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Behind the Backdrop

Wartime Letters Document the 2nd Cavalry Division Backdrop

Backdrops often associated with the Army of the Potomac look very similar, and teasing out their respective locations and photographers is one of the chief ambitions of this column. In this installment, we will examine one of them used by a photographer working with the 2nd Cavalry Division in Warrenton, Va., during the winter of 1863-64.

An unknown soldier in front of the Culpeper backdrop. Quarter-plate tintype, trimmed. Dale Niesen Collection.
An unknown soldier in front of the Culpeper backdrop. Quarter-plate tintype, trimmed. Dale Niesen Collection.

This backdrop is similar in some respects to the Culpeper backdrop (MI, January-February 1998) used in photographs taken 20 miles south of where the 2nd encamped.

The 2nd Cavalry Division backdrop came to my attention after I realized that all the examples I had compiled depicted cavalrymen. Sensing this beyond a coincidence, an investigation of the few identified images I had copied led me to collector Andrew German. To my surprise, German had found a period letter referencing the backdrop shown in his images. His research and contribution to this article deserve special thanks.  

“Pictures” and “Photographs” in Warrenton

By the winter of 1863-1864, the 2nd Cavalry Division had participated in hard fighting, most recently during the Gettysburg Campaign. After the culminating battle in early July 1863, the division followed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederates into Virginia, and continued to pursue them through the autumn and winter. Much of this activity centered in Northern Virginia, including the Mine Run and Bristoe Campaigns.

Warrenton, located about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C., became a crossroads of military activity during this period. For one photographer, it became a business opportunity.

A cache of letters written by Pvt. Kimball Pearsons of the 10th New York Cavalry from his regiment’s camp at Warrenton to his family in January and February 1864 provides details about this mystery photographer and his business.

Before reading the quotes, it is important to appreciate key photography-related terms written by Pearsons. He uses “artist” to describe the photographer, a common reference that harkens back to the origins of photography at the intersection of art and science. He also uses “pictures” to describe tintypes, and “photographs” rather than cartes de visite.

A January 13 letter includes a reference to the photographer’s arrival. “I hear there is an artist [who] put up his tent for taking pictures in our Brigade & I think I shall give him a call soon.” Pearsons’ tent-pitching reference suggests the photographer was itinerant.

On January 25, Pearsons mentioned visiting the photographer. “The artist does not take Photographs now but says he expects to before long then I will try him again.”

On February 18, he related, “Yesterday I went to Warrenton with N. Washburn & Ed Parker to get Photographs and the Artist charged six dollars per doz and five dollars for six. We could not see the point in paying such a price so we left without any.” It seems the itinerant artist did not start producing cartes de visite, or “photographs,” as he claimed he would, or else Pearsons wouldn’t have had to go into town in search of having them made.

For purposes of this column, Pearsons’ most important contribution comes in a February 10 letter. By this time, he had sat for his tintype, or “picture,” and sent it home to his family. The letter provides a rare description of a backdrop. Pearsons noted that the “back ground” of the “picture” he had sent, “Was a painting on canvas that hung two or three feet behind me in the tent representing forts cannonading a river, a few tents, and one or two Soldiers on guard. I could have one with hat off if you wish but they are very poor pictures.” The tintype he describes is reproduced here.

Bolstering this primary account are many identified images of division soldiers in front of the same backdrop. One such example is a quarter-plate tintype of Capt. Francis B. Allibone of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, attached to the division from June 1863 through the end of the war. Another example is a quarter-plate tintype of Pvt. Isaiah Welch of the 1st Maine Cavalry. Welch enlisted in December 1863 and joined the regiment in Warrenton in January 1864. No less than nine subjects whose service history conforms to the backdrop’s location appear in History of the First Maine Cavalry, 1861-1865, published in 1887.

THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER painted into the backdrop includes 35 stars in an uncommon arrangement of columns of five and six stars with two stars on the far left of the canton. The captain seated in front of it is Francis Bedell “Frank” Allibone of Company B of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry. Allibone barely survived the surrender at Appomattox, dying after a fall from his horse on May 9, 1865, at Petersburg, Va. Quarter-plate tintype. Andrew German Collection.
THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER painted into the backdrop includes 35 stars in an uncommon arrangement of columns of five and six stars with two stars on the far left of the canton. The captain seated in front of it is Francis Bedell “Frank” Allibone of Company B of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry. Allibone barely survived the surrender at Appomattox, dying after a fall from his horse on May 9, 1865, at Petersburg, Va. Quarter-plate tintype. Andrew German Collection.
THIS VIEW OF THE BACKDROP reveals forts perched above camp, each with guns mounted on the parapets. A body of water is situated between the hills and the tent-filled encampment. The soldier standing with a Model 1860 Colt Army revolver tucked into his waist belt is Pvt. Isaiah Welch of the 1st Maine Cavalry. According to the regiment’s history, Welch helped his major, Sidney W. Thaxter, out of a precarious spot during the May 11, 1864, skirmish at Ground Squirrel Bridge, Va. “Maj. Thaxter’s horse was shot under him, and he, thoroughly exhausted by exertion on foot, was in danger of being captured, when Private Isaiah Welch, of Co. L, seeing his situation, galloped up to him, gave him his horse and ran into the woods. The major escaped on the horse, and the brave boy managed to hide in the woods between two logs, where he remained until he found a chance to escape, which he succeeded in doing, and rejoined his company.” Welch survived the war and lived until 1915. Quarter-plate tintype trimmed to fit in an album. Andrew German Collection.
THIS VIEW OF THE BACKDROP reveals forts perched above camp, each with guns mounted on the parapets. A body of water is situated between the hills and the tent-filled encampment. The soldier standing with a Model 1860 Colt Army revolver tucked into his waist belt is Pvt. Isaiah Welch of the 1st Maine Cavalry. According to the regiment’s history, Welch helped his major, Sidney W. Thaxter, out of a precarious spot during the May 11, 1864, skirmish at Ground Squirrel Bridge, Va. “Maj. Thaxter’s horse was shot under him, and he, thoroughly exhausted by exertion on foot, was in danger of being captured, when Private Isaiah Welch, of Co. L, seeing his situation, galloped up to him, gave him his horse and ran into the woods. The major escaped on the horse, and the brave boy managed to hide in the woods between two logs, where he remained until he found a chance to escape, which he succeeded in doing, and rejoined his company.” Welch survived the war and lived until 1915. Quarter-plate tintype trimmed to fit in an album. Andrew German Collection.

Possible Photographers

Photographers of the Army of the Potomac by Bob Zeller lists three photographers that operated in the 2nd Cavalry Division: James F. Stuart, “ambrotypist” W.S. Harriman, and Harriman’s assistant, J. Wright. A detailed search of these candidates as the Warrenton backdrop photographer has been unsuccessful in narrowing down which of them, if any, is the artist that Pearsons mentions in his letters.

While the mystery photographer certainly operated near Warrenton with the division during the winter of 1863-64, they could have moved on at some point, because this backdrop does appear in an image whose subject was with the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. (The soldier enlisted on October 30th of 1864 and served until the conclusion of the war.) These Pennsylvanians never served in the 2nd Cavalry Division. However, it is conceivable that the regiment came in close vicinity to the Warrenton area on their way to Washington from Appomattox Court House in April-May of 1865.    

About the backdrop

Pearsons’ description does the example justice. Several forts on hills in the background flank a winding river. On the viewer’s right sit Sibley tents with an American flag flying overhead and a cannon in the foreground. On the viewer’s left are standard A-frame shelter tents with a soldier on guard in the foreground. A two dimensionality exists to the objects closest to the picture plane.

Call to Action

Are you aware of information regarding a backdrop’s location and/or photographer that’s never been published? Is there a particular backdrop that’s stumped you for years? Do you have an idea for the next subject to explore? If so, I am happy to receive comments and suggestions. While this column will initially categorize different observations and connect newly learned material, a much more broad focus will be its ultimate goal. I hope to eventually study regional trends and aesthetic differences in the work of the artists who produced backdrops. An investigation of these more general topics depends upon a vast assemblage of information, and I am indebted to the many kind collectors and readers who have already contributed to this effort. Please reach out with what you know or hope to know!

Adam Ochs Fleischer is passionate researcher of Civil War photography and an admitted image “addict.” He began collecting in high school and quickly became obsessed. He lives in Chicago, Ill.

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