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Russell’s album “merits a place alongside those of Barnard and Gardner” - a Civil War photographic rarity

(CIVIL WAR.) RUSSELL, ANDREW J. United States Military Railroad Photographic Album

Virginia and Washington D.C., [1863-1865]

108 albumen photographs: 92 larger format (approx. 16 x 10 in. to 12 x 9 in.), 16 medium format (approx. 10 x 6 in.), mounted on heavy stock, most with printed captions on mounted slips, some with manuscript captions. Folio. Original half brown morocco, morocco label, restored. Several mounts soiled, some images faded or with light areas. The photographs are generally in very good condition. Half morocco case.

This is one of perhaps five or six known albums of Andrew J. Russell’s great photographic record of the Civil War. Russell, a captain in the volunteer infantry between spring 1863 and summer 1865, was the only significant Civil War photographer who was also a soldier.

Russell’s striking panoramic photographs document battlefields, encampments, scenes of destruction in Virginia, and the ambitious engineering projects undertaken by the Union Army. Arsenals, aqueducts, marshaling yards, artillery batteries, mortar emplacements, gun boats, ordinance, docking facilities, railroad depots and trestle bridges are represented. A remarkable series shows the devastation of Richmond immediately after its fall.

Serving under Brig. Gen. Herman Haupt, head of the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps, Russell was detailed to document Haupt’s efforts to “determine the most practical and expeditious” ways for “construction, destruction and reconstruction of roads and bridges” in order to “facilitate the movements of the armies.”

When Haupt resigned in September 1863, Russell received additional photographic assignments from Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs and General Daniel C. McCallum, Director and Superintendent of the Military Railroad J. H. Devereaux, who led the Military Railroad in Virginia, wrote of Russell in 1864, “The Photographic Department begins and ends with him.” He noted that Russell’s photographs will be “invaluable as time [progresses], carrying mementos of strength and pride to the present generation, and sublime in their lessons and worth to those who [are] to come after” (Zeller, The Blue and Gray in Black and White).

“Russell’s work was highly valued by the government … at the time, as much for its artistic quality as for its usefulness …” (Buberger & Isenberg, Russell’s Civil War Photographs). His “photographs were often rushed by special messenger to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in Washington D.C.” (Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography).

Unfortunately, because his work was not widely circulated at the time, Russell’s efforts were largely forgotten after the war and some of his work was later misattributed to Mathew Brady. It was not until 1978, when Civil War photo-historian William Gladstone called attention to Russell’s work, and the subsequent Dover reprint of selected images, that Russell’s achievements were widely recognized.

Although it was “never published,” Russell’s album “merits a place alongside those of Barnard and Gardner” (Gallman and Gallagher, Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War).

Russell is one of the major figures of nineteenth-century American photography. He presciently observed that, because of the invention of photography, “the memories of our Great War come down to us and will pass onto future generations with more accuracy and more truth-telling illustration than that of any previous struggle … the world is indebted to the photographic art.” After the war, Russell went on to create memorable images of the exploration and settlement of the American West in his best-known work (The Great West Illustrated, 1869), a chronicle of the Union Pacific’s construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

Russell and his assistants assembled this album at war’s end to commemorate the Union victory and the staggering achievements of the United States Military Railroad. The cost must have been prohibitive. To produce each album, it was necessary to print and mount the large-format albumen photographs, typeset, print, and mount the captions, and gather and bind the mounted sheets. The few completed albums were presented to high-ranking commanders and officials. The present album was originally owned by General Winfield Scott Hancock.

Bound albums of Russell’s photographs are exceedingly rare. Very few were produced, with widely varying plate counts, and only a handful have survived. The greatest American photographic collections have had to settle for fragmentary albums and loose prints. These include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Getty Museum, and the Huntington Library. The last collectible example to appear in the market, from the celebrated Joseph Laico collection, sold for $178,500 in 1999. We understand that the Laico album is now in an institutional collection.

This magnificent album by the celebrated Andrew J. Russell is perhaps the greatest Civil War photograph album remaining in private hands.

Provenance: 1. R.K. Hawley of Baltimore, gift of General Winfield Scott Hancock. 2. Virginia Hawley, his daughter, bookplate.