For every soldier that gazed into a camera lens during the American Civil War, a photographer stared back.
Some photographers gained celebrity status—Brady, Gardner and O’Sullivan—to name a few. But most worked in relative obscurity throughout the country in studios located in small towns and cities. A much smaller number traveled with the armies, setting up shops in the field.
One photographer, of the lesser-known sort, utilized a distinctive backdrop featuring a tree with a curved trunk and a cloud-like canopy of leaves. I first took notice of this backdrop after acquiring a carte de visite of Theodore G. Ingersoll, who served in my ancestor’s regiment, the 10th New York Cavalry. The photographer and city in which he operated was a mystery, and I determined to investigate.
The Ingersoll portrait, and another of his wife, Mary A. (Wallin) Ingersoll, were pasted into the inside front cover of a carte de visite album, which obscured the photographer’s back mark, if one was even present. A post-war inscription on the front of the Ingersoll carte states its photo location origin as Camp Bayard, Va.
I turned to the community of Civil War image collectors on social media, and by direct correspondence, to validate the inscription. Unfortunately, no one had seen this particular backdrop before, nor had anyone seen a reference to a photographer using such a backdrop at Camp Bayard.
My next move focused on the backdrop. The large stylized tree in the foreground is unique to this primitive, folk art painting. Other trees, hills, flowers and a white building with a church-like appearance are visible in the scene. I started my search for other images of “The Tree” backdrop in my saved image files, and turned up two other images with this same backdrop. Neither had a photographer’s back mark. The first image was a carte de visite of an unidentified soldier, and the other a sixth-plate tintype of Calvin Benjamin Pratt, who served in Company F of the 64th New York Infantry.
I intensified my efforts over the next few months, searching past auction results and web sites of Civil War dealers. I also continued my inquiries with individual collectors. I purchased or located other examples of “The Tree.” Four of them finally revealed the identity of the man behind the lens: William T. Seely of Elmira, N.Y.
According to the 1860 federal census, 33-year-old Seely resided in Elmira with his wife, Lydia, and their eight-year-old son, Eugene. Seely identified his occupation as an artist, a fairly common title for photographers at this time. A city business directory listed Seely’s studio at the corner of Lake and Carroll Streets from 1861 to 1863. Sometime in 1864, he moved the establishment to 158 Water Street, and remained there until at least 1866.
Elmira seemed the perfect place to open a studio. By the eve of the war, Elmira emerged as a vital transportation hub in New York’s Southern Tier region. Materials and goods shipped from larger cities to the north and west, such as Rochester and Buffalo, made their way through Elmira on roads, railroads and canals to points further east. Salt, plaster, and gypsum from central New York moved south into Pennsylvania, and in return; coal went north from the Keystone state. With a population of nearly 8,700 residents in 1860, Elmira boasted numerous businesses and industries common to any prosperous town of the times, including barbers, bakers, blacksmiths, boot and shoe dealers, boat builders, butchers, carpenters, carriage and coach makers, clothiers, druggists, numerous hotels and boarding houses, lawyers, masons, painters, physicians, surveyors, multiple newspapers, several educational institutions and photographers.
Elmira citizens did not embrace the first photographer in town. According to a county history, a man named “Johnson opened a gallery” in 1847, but “only remained a few months, his ‘sun pictures’ not seeming to take very well with the villagers or on the plates.”
Seely might have suffered a similar fate. Then came the war.
On April 18, 1861, Gov. Edwin D. Morgan issued a proclamation ordering 17 militia regiments to fill the state’s quota for troops requested by President Abraham Lincoln after the firing on Fort Sumter. Morgan named three locations as rendezvous points: New York City, Albany, and Elmira. These cities became official military depots for the state by the summer of 1861.
Elmira adapted to the change. “At first there were no provisions at all for housing or feeding the troops that were ordered to Elmira to be mustered in and sent forward,” recounted the county history. “Churches, old storehouses, and public halls were impressed into service.” Eventually, barracks were erected and four camps designated across town. In 1863, the federal government made Elmira an official draft rendezvous, and, by the summer of 1864, a prisoner of war camp housed Confederate soldiers. The camp’s mortality rate ranked among the highest of any such facility, North or South.
Seely was one of three photographers who operated in Elmira during the early part of the war. But, by 1864, the number had surged to eight. The tens of thousands of soldiers passing through Elmira—men eager to have their martial spirit captured by these artists to be sent home to families and friends or to be traded among comrades, likely caused the dramatic growth of photographers in a short period of time. The war years in Elmira provided an ideal business opportunity for photographic artists. By 1866, the number of photographers had shrunk to six. By the end of the decade, only four remained in town.
Seely did not remain in Elmira long after the war. He and his family moved westward, and he drifted in and out of photography. By 1870, they settled in the northern Illinois town of New Milford, where Seely worked as a farmer. By 1880, he had relocated to Rockford, Ill., and worked first as a photographer and then, later, as an electrician at the turn of the century. His wife died in 1894. Seely eventually moved in with his son and daughter-in-law in Victoria, Texas, by 1910. He died in 1914 at the age of 87, and is buried in the Cedar Bluff Cemetery in Rockford.
Seely’s contributions to photography are largely forgotten. But for a brief moment in time, he stared into uncounted faces of soldiers heading off for the seat of war and its hardships and horrors. Many of these men likely sent their images home to loved ones. For some, these images represent the last form in which they returned home.
Many questions still linger about his life and work. What took him to Illinois after the war, and then to Texas at the end of his life? What became of “The Tree” backdrop? What did the photographer look like?
For all that is not yet known, Seely’s work lives on in family albums or within the hands of collectors. As image collectors, we owe a debt of gratitude to Seely, and the many other men and women for their dedication, artistry and wherewithal to capture the generation that fought the conflict. Digging deeper into the work of specific photographers aids us in identifying images. It also brings these lost photographers to the forefront, something that very few experienced for themselves.
In this case, one might fairly state that William T. Seely has finally stepped out from behind “The Tree.”
References: Towner, Our County and Its People: A History of the Valley and County of Chemung; Elmira City Directories, 1861/1862 and 1863/1864; U.S. Census, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910.
Kyle M. Stetz was born and raised in Western New York State and now resides in Central Virginia. He lives there with his wife and two young sons. His collection focuses on his ancestor’s regiment the 10th New York Cavalry, and anything related to soldiers from his native Cattaraugus County, N.Y.