Are these Photographs Our Earliest, Closest Equivalents of “Movies” of Civil War Field Operations?

From: Noel Harrison (and with an Alan Zirkle film awaiting readers who make it to the end)

The antebellum and wartime stories of Stafford County’s Belle Plain area, which in 1864 hosted at least five Union wharves along a two-mile stretch of Potomac Creek, are a source of continual research inspiration. In an article published in the July-August 2000 issue of Military Images magazine, I had the privilege of sharing the discoveries of a friend and mentor, the Belle Plain/White Oak historian and museum-director D. P. Newton. He located the modern-day camera locations of four of the photographs of Confederate prisoners who had clustered in the various “Punch Bowl” ravines near those Belle Plain wharves. Sources in D.P.’s research files, most notably the diary of Union Colonel Theodore Gates, showed that the ravines and wharves hosted more than 7,800 captive Southerners between May 13 and May 23, 1864.

In locating the camera positions, D.P. had accepted a challenge that historian William A. Frassanito issued implicitly in his 1983 classic, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865—find the sites on a modern landscape that is “densely wooded with numerous hollows.”

A decade after publishing the Military Images article, Belle Plain again captured my imagination when I suddenly noticed that one of D.P.’s site-identified images, shown here alongside a modern near-equivalent that he made around 2000:

…had originated with a glass-plate negative–intended to produce carte de visite photographic prints–that was exposed in a four-lens camera to record four slightly different, sequential scenes:

The plate had recently been posted online, as a digital file, in an intermittently accessible sampler of Civil War photographs in the collection of the National Archives.

Over the years, different exposures from this same plate have appeared singly in a number of publications, and all four exposures appeared together at least once online, but only as cropped details and in a 2008 discussion limited to evaluating them for information about Confederate uniforms. The particular exposure, from the four, that had appeared in Frassanito’s 1983 book was accompanied by his attribution to a photographer or photographers working for Brady & Co., his dating of the image—along with all the other views of Confederate prisoners at the various Punch Bowl locations—to May 16 or May 17, 1864, and his observation that one of the Confederate prisoners likely wears headgear-insignia of the Fourth Alabama Infantry.

Inspired to look for other, four-exposure plates, I found a second one at the same online source:

The National Archives assigns this an identification of “Pontoon landing, James River, Va.” I suspected that the caption was in error, and that the subject was instead one of the Union wharves along Potomac Creek. D.P. Newton confirmed my suspicion, and specified that the structure was easternmost of the five Potomac Creek wharves of 1864 for which he has thus far found historical documentation. The distinctive, four-exposure format presumably ties the plate to Brady & Co. I found no specific date, but it was likely sometime between May 16, 1864, by which time this particular wharf was extant on Potomac Creek and attracting the attention of at least one other photographer, and May 18, when, Frassanito suggests, all the photographers were departing or had departed for Fredericksburg.

To make the four images of the wharf, the photographer pointed his camera northeast across Potomac Creek, in the foreground, the narrowing peninsula of Marlborough Point, middleground, and the Potomac River, background, towards the distant landmass of Maryland.

The photograph below shows the site of the same wharf today but looks in a different direction—northwest—to accommodate postwar forest cover and the present lack of convenient access to the overhanging bluff used by the Civil War photographer. Factoring for the post-Civil War erosion of Potomac Creek bank, D.P. Newton’s estimated area of the sites of the U-shaped wharf’s side-by-side entrance and exit in 1864 is marked by the blue arrow:

Accokeek Creek’s wide mouth opens onto Potomac Creek in left background. Courtesy of D.P. Newton.

As a final piece of background, and for orientation to the modern landscape—since the specific places under discussion are today situated on private property and not open to the public—I provide a mapping below of the relative camera-locations used for photographing the prisoners (red arrow, left) and the wharf (red arrow, right), together with the known locations (yellow lines) of the Union army’s individual wharves on Potomac Creek in 1864:

Belle Plain area today, showing general locations of military wharves in 1864 (yellow) and camera positions for the two photographic sequences (red).  North at top. Fredericksburg located off lower left corner.

Belle Plain area today, showing general locations of military wharves in 1864 (yellow) and camera positions for the two photographic sequences (red). North at top. Fredericksburg located off lower left corner.

Although I may have missed it, I have not seen a discussion in print or online that suggests that four-exposure, sequential image groupings could be the closest we’ll come to having contemporary movies of military personnel in Civil War campaign/combat zones. Yet I suspect that such is the case.

(The Federals, by the way, definitely regarded Belle Plain as situated in a dangerous zone in May 1864, and fretted over its protection. On May 17, with the principal armies confronting one another southwest of Fredericksburg and readying themselves for a series of major maneuvers around Spotsylvania Court House, General John J. Abercrombie reported from Belle Plain that Confederate guerrillas had been “making demonstrations” against his troops and facilities: a scout was wounded while guiding Northern soldiers past a point about four miles distant, ambulance wagons were “fired on, and horses captured on the road from here to Fredericksburg,” situated some eight miles distant.)

My sense of the thus-far overlooked importance of four-image sets to the animated pictorial record of the Civil War carries several caveats. I am neither a specialist on wet-plate photography nor on its wartime artists and their itineraries. My terminology and synopsis here are drawn mainly from the books of scholars like Frassanito and Bob Zeller, and likely overlook important details and nuances in those or other important sources. I lack, too, expertise in film; I’ve consulted only general references online. I trust, though, that more knowledgeable readers of this blog will offer any needed clarifications or adjustments—and help answer any additional technical questions that arise—while at the same time understanding my basic point that one camera may have produced more sequential exposures, and at a faster rate, than what we now commonly associate with the photography of Civil War field operations.

For years, certain sequential groupings of Civil War photographs have appeared in historical publications and online, with accompanying discussions that rightly emphasize their immediacy and narrative appeal. Among these unique series of pictures that record Fredericksburg-area subjects, sequential wartime photographs from 1864 include a set of at least seven views of a Union burial crew at work in Fredericksburg, and a set of three views showing Generals Grant and Meade meeting with other commanders in front of Massaponax Church. In suggesting an analogy for the Massaponax series, in his book-length survey of 2005, The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography, Bob Zeller expresses the appeal of such groupings: “a rudimentary motion picture.”

Yet the method used in making the two sets of Belle Plain pictures that I’ve posted above would have allowed a single photographer to expose more images onto a collodion-coated, light-sensitized glass plate at a faster rate. Intervals of only about 10 or 15 seconds were needed for each of four different exposures in a four-lens camera (four different scenes exposed sequentially onto one plate). Compare this with the approx. 8-10 minute intervals used for each exposure in the Massaponax and Fredericksburg burial-crew sets—exposures in a single-lens camera (one scene exposed onto one plate) or a double-lens/stereographic camera (two slightly different scenes, or views of the same subject from slightly different angles, exposed simultaneously onto one plate). With a four-lens camera, in other words, a single plate could record four successive scenes at a rate that was slowed only the photographer’s need to uncap one of the four lenses, leave it uncapped for the 10-15 second exposure time, recap it, and then uncap the next lens…without the much greater time-expense required for preparing, carrying to the camera, exposing in the camera, carrying from the camera, and finally fixing an image on each of four separate plates in succession.

By no means should the result be misrepresented as a true movie. I gather that the frame-rate common in recording motion for films and television today is 240-300 frames-per-ten-seconds, far from the rate that I estimate was used for the two sets of Belle Plain exposures: a single frame in about the same amount of time. Equally important, the frame-rate of the four-lens cameras of the Civil War field photographers could never exceed a total of four images. (I understand that some four-lens cameras could produce eight exposures, rather than four, but I have yet to see an eight-exposure sequence for wartime scenes in the field.) After making the four exposures, a new plate would be needed, which then imposed the same, time-expensive cycle of plate-preparation and other steps associated with single- and double-lens cameras.

Again, however, the two four-exposure sets created along Potomac Creek near Belle Plain in mid-May 1864 seem in a technical sense markedly closer to modern movies than, say, the Massaponax set (made by a single photographer on May 21, at least four days after the creation of the prisoners set) and the Fredericksburg burial-crew set (made by at least two photographers, with two separate cameras aimed from slightly different locations, on May 19 or May 20, at least two days after the prisoners set).

Since the intervals between the exposures in the Belle Plain image-groups did not appear to be consistent, I asked Alan Zirkle, a photographer and National Park Service volunteer, to evaluate their visual flow by making a short film in which first the prisoners set and then the wharf set are shown in several loops at a sped-up rate of 2 frames per second (with a slower loop in-between each, for comparison). Alan used my guessed-at ordering for the exposures: in the prisoners set—upper right, upper left, lower left, and finally lower right; in the wharf set—upper left, upper right, lower left, and finally lower right:

(For a large-screen version of the same presentation click here.)

In the prisoners part of Alan’s film, I found the results especially striking for portraying what is probably a conversational exchange between the three men sitting in a row, the man who directly faces the photographer at center sliding his hand across his mouth, and the figures on the far horizon—presumably Union guards—shifting back and forth. In the wharf set, I’m struck by the blurry departures of the various craft, and the exiting of a wagon from the structure. Although a backwards drift of the nearest two vessels, as they begin their side-by-side departure, creates some sense of the images being shown out of order, that drift was evidently natural.

Noel G. Harrison

Special thanks to Alan Zirkle for producing a complicated product at short notice, and to D.P. Newton for sharing the extensive historical files of the White Oak Museum, and his personal knowledge. I’m also grateful for the scholarship, cited above, of historians William Frassanito and Bob Zeller, as well as to a You-Tuber named “Ron,” for suggesting with post-Appomattox and studio images of the Civil War era new ways to evaluate pre-Appomattox, campaign-zone images as well.

22 thoughts on “Are these Photographs Our Earliest, Closest Equivalents of “Movies” of Civil War Field Operations?

  1. Noel,

    The sequential results certainly do provide an interesting motion picture effect. These four seperate exposures are unusual, especially as they are apparently on an 8 X 10 plate which is not what is seen for “cdv” use. I have been talking with Bob Szabo about these and his first observation was that each is a slightly longer exposure than the other, estimating from 4-8 seconds. This is why they look progressively darker. Each image is roughly a 4 X 5 and is made with landscape lenses which have stopped down apertures, providing sharper detail and greater depth of field, something that cdv lenses don’t do. Bob is further consulting another collodion artist to get a second opinion. Right now we are thinking these were made with stereo lenses but seperately exposed and shifted top to bottom to test exposure times, but this may change as were further our discussion. Very unusual for whatever purpose. I had not seen these presented before your posting. A real mystery and conundrum.

  2. Mike, Many thanks. This is yet another time-delayed riff on all those conversations you and I have had about CW photography. John, I’d be grateful, as always, for any new perspectives. The “carte de visite” designation, for one of the four exposures in that particular prisoners sequence, is William Frassanito’s (p. 57 in Grant and Lee). Noel

      • John, Well, again, Im pretty much a novice on the technical side of things here, but I’m going to stick with Mr. Frassanito’s classification pending persuasive info to the contrary. Thanks as always for the input. Noel

  3. Noel,
    This is a fascinating use of these photos. Watching the sequences unfold provides a kind of a jolt that suggests what folks must have experienced when seeing a motion picture for the first time. Outstanding.

    • Thanks, Erik. Whenever you get a chance, check the videos by “Ron,” the YouTuber whose link I give at the bottom. He achieves I think a similar effect with post-Appomattox images and studio views of Lincoln as well. Noel

  4. Noel,
    There is no better persuasive information than the fact that cdv images, when produced on an 8 X 10 glass negative, were actually four over four, not two over two. Finished paper prints for the cdv format are 2 1/2 X 4, whereas the rough, uncropped prints that would have come from this negative would have been in the neighborhood of 4 1/2 X 4. Those are the same dimensions that produce stereo pairs, when trimmed, of 3 X 3 inches. Keep in mind that most images then were being produced as contact prints, meaning the print size was the same as the negative. Also, cdv lenses do not have the focal quality these images show with depth of field. I might suggest that the use of the term “carte de visite negative” may have been due to a lack of nomenclature in 1983 when Grant VS Lee was written. The possible uniqueness of these sets could account for no other means of description than what they resemble.
    The other bothersome issue with this grouping is that the bottom set’s skyline cuts into the foreground of the top set. This would make them useless as trimable, marketable images. This further gives me the impression that this was not the intended purpose for the exposures. I have not looked, but perhaps you have, are there any other four image plates like this on the LOC site besides these two?
    I will continue to pursue further information on these along with our collodion artist friends. I did try to contact Mr. Frassanito earlier but this being 4th of July weekend in Gettysburg there are plenty of things going on to keep him busy. Perhpas next week I can see what he might offer up after nearly thirty years of further study.

  5. John, Good point about changing nomenclature. But I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, at least until Mr. Frassanito might care to comment. I continue to believe that both sets of images were exposed with a four-lens camera, with the correspondingly greater exposure-rate that is my central point. As I mention in the blog post, the two sets are not from the Library of Congress, but rather from the National Archives, and available at the link I give (a large grouping of NA images that Univ. of Maryland seems to have prepared for NA as a test). I suspect that four-exposure groupings are not that rare in the NA collection. My casual glances through it revealed a White House Landing wharf-series (whether 1864 or earlier I’m not sure) and one or two others. Noel

    • Noel,
      Slip of the mind/tongue when I said LOC, when indeed yes, the collection’s link you provide is NA. Force of habit.
      Let me stress at this point, that I have no lack of respect for the interesting cinematic qualities the four exposures provide. That is indeed their unique attribute that you and Mr. Zirkle have entertainingly proven and provided. The pontoon landing series is delightful, providing a glimpse into the constantly flowing traffic that kept the army supplied. That is something a static image has not been able to demonstrate. You have brought life to the facility at Belle Plain.
      My point in commenting here has not been to fault your premise of motion achieved, but rather the use of the “cdv negative” identifier. For whatever reason these, and at this time potentially other similar plates were exposed, they do not demonstrate the accepted parameters of the carte de visite format, regardless of whether or not they were produced with a true four lens camera or a shifting two lens camera, the resulting negatives are too big for cdv use. Moreover, the high quality of the larger image does demonstrate that the lenses used were not “cdv” lenses, but rather landscape lenses most often used in pairs at the time to produce stereo views.
      I can see that there is valid reason that an initial reaction would be to call these “cdv negatives”, as they do resemble that format, but I would assert that had they not been exposed individually but in pairs, they would have been stereoscopic in all respects, size and quality of focus and depth of field.

      • John, Thanks for the kind words my friend. Since “carte de visite” is Mr. Frassanito’s classification, in Grant and Lee, I’d be completely happy to go with whatever he and you might prefer upon further reflection. For the purpose of this particular blog post, I was less interested in the terminology for the lenses, negative, or camera individually than in the fact that the overall assemblage created more sequential exposures, and at a faster rate, than what we now commonly associate with the photography of Civil War field operations. Noel

  6. Noel, great work as always. I suppose it is possible that one of my ancestors and men of his battery captured on May 12 went thru this place.

  7. I’d like to weigh in here. Firstly the images are clearly sequential (as opposed to two stereo pairs). A 4-lens camera typically used cheap “gem” type lens and we’re used primarliy for a simultaneous 4-image exposure. It is plausible that this was the instrument used for these images but I am not convinced (totally) that a 4-lens camera was used. My opinion is that the photographer more than likely used a sliding back camera with a single lens. This would account for the timeline shown in the images but still allow a wet-plate image to be registered in the short amount of time needed to do so before the plate dried. Also it would have allowed an experienced field photographer the ability to use any one of a number of different high quality lens available

    Todd Harrington
    Collodion Artist

    • Todd, Thank you for sharing your expertise and perspective from hands-on experience… the best kind of input. Since I posted my main piece above, Alan Zirkle, who did the YouTube adaptations, has shared with me his thought that the jerky nature of the “movie” of the prisoners viewed close-up (by far the more difficult of the two four-image sequences to adapt to YouTube, he reports), as compared with the smoother flow of the “movie” of the wharf and its boats viewed at far greater distance, is perhaps due to the parallax effect of separate lenses capturing the same close-up scene from slightly different angles as well as sequentially. But your scenario for the use of a single, high-quality lens sounds very persuasive and is great to have in the mix. Needless to say, your perspective, as a collodion artist, on any of this blog’s other image-related posts (most linked under “photography” in the “categories” column at upper right) would be greatly appreciated as well. Noel

  8. Thank you for this wonderful conundrum. I couldn’t stop wondering why the middle prisoner left the scene……was he belligerent?……did he have to go pee?….Then it hit me. He didn’t leave the scene……..he joined it! The bottom right was the first exposure. The photographer then realized that he needed a center subject, so he dropped in another rebel for the next three exposures. Us photographers are always looking to improve our compositions.
    Also, the photographer wasn’t using a standard divided 8×10 negative holder. The overlapping of the images proves this. He used a make-shift
    system. “But what?” you ask. I believe he had no less than 5 dark slides for the negative holder. One was intact and used to protect the plate from light during transport. The other 4 were each cut to allow exposure to a different area of the plate. With the wet-plate holder in the camera, the intact dark slide was removed. Then the dark slide with the lower right area cut away was inserted into the holder. The lens cap is removed from the lower right lens and the first exposure is made. …etc.
    To me, this is enough of a signature to prove that both sets of series images were taken by the same person.
    (note: The upper two images were taken from a slightly higher perspective than the lower two; suggesting it was, indeed, a four-lens camera.)
    Robert Maresz

  9. Robert, Thank you for the kind words and for such a close read and consideration. Yours is a really neat explanation, and a great example of how this blog can be a team effort drawing in many folks whose backgrounds and expertise take the initial interpretations to ever higher levels of sophistication. Noel

  10. You guys did a really great job in finding these photographs and analyzing them. I had no idea that there were 4 exposure cameras that could operate so quickly in the 1860’s and the film Alan made especially amazing. I also wanted to share my video of the Grand Review. I have no idea what the leading research is or how much you guys know about the photographs from it, but I was able to piece together multiple two exposure plate photographs (or something like that, I’m pretty new to Civil War photography) that were taken within seconds of one another into a sort of order according to the stance of the crowds. Here is it:

    • Thank you for you kind words. And your presentation of the Grand Review images is really neat. On your question about our knowledge of DC’s wartime photography: that’s pretty much outside our geographic bailiwick, but the last link (to a short YouTube vid) in the main part of my post, above, also makes use of some of the Grand Review images. Here’s the link.

  11. Hello there again. These photographs have continued to intrigue me for the past few years and I have tried my hand at animating them and other four-exposure plates that I have come across. I have been linking them here here to give people more context and credit for the idea of animating them. Here are some examples of ones that I have finished recently:

    • Thank you for sharing; these sorts of conversations and exchanges are an especially rewarding aspect of historical blogging. You’ve assembled some really nice sequences, especially with the sense in your first video of the flag flapping and the tent canvas billowing. And your higher-speed Marshall House sequence conveys a striking representation of the bustle of what was by then a busy garrison town. Noel

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