Collecting Confederate Images

By David Wynn Vaughan

Collectors of 19th-Century photography follow the same rudimentary and fundamental guidelines as other collecting fields with one notable exception: subject matter. Each image is a unique, one-of-a-kind work of art with its own set of inherent and esoteric qualities. A long litany of considerations must be applied before acquiring any image. What moves and motivates one image collector may leave another cold. “In the eye of the beholder” means more in this area than just about any other collecting field. Most collectors of 19th-Century images collect a subject or theme, such as famous personalities, occupational, historical significance, military, fashion, children, animals, outdoor views, postmortems and so on. The sky is the limit, and the possibilities are endless.

Image collectors may also have collections within collections, and a nuance found in an image may give birth to a new collecting path. A fellow collector in the Northeast acquires images which show a detailed reflection of the photographer, camera and light source in the subject’s pupil. He was later able to identify several photographers and studios through his extensive research. It is very common for quality 19th -Century images to show the silhouette of the photographer and camera, as well as the light source, in the subject’s eye. It is possible to determine from the example shown that the light source is from a window and not a skylight by the positioning of the light in the sitter’s eye.

To be a successful Civil War image collector, one must have a fundamental knowledge of the physical attributes of 19th Century photography and be able to determine the different photographic processes, sizes and formats, as well as understand how they affect the value. There were numerous photographic processes used during the Civil War, some of which could look similar to the untrained eye. (Below is a brief summery of the most popular processes and their corresponding sizes.) For instance, a half plate tinted tintype of a Confederate officer is much rarer and more valuable than a 1/9 plate ambrotype of a Federal enlisted man. Add a weapon or two, and the desirability increases significantly.

Large format tinted albumen print by Matthew Brady, Washington, D.C.. studio of Harry Gilmore, Captain 12th Virginia Cavalry & later Colonel 2nd Maryland Cavalry.

½ plate tintype of Private Thomas Holeman, Company C, "The Secession Guards," 13th Regiment Tennessee Infantry, Army of Tennessee, C.S.A. Note that Thomas and James Holeman are brothers.

Equally important to the physical attributes are the following criteria which help to further determine the merit and collectability of an image.

Condition, Condition, Condition. Is the image in exceptional shape, free of scratches, bends, breaks, and deterioration?

Clarity and Contrast. Is the image sharp and in focus; is the lighting strong, rendering good tonality, or is the image faded?

Content. What is the subject matter? Is the soldier in uniform, with weapons and equipment; is he Union or Confederate?

Rarity. With what state, regiment and company did he serve; is he identified; is the soldier heavily armed; was he killed or wounded; is the image an outdoor scene; is there more than one person in the image; or does other historical material accompany the image, such as letters, personal effects, etc.?

Provenance. The origins of an image. Does it come with documentation or straight from the family?

Subject matter is what interests most image collectors, and it is the most subjective. Exceptional Confederate images, identified Confederates from Georgia, and exquisitely-tinted Civil War images are my collecting focus. An in-depth knowledge of period Civil War uniforms, insignia and weapons is imperative to draw from when collecting Civil War subject matter. Most purchases take place at antique shows or auctions without the aid of research and reference books, so it is important to understand and master the particulars of any subject matter.

Another key component of collecting is sharing information and networking with fellow collectors. This is the one area that many new collectors seem to overlook. When I first began collecting Civil War images almost 25 years ago, I networked with many advanced image collectors and met many seasoned veterans of the field. Most of them had collected for 25 to 30 years so their depth of knowledge was vast. In turn, they had mentored under some of the original Civil War image collectors so I figured I learned and captured 40 to 60 years of proprietary information from these icons.

Combine the physical elements, the collecting criteria outlined above, subject themes, and the oratory information passed on by experts in the field to any other area of antique collecting and you will be on your way to a lifetime of learning, enjoyment and building a world class collection.

The Most Popular Photographic Processes Used During The Civil War Albumen Print. A positive paper photograph produced from a collodion glass negative. The print was made from thin, high-quality paper coated with the whites of chicken eggs and salt. When dried, the coated albumen paper print was rendered light sensitive by floating it in a solution of silver nitrate. The sensitized paper was then exposed to sunlight for development, fixed, washed and often toned with a solution of gold chloride. The finished photograph was commonly applied to thin card stock.

Ambrotype. Also called the “wet plate” process, a glass plate was coated with collodion, a sticky liquid made from guncotton and ether. The moist, sticky glass surface was flowed with silvernitrate, making the plate light sensitive. The sensitized plate was then placed in the camera and exposed to light through the lens. When processed, the glass plate was an underexposed. or “thin” negative, which optically rendered a positive when backed by a coating of blackened varnish, or other dark material. Later ambrotypes were made on dark ruby, or amethyst-colored glass. Similar to its cousin, the tintype, both processes were the preferred choice of photographers for making portraits during the Civil War. Discovered in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer and Peter Wickens Fry of England, the wet plate process was improved upon in 1854 by an American, James Ambrose Cutting of Boston, who named it the ambrotype, after the Greek word ambrotos, or immortal. The ambrotype did not see widespread use until about 1859 when it quickly replaced the more expensive and difficult-to-produce daguerreotype.

Carte de Visite. French for “visiting card” and commonly referred to as a “CDV” by collectors, this was a paper photograph produced from a glass-plate negative, most commonly on albumen photographic paper, and mounted onto card stock measuring 2 1/2 by 4 1/4 inches. Often made by a special camera with multiple lenses, an unlimited number of inexpensive prints could be produced from a single negative. Cartes de visite could be ordered by the dozen if desired.

Invented by the French photographer Adolphe-Eugene Disderi in 1854, this type of photograph did not gain widespread popularity in America until about 1860 and caused the birth of the photographic album. Many photographers applied their logos to the backs of CDVs, providing valuable clues as to the locale of the photograph’s origin.

Daguerreotype. The first commerciallysuccessful form of photography, a unique, positive image was produced on a highly-polished, silver-coated copper plate. The plate was made light-sensitive by fuming it with iodine and bromine. Exposed to light in the camera, the plate was then developed by the fumes of heated mercury and often toned with a solution of liquid gold-chloride.

The invention of the daguerreotype was collaboration between Joseph Nicephore Niepce and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre in Paris, France. The process was introduced by the French government in 1839 bearing Daguerre’s name and arrived in America later the same year. Very few daguerreotypes were produced during the Civil War because they were difficult and expensive to produce, and easier and more affordable photographic processes had been introduced.

Salt Print. Salted paper photographs were introduced about 1854, which were sometimes made during the early Civil War years to record battlefield scenes and portraits. Thin, high-quality paper was impregnated with a solution of ordinary salt dissolved in water then dried, and like the albumen print, made light sensitive with a solution of silver nitrate. The prints were made from glass plates or paper negatives, developed by sunlight, fixed and washed, and were often mounted on board stock.

Tintype. Also a wet plate process and often referred to during the 1860s as a melainotype (Greek for black) or ferrotype (Latin for iron), this kind of photograph later became commonly known as the tintype, although the metal plate upon which it was produced contained no tin. The tintype is identical in process and appearance to the ambrotype, except that a metal plate was used instead of glass. A blackened, or “Japanned,” sheet iron plate was coated with collodion, the plate sensitized with silver nitrate, exposed to light, developed, fixed and washed. A unique, positive photographic image was produced on the surface of the plate. Tintypes enjoyed immense popularity during the Civil War because they could be easily sent through the mail. They are often found housed in cases like ambrotypes and daguerreotypes or mounted in paper mats.

Common Civil War Era Photograph Sizes

Whole plate: 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches
Half plate: 4 ½ x 5 ½ inches
Quarter plate: 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ inches
Sixth plate: 2 ¾ x 3 ½ inches
Eighth plate: 2 1/8 x 3 ¼ inches
Ninth plate: 2 x 2 ½ inches
Sixteenth plate: 1 3/8 x 1 5/8 inches
Gem: 7/8 x ¾ inches
Carte de Visite: 4 ¼ x 2 ½ inches


David Wynn Vaughan lives and works in Atlanta with his wife Debbie and son David. He is a graduate of UGA and recently served as the President of the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta (2006- 2007), the second oldest round table in the country.

Because of David’s willingness to loan and share his images with others, they have appeared in numerous books and publications such as: Time Life’s Voices of the Civil War series, Great Photographs of the Civil War; National Geographic’s Eyewitness to the Civil War and The Civil War Atlas; The University of Arkansas Press’s Portraits of Conflict series; Mercer Press’ Joe Brown’s Pets; Faces of the Confederacy; The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Spring and Summer 2005 editions; to name a few.

The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, a Smithsonian affiliate, most recently produced an exhibit which featured 70 selected images from his collection and is now available for travel for the next five years, “Portraits in Gray, a Civil War Photography Exhibition.” For more information visit:

Mr. Vaughan can be contacted at: 



1/6 plate ambrotype by unknown photographer of unidentified North Carolina private holding a revolver across his chest.

Close inspection of the eyes shows the light source (a window) and the photographer and camera.

Expertly-tinted Albumen print by unknown photographer of an unidentified member of the 5th New York Infantry “Duyrees Zouaves."

Captain James Holeman - Co. A, 24th NCT - 1/2 plate tinted ambotype.

Private Franklin Ammons -
1st TN Heavy Artillery 1/4 plate ambrotype.



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