Back Story: Photos vividly brought Civil War home

If Vietnam was the nation's first televised war, then the Civil War was the country's first photographed war, dramatically and vividly bringing into American homes the horrors and carnage their husbands, brothers and sons faced on the battlefield.

In his recently published book, "Maryland's Civil War Photographs The Sesquicentennial Collection," Ross J. Kelbaugh, a Pikesville collector of vintage Maryland images, has assembled more than 400 photographs of a conflict that killed more than 600,000 Americans between 1861 and 1865.

Kelbaugh, who retired in 2001 from Catonsville High School, where he taught American history for years, said his book was the result of more than 40 years of collecting and working with other collectors.

"We're all products of the centennial generation of the Civil War, which was in the 1960s, and that's where it all came together," Kelbaugh said in an interview the other day.

An exhibition of rare Civil War photographs at the Maryland Historical Society in 2006 further spurred Kelbaugh on.

"So much has been written on Maryland and the Civil War, and what I wanted to do was a photographic supplement," he said. "I wanted to find images that were not widely circulated. That was the goal. And even though the book has photographs you've seen before, there are many new images."

Kelbaugh, who has assembled the largest collection of Maryland images (not all of them pertaining to the Civil War), drew heavily on his personal collection.

"There was a large volume of portraiture of individual Marylanders that resided in private collections," he said. "What I wanted to tap into was not so subtle. I wanted to show people who had paid the ultimate price and show the horror of war and how Maryland and Marylanders had suffered."

Kelbaugh added: "In part, this book is a memorial to them."

"We were near the end of the editing process, and Ross was still coming up with images he didn't know about," said Robert I. "Ric" Cottom, owner and publisher of the Chesapeake Book Co. and a Roland Park resident, who edited the manuscript.

"This book is both a tribute to the Maryland photographers who worked during the war and the collectors who did a great job of preserving these things," said Cottom.

Photography in the form of the daguerreotype — in which an image was captured on a polished silver plate, the "first widely practiced technique," wrote Kelbaugh — had been introduced in 1839 at the French Academy of Sciences.

By the eve of the Civil War, the photographic process had advanced. The wet-plate process, which had largely rendered daguerreotypes obsolete, was joined by the ambrotype, carte de visite, albumen silver prints, tintype and cabinet card, and stereoviews, which were produced by photographers working in studios and on battlefields.

Kelbaugh has included some stunning images, such as a hand-colored albumen print of three members of the Maryland Guard in purples, gold and scarlet by Baltimore's Bendann Bros.

The carte de visite of Nicholas Biddle, an African-American orderly for the Washington Artillerists' Capt. James Wren, shows where his face was deeply cut by a thrown paving stone during the Pratt Street Riots in 1861.

Images of African-Americans were rare, wrote Kelbaugh, but he has included photographs of black sailors and soldiers, including one of the 4th Regiment Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops.

Also included are images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Josiah Henson, a Charles County slave who escaped to Canada in 1830 and became the inspiration for the character of "Uncle Tom" in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

There are street scenes of Baltimore buildings, theaters, churches, schools and hospitals from the time, and of soldiers relaxing in camp, sewing clothes, reading, smoking, writing letters and socializing.

But it is the images of the crumpled dead piled on the Antietam battlefield, in the ditches and lining the Bloody Lane, that remain gripping 150 years later.

The emaciated Union soldiers in David Bachrach Jr.'s images who had been imprisoned and survived some of the South's most notorious prisons — Andersonville, Libby and Belle Isle — look as though they had staggered out of the Auschwitz, Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen concentration camps of eight decades later.

This is a powerful book that demonstrates not only the emotional impact and the human consequences of war, but the absolute historic necessity and relevance of photography in recording human events.

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