Rare Photos Show Civil War Life

A new museum collection of Civil War photos features images of African American life and battlefield scenes.

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Rare Civil War images of African American life and battlefield scenes appear in the new exhibit, “The Civil War in Photographs: New Perspectives from the Robin Sanford Collection.” The exhibit, at Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library, runs through February, African American History month, and ends on March 15.

“Miss Major Pauline Cushman,” according to Peterson, was a federal scout and spy. “Pauline Cushman was an actress turned Union spy who was captured by Confederates and tried by General Braxton Bragg. Sentenced to death, she avoided hanging because of later Federal occupation of the area.”

“Photographs of Southern wartime regional life like this one are rare,” exhibit curator Anne Peterson, who is also in charge of photographs at the library, told Discovery News. She explained that this image shows “a group of African American women sitting on piles of cotton with two white male overseers.”

Churches on plantations were frequented by African Americans. This very rare photo shows one such church located on Wadmalaw Island in Charleston County, S.C.

“This is a casual view of Union Army camp life,” Peterson said. During free moments, the men would clean up and be shaved.

“Neither the North nor the South were prepared for war,” Peterson said. “There was a shortage of weapons, uniforms and trained officers on both sides. These young artillerymen are not even wearing uniforms yet.”

Three soldiers of the 22nd New York State Militia stand with a cannon at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

This photograph shows the interior of Fort Sumter on the day after General Robert Anderson left Charleston. The fort had suffered one and a half days of bombardment by Confederate troops.

Peterson said, “Union Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort and evacuated. Note the Confederate soldiers in uniform in the photograph.”

“Photographer Thomas C. Roche took a number of early views of Union Army camp life,” Peterson said. Here, cooks prepare dinner for soldiers camped near the Potomac River.

This view, Peterson said, “shows a Union prison camp in upstate New York with Confederate prisoners lined up.” She added that “the overcrowded Elmira camp held more than 12,000 prisoners during the war; 25 percent died (2,963) primarily from malnutrition, poor sanitation, and exposure to harsh winters.”

“From November 1861 until the end of the war, the Union Army and Navy occupied a relatively small area around Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, S.C." Peterson said. "With the approach of Federal troops, planters there evacuated the area, leaving behind their slaves and plantations. As a result, there were thousands of abandoned slaves living in freedom for the first time.”

The U.S. Army's Camp Hamilton was organized on the site of what is now Phoebus, Va. This photo of the camp shows tents and soldiers, as well as a group of drummer boys and what were then known as “Zouaves.” This title referred to certain light infantry regiments in the French Army, but the term was also adopted during the Civil War. The Zouave uniform included short open-fronted jackets, baggy trousers and often sashes and headgear.

Texas wartime photographs like this one, showing Pontoon Bridge over the Rio Grande River, are extremely rare, according to Peterson. “Photographer Louis de Planque opened photography studios on both sides of the border between Mexico and the United States, in Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas,” she said. “Note the African American soldier on the bridge from the 114th U.S. Colored troops.”

"After learning of the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederates surrendered Port Hudson, La. on July 9, 1863," Peterson said. "New Hampshire photographer William McPherson and his partner, Mr. Oliver, documented the abandoned earthworks, ordnance and military equipment.”

“After the Confederates retreated from Petersburg, Va. just days before the surrender, photographer Thomas C. Roche and his assistant made a series of more than 20 views of dead Confederate soldiers,” Peterson said.