and dry. In the wet process, a collodion emulsion with silver halide had to be formed on the plate just before it was exposed in the camera while still wet. Chemical treatment then reduced infused crystals to microscopic particles of metallic silver in proportion to the intensity and duration of their exposure to light, resulting in a visible image. The dry process was similar but used a gelatin emulsion which could be applied to the plate long before use and exposed in the camera dry. With both processes, an underexposed negative would be produced where densest areas appeared gray whereas the darkest areas of the subject would be transparent. Once set against the dark lacquer backing of the metal plate, these transparent areas would appear black.

Many soldiers felt it important to document their lives and existence through portraits just prior to and during the war.  Thus enters an interesting conflict with this portrait of James Grigg.

The photo is clearly labeled as being of James Grigg and the website we obtained it from identified him as being from the Indiana 10th.  However James was not an officer, but the man in the portrait is wearing an officer’s uniform, thus lending some doubt as to if this was our James. Some extensive discussion among family members and the Indiana State Library, followed by a process of elimination for all other James Grigg we can find in Civil War archives for the State of Indiana, basically identifies the man in the portrait as my own ancestor. So why then the officer’s jacket? The best answer we have is that the jacket had been loaned to James to wear for his portrait.

Having your portrait taken during this time was considered a formal occasion.  Most portraits of this period featured individuals in their “Sunday best” and if a subject did not have appropriate clothing, the photographer may have kept a stock of suitable items for their patrons to borrow for their sitting. In the end, these portraits would become valuable and important keepsakes for friends and family to remember their beloved soldier in his absence and possible death. On the soldier’s end, portraits from home helped them keep a connection to their sorely missed loved ones and serve as a reminder of their purpose.

For us, these portraits that endure gives us a glimpse into the determined, sometimes eager and brazen, individuals who fought in the most divisive wars in US history. It puts a face to the conflict like no other. For more information on Civil War Portraits, Yale University has an online exhibition here.

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