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How Much Could Camp Photographers Earn In a Day? A Lot.

By Kraig McNutt 

Read enough soldier letters written during the Civil War, and you’ll find most possess remarkable structural similarity. Each begins with a greeting, followed by news from the soldier, and ends with updates, questions and requests for family and friends at home.

This letter, written by Sgt. William Carwile Olds of the 63rd Indiana Infantry to his father from camp at Bull’s Gap, Tenn., follows the same pattern—with an important footnote for students of Civil War photography.

The middle passage is filled with intelligence about camp photographers attached to his Corps. Olds includes an array of details, including costs, for his father, Francis “Frank” A. Olds, a photographer in Covington, Ind. The 4-page letter transcribed here reveals that Sgt. Olds acted as a consultant, providing real time business intelligence for the benefit of his father and the family business.

Perry’s picture taking netted $133 in a day, or $2,150 in today’s dollars. On another day, he earned $225, or $3,640.

Olds includes a somewhat puzzling detail when he stated that positives were made at Bull’s Gap, and then sent to the home gallery in Riedville to produce negatives. Ron Field, author of Silent Witness: The Civil War Through Photography and Its Photographers, suggests it might be “a confusing way of simply stating he was producing large albumen silver prints from negatives at Bull’s Gap, which were re-photographed at Riedville with a multi-lens camera to produce cartes de visite. Alternatively, he might have been making ambrotypes at Bull’s Gap and sending them to Riedville to be re-photographed with reflective light against a black background, thereby producing a collodion glass negative from which multiple positive albumen prints could be made.” Field adds that he suspects Olds intended the former process.

The text mentions two photographers. “Morse” is Algenon S. Morse, a well-known photographer who operated a gallery in Nashville. He and his business partner, William A. Peaslee, frequently travelled with their tent to nearby encampments. Charley Perry may be Charles H. Perry, a daguerreotypist living in Cincinnati according to the 1860 Census.

Also cited is “Gen. Morrison,” who may be Col. William Ralls Morrison of the 49th Illinois Infantry. Morrison commanded on the brigade level and suffered a debilitating wound at the Battle of Fort Donelson that ended his military service. He may have been visiting the troops in his role as a representative to the U.S. Congress.

The Letter

The first of the four-page letter. Indiana State Library Manuscripts Small Collections.
The first of the four-page letter. Indiana State Library Manuscripts Small Collections.

Bull’s Gap TennApril 21st 1864

Dear Father,

As I had not heard from you for some time and had got tired of waiting for an answer from my last letter I thought I would write you again. Since I last wrote you I have found out that there four picture galleries with this Corps, two of them is owned by some Eastern men, one by Morse the man you worked for, and one by Charley Perry the man that with I have worked for while he was down here. He (Perry) told me to-day that he had more than he can do he also said he took in $133 to day, one day this week he took in $225. There is a fellow along with him by the name of Orleans working for him. Him and his Partners own 2 tents one is at Knoxville and the other one here. Morse’s tent is at Mossy Creek (New Market). The Eastern men only got ordered here and are at Mossy Creek. Perry fetched his goods across the mountains but he tells me the goods could be got over the Rail Roads at present our officers tried to get Perry to take some Photographs for them he takes Positives here and sends them to his Room at Riedville where the Negatives are taken from there. If you come down to this Dept and can come prepared to take Photographs I think you can take a great many of them. Perry’s tent cost him $186 with Dark Room in Cincinnati. He told me that he intended go home in a few days and intends to take his tent to Riedville with him. I asked him what he would take for the whole thing he says $5 or $600 for stock and all but does not care about selling out at present. If he comes to Indianapolis you may buy out one of his tents. I think the best thing you can do is to come out with the army this summer. Gen. Morrison is over in our Brigade. We have a large Brigade and you can make it pay just with our Brigade. Write to me as soon as you get this letter and let me know what you are going to do this summer. I got a letter from Aunt a few days ago dated the 31st was the last I heard from home. No more at present I remain

Your Son
W.C. Olds
Direct to 63d Ind 2d Brigade 3d Division 23d Army Corps
Knoxville Tenn

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