By Buck Zaidel
A black leather carte de visite album with space to hold six images has three words in an unadorned font stamped into the cover flap: Soldiers Photograph Album.
The cartes contained within are not of eye-popping rarity. The star of this show is this simple, seldom seen artifact that was part of a soldier’s daily life.
Some collectors might regard this as nothing more than a utilitarian carrier of photos. Others may amplify its significance by considering its relationship to soldiers at the front, separated by time and miles from families back home during a calamitous Civil War. Maybe someone back home sent the album as a gift from home. Or, perhaps, the soldier shelled out some of his pay to purchase it from the camp sutler.
The album’s wartime provenance is unknown. Its modern history is connected to a man whose likeness would be on the Mt. Rushmore of Civil War photo collectors: the late Michael J. McAfee. This relic came out of his collection. McAfee served as the West Point Museum Curator of History for many years, and collected and studied Civil War photography and history with passion for nearly his entire life.
McAfee understood and appreciated the value of relics like this one. And so did the original owners of albums like this one. “I feel quite home sick today,” wrote naval officer John C. Constant, “I have had a good chat with the pictures in my album. I don’t know what I would do without them for company.” Benjamin Hirst of the 14th Connecticut Infantry expressed a similar gleeful sentiment: “In one of your letters you say you have felt like singing since you have got my Likeness. It does me good to hear you say so.”
How often would a soldier pull an album just like this one from a coat pocket around a smoky campfire and glimpse his family, or the soldier who cast a quick glance at the faces inside before an order to storm into battle was issued?
This 3-by-4-inch album was more than a simple case for cartes. It was a bridge—a bridge to home.
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