Although Civil War photography has been much studied, there are still important photographs about which little is known. This formal portrait of a well-to-do family with two military guards and a black servant is a good example. The slight tension and awkwardness detectable in the group, as well as the presence of the guards, points to the absence of the father. One guard wears a Union Army belt buckle inscribed "U.S.," and the architecture suggests the elegant homes of Alexandria, Virginia, and the Georgetown district of Washington, D.C. But what occasioned this solemn image remains a mystery. In an era dominated by routine albumen silver prints, this exceptionally large salted paper print suggests the work of one of the better New York or Washington studios. A likely photographer is Alexander Gardner, whose portrait work for Mathew Brady was often executed in salted paper prints rivaling those made by the best European photographers. Perhaps the inscription, "No 5," at the bottom center of the print will ultimately help solve the mystery of this haunting photograph.
Hundreds of photographers whose names may never be known made their living following the armies during the Civil War. They worked out in the field tents and traveled at a moment’s notice. Photographers recorded the faces of tens of thousands of soldiers: new recruits and veterans—producing a vast likeness of American society. Many Civil War photographers began their careers as apprentices to Mathew B. Brady, America's self-appointed photographic "historian." Initially, a small corps of photographers copied maps and charts for the Union's Secret Service, which were distributed as photographic prints to both field and division commanders. During the Civil War, most photographers worked with the collodion-on-glass negatives, which required delicate and laborious procedures even in the studio. When the photographer was ready for action, a sheet of glass was cleaned, coated with collodion, partially dried, dipped carefully into a bath containing nitrate of silver, then exposed in the camera for several seconds and processed in the field darkroom tent--all before the silver collodion mixture had dried. Given the danger of their situation and the technical difficulty of their task, front-line photographers rarely if ever attempted action scenes. Civil War photographers produced vast photographic documentation of the Civil War. Despite decades of painstaking research by dedicated historians and Civil War buffs, a large number of the era's photographs remain unidentified.