Ordnance Wharf, City Point, Virginia
Like their military counterparts, Civil War field photographers had to carry all their "battlefield" equipment with them in specially designed mobile studios and darkrooms. In addition to cameras and lenses, the artists traveled with blankets, sensitizing and developing tents, volatile chemicals, and extremely fragile and heavy glass plates. Once exposed and developed, these plates, like the one here, made the difficult and long journey back to their employers. That so many have survived is a testament to their recognized historical value during the war.
Thomas C. Roche (American, 1826–1895)
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.