Mathew Brady's Photographs of Civil War Alexandria

Mathew Brady's photographs are among the most iconic of the Civil War. Antietam. Robert E. Lee at war's end. Abraham Lincoln as he aged over the course of the war.

The Brady studio (more about that ambiguity below) also took pictures in Alexandria. This past Tuesday, historian Tom Schultz told a packed house at the Athenaeum some of the back stories behind six Brady photos. Schultz draws on his research to lead history-related tours in the area through DC Military Tours.

The Brady photos are online (and free and in the public domain) through the National Archives. They are easy to browse through, but I find the site hard to use for specific searches. I include the Archives identifying information on the photos below. FYI: The Archives has also posted many of them on its Flickr pages

First, about Brady

According to Tom, Mathew Brady set up a New York City in 1844 at age 22, and expanded to Washington five years later. Photography was new, and the well-off and powerful wanted their portraits taken. 

In the 1860s, business expanded with the production of cartes de visite, small and more affordable portraits. Newly minted soldiers flocked to his studio. Brady's unfortunate but true tag line to entice troops heading off to an uncertain fate: "You can not tell how soon it may be too late."

Brady was at the battles of First Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg and presumably took photos there. But he also had 23 assistants, and their work circulated under Brady's name--which Tom noted was controversial even back then. As you can see from the photo below of some of Brady's men and equipment, which caught my eye as I looked at the Archives collection, field photography was quite an undertaking.

  In the field near Petersburg Va., 111-B-5077, National Archives Identifier: 529185

In the field near Petersburg Va., 111-B-5077, National Archives Identifier: 529185

Brady expected to sell his photographic plates to the government, but people no longer wanted to see images of war. When he didn't get interest and needed money, he sold the glass plates to anyone who wanted them. Thus, battlefield photographs became greenhouse structures until the government finally bought his remaining collection in the mid-1870s for $25,000. While this was a significant sum at the time, he died a pauper in 1896.  

On to the Brady photographs that Tom discussed. The headings are the titles used in the National Archives collection. I had seen all these photos before (several are in my book) but I learned something new about each one.

Barricades in Alex, VA

  111-B-523. National Archives identifier: 524934.

111-B-523. National Archives identifier: 524934.

The Army hired thousands of civilians to build trenches and stockades, work the wharves, and otherwise perform manual labor. In this photo, the black men--perhaps free blacks but more likely men who had escaped slavery and come into Union-occupied Alexandria for freedom--do the work, while the white men on the right look over the operation. 

According to Tom, this particular stockade was built to protect railroad equipment and facilities. Based on clues from the buildings in the background and from other images, he places the location at the corner of Duke and Alfred Streets.

Slave Pen of Price, Birch & Co., Alexandria, Va. 

  111-B-4687, National Archives Identifier: 528808.

111-B-4687, National Archives Identifier: 528808.

Seeing a building with a sign like this--"Dealer in Slaves"--opened many Northerners' eyes, based on their letters and journals (including Julia Wilbur). Alexandria was one of the centers of the slave-trading business in which people were sold here and purchased further south. 

By the mid-1800s, tobacco had exhausted the land, and wheat and other crops needed less labor, thus fewer slaves. In addition, according to Tom, farms in this area averaged just 4 to 6 acres, as families divided and subdivided land over the generations. In contrast, the Deep South farmed labor-intensive cotton on large holdings. The tragic result: Shipping slaves south benefited the sellers in the Upper South and the buyers in New Orleans, Natchez, and elsewhere further south. 

House. Corner of Wolfe and Washington Sts., Alexandria, VA

  111-B-738. National Archives Identifier: 525143

111-B-738. National Archives Identifier: 525143

I have a soft spot for this photo, which I will use in my book. The assembled group includes Julia Wilbur (wearing a black hat/hood, at the top of the stairs) and Harriet Jacobs (two women to our left, her right).  Tom drew from an article by historian Tim Dennee to identify when, where, and why the photo was taken. 

Dennee places the date as April 14, 1865. This interracial group joined together to celebrate the end of the War, with a victory parade taking place later that day. 

That night, President Lincoln was assassinated. 

Street in Alexandria, Va

  111-B-5285. National Archives Identifier 529389

111-B-5285. National Archives Identifier 529389

This building is now the Athenaeum on Prince Street, where we sat for the lecture. (How cool was that?) Before the war, it was a bank. Its large safe and other equipment made it a perfect place to serve as a commissary office.

The Commissary-General was responsible for rations for the soldiers and for prisoners. Business transactions took place here between military and civilians looking to make some money; both groups are seen loitering on the steps. At one point, Alexandria had 15 bakeries churning out the staple of the soldier's meal--hardtack.

Battery Rodgers, Below Alexandria

  111-B-95, National Archives Identifier 524514

111-B-95, National Archives Identifier 524514

The Union feared an attack up the Potomac River to Washington, which the British had successfully done 50 years earlier during the War of 1812. A series of "batteries" were built on the Maryland and Virginia shorelines, such as this one.

Tom pointed out that an existing historical marker is misplaced by about a block. The cannon is now on display at Fort Foote, Maryland.

Marshall House, Alexandria, Va

  111-B-5294. National Archives Identifier: 529398.

111-B-5294. National Archives Identifier: 529398.

Last in his series of photos but first in terms of war significance, the Marshall House Hotel, the site of the current Hotel Monaco. The hotelkeeper, James Jackson, had hoisted a large Confederate flag on the pole in 1861, which supposedly the Lincolns could see from the White House. When the army came into Alexandria in May 1861, Col. Elmer Ellsworth cut down the flag. Jackson killed him; one of Ellsworth's men killed Jackson. 

Both sides had their first martyrs. 

The rest is history.

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