The Colgate Scene
March 2004

Civil War photos provide history lesson
How images ended up at Colgate remains a mystery
 

The origin of 50 Civil War photographs at Colgate's Case Library has been put in sharper focus through the efforts of Carl Peterson, the university's archivist.

While much remains unknown about the original images, most taken in 1864, one thing is now clear: they were taken by Andrew J. Russell, who grew up in Nunda, N.Y., about 50 miles south of Rochester.

Peterson had been uncertain as to who had taken the photos, and many images from that period have been attributed, sometimes wrongly, to celebrated photographer Matthew Brady and his associates.

Russell was originally a painter who also taught penmanship in the Nunda public schools, according to Nineteenth-Century Photography: An Annotated Bibliography 1839-1879. He went to New York City to open a painting studio, and it was there that he took up photography as a means to assist in his artwork.

In 1862, he enlisted and became an officer in the 141st New York Volunteers in the Union Army of the Potomac. He was given a special assignment to Gen. Herman Haupt's U.S. Military Railroad Construction Corps, which played a key role in moving the Union Army through the Virginia area, according to the book Russell's Civil War Photographs.

Photographer Andrew J. Russell's main task was to photograph construction projects such as this railroad bridge spanning Bull Run Creek near Manassas, Va., circa 1864. [Enlarge]

Russell's main task was to take photos of various construction projects, especially rail lines and bridges. But Russell also photographed key battles such as those at Fredericksburg and Petersburg, and he captured the burial of fallen soldiers after the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

He photographed the ruins of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy from May 1861 to April 1865. Confederate officials had ordered the burning of warehouses and supplies as their troops pulled out. Days later, while Richmond still smoldered, Gen. Robert E. Lee would surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

A view of an encampment of the Union Army of the Potomac at an unidentified location in 1863 or 1864. [Enlarge]

Russell's work was highly valued by those in Washington, D.C., not only for providing updates on the construction projects and historical records, but because of the artistic quality of the photographs. Russell's Civil War Photographs notes that many of his pictures were published in special volumes and presented to important foreign dignitaries.

The Colgate collection includes many interesting images, including a photo of property in Arlington, Va., seized from Lee; an image of unburied soldiers' remains at Bull Run; and a photo of Russian sailors aboard their warship, which Peterson speculates was taken during a ceremonial visit.

How did the photographs end up at Colgate? Peterson still doesn't know; neither does Melissa McAfee, his predecessor at the library. He is hoping that someone from the Colgate community might come forward with some information.

Crew members of an unidentified warship of the imperial Russian navy that visited the United States sometime between 1861 and 1865.

Two years ago, Peterson encapsulated the large, folio-sized photos to make it safer for students and researchers to handle them. His curiosity over who had taken them was piqued, however, so he sent photocopies of the images to the Library of Congress, which in turn forwarded them to the Alexandria (Va.) Historical Society.

After about six months, he heard back that experts there were able to confirm that the photos were taken by Russell, not Brady or anyone else.

"It was nice to pin that down," said Peterson.

An exhaustive article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography last year provided further evidence that Brady had somehow stolen Russell's thunder.

These visitors to the Bull Run battlefield, the scene of Confederate victories in 1861 and 1862, were most likely searching for the remains and effects of loved ones killed in combat. [Enlarge]

After the war, in 1868, Russell became the photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad, documenting that railroad's portion of the building of the transcontinental railroad, which linked the west and east coasts.

Russell would make three trips -- one in 1868 and two in 1869 -- with the railroad to capture images of the mammoth project. He took several famous photos of the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

As for the Colgate photos, now attributed to Russell, Peterson hopes they will provide another talking point for Civil War buffs and others. They are in good condition, Peterson notes, and they are available for viewing in the special collections area of Case Library on the Colgate campus.

Learn more about the special collections section of Case Library at http://exlibris.colgate.edu/services/departments/speccoll/.

Tim O'Keeffe is the web writer/editor in the Colgate Office of Communications and Public Relations.

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