Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn
BROOKLYN HISTORICAL SOCIETY | APRIL 9, 2015 – SPRING 2016
A boy with a youthful round face, maybe eight or ten years old, stands tall with his arms relaxed at his sides. He wears a dark suit, well-worn boots, and a wrinkled white apron. His clothes swallow his body as if designed for someone taller. His hair is tamed and parted with sporadic frizz; his eyes are steadfast and wide. A jumble of thick, embroidered drapery reaches in from the left, filling space in a frame that is otherwise sparse. The ornate metal legs of a freestanding body brace protrude from behind the boy’s feet, a common tool used by 19th-century photographers to keep their subjects still for long exposures. Typically, photographers made great effort to hide such details behind columns or ruffled dresses.
This photograph, one of 136 cartes de visite displayed in Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn, is the singular carte de visite of an African-American in the Brooklyn Historical Society’s extensive archival holdings. The only single one. The photograph was printed by W. Richardson studio in Williamsburg in the early 1860s. Little is known about the sitter; one could guess he was an apprentice. The boy’s anonymity brings to bear the titled scaffolding upon which our historical collections are built—institutions that, in their formation, are naturally indebted to the archival collections of those at the top. We cannot change how archives were built in previous centuries, but we can reckon with this dangerous whitewashing of history. I was raised in the South, and this shallow attitude towards history is terrifyingly alive. Only two months ago the Confederate flag—the “Stars and Bars” to those who cling to its poison—was still flying high above South Carolina’s capital.
The carte de visite first appeared in 1854 in Paris, ushering in a craze for photographic portraiture that could be viewed as an ancestor of the selfie. Daguerrotypes, an earlier form of photography that produced a single image on a silver plate enclosed in a luxurious case, were quickly made obsolete by cartes de visite, photographs printed in batches of eight or more per sheet. This technological advance fed into our very human—and very exploitable—susceptibility to narcissism, inspiring 19th century Brooklynites to line-up along Myrtle Avenue and Fulton Street, both hotbeds of professional photography studios, in order to secure multiples of their “likeness.”
At the Brooklyn Historical Society’s exhibition, the cartes de visite are stacked into rows and hung from the ceiling. Like postcards (the term’s literal translation is “traveling card”), studio stamps and handwritten notes can be seen on the backside of each. Boy in Apron, as the photograph is now titled, is displayed alongside photographs of Union soldiers in full regalia, who stand with Napoleonic flare; white women and children in high-collared gowns; and a popular image of President Lincoln reading with his young son, Tad. At the time, images of celebrities and politicians were mass-produced and sold, designed to be slipped into the pockets of a newly fashionable object: the photo album. The result was a collective practice that subtly emphasized nationalistic notions of the expansive American family, headed by the president and protected by the soldiers.1 In this popular context of fervent collecting, the almost total absence of African-American faces is glaring.
A collection of letters, written by Civil War soldiers to their families back home in Brooklyn, completes the exhibition. Some are displayed in their original form, and a few can be heard in two small audio corners. For the recordings, three contemporary veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were asked to read a selection of letters. Their voices, raspy and stoic, pierce through the crowded, third-floor room of Civil War paraphernalia, alluding to an uncomfortable continuity of American military force.
In the letters, too, the racial disparity is astounding. The sole letter penned by an African-American soldier included in the exhibition had to be borrowed from the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University—not a single letter could be found in a neighboring institution. In the letter, Edgar Dinsmore, a soldier with the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, writes with tender caution to Carrie Drayton, a woman living in Brooklyn. Dinsmore began his correspondence with Ms. Drayton after placing an ad in a newspaper as a soldier seeking a pen pal. Dinsmore wrote in 1865, “When Rebellion is crushed who will be more proud than I to say ‘I was one of the first of the despised race to leave the free North with rifle on my shoulder and give the lie to the old story that the black man will not fight.’” Ms. Drayton’s responses to Dinsmore have since been lost.
Today the Civil War is taught as a conflict fought within definitive dates, illustrated through the iconic photographs of Matthew Brady’s Studio—bodies strewn across pastoral landscapes. (Aside from a few wall reproductions, these photographs are absent here.) Personal Correspondents is not about war photography in the traditional sense, but about the War’s continued reverberations as filtered through our institutions and into the streets. Central to the exhibition is the attempt to collapse the expanse of time between 1860s America and our own, an effort that increasingly feels like an imperative. The tragedies of Ferguson and Baltimore and Charleston et al. continue to fracture and polarize, and it is as if the same domestic battles have spilled through the centuries into the present. This small exhibition is a reminder that such exclusionary practices have actively shaped the country’s collective portrait for centuries.
- See Andrea L. Volpe’s extensive research on the subject, summarized in “The Cartes de Visite Craze,” New York Times, August 6, 2013.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.