Thursday, November 17, 2016

New York State History Month: Charles Moore’s Civil War Photographs

Carte de visite of Charles Moore,
taken at Gates’ Studio, Plattsburgh
In our last New York State History Month post, we looked at the uniform worn by Chazy native Loren S. Bundy during his World War I military service. This week, we travel back to the 19th century and a collection of photographs assembled during the Civil War by Lieutenant Charles F. Moore (1843-1877). You may be familiar with the letters Charles wrote to his family during the war, which are on display at the museum and are featured on our website. The 108 photos that were donated with the letters give us a more complete picture of his wartime experience.

These small photos, each about 2.5” x 4”, were known as cartes de visite because they were the same size as calling or visiting cards, and they were wildly popular in the 1860s among both soldiers and civilians. Originally, the photographs would have been stored in an album designed especially for the display of cartes de visite, like the one seen here from the Alice’s collection. In these albums, American collectors during the Civil War mingled photos of relatives and politicians, friends and generals. These albums were not just books of personal memories; they were documents that allowed people to construct their own narratives of the war and, in the north especially, they became vehicles for the expression of national identity.

Carte de visite album. Andrew Johnson on the left,
Tom Thumb’s wedding on the right.
The carte de visite format was patented in 1854 by Parisian photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disderi. By using a sliding plate holder and a camera with four lenses, eight negatives could be taken on a single 8” x 10” glass plate. That allowed eight prints to be made every time the negative was printed, making it a more economical form of photography. Mounted on card and without the bulky frames or glass of ambrotypes and daguerrotypes, cartes could easily be sent through the mail and exchanged. Cartes de visite were introduced in the United States in the summer of 1859, and their popularity was given a tremendous boost by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, as soldiers and their families posed for portraits prior to separation.

Lt. Col. Frank Palmer
Charles Moore wrote to his father less than a week after the attack on Fort Sumter that he was planning to enlist, saying “I never can stay here and see those stars and stripes dragged in the dust by a band of traitors.” A month later, in May 1861, he was sworn in as Quartermaster Sergeant in the 16th Regiment, New York Infantry. Many local men were also in the 16th New York, including Frank Palmer, Charles’s brother Pliny, and his cousin Royal Corbin. Moore was discharged from the 16th Infantry in December 1861 and there is a break in his letters. They pick up again in June of 1863, at which point he had joined the 16th New York Cavalry, where he would remain for the duration of the war. For most of his service, he was stationed in Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia.

Moore came from a family with strong ties to the north country and its military history. His father, Amasa Corbin Moore, was the son of Pliny Moore, one of the founders of Champlain, and his mother, Charlotte Mooers, was the daughter of General Benjamin Mooers, commander of the New York Militia at the Battle of Plattsburgh. He proudly wrote to his mother to tell her how he had been introduced to the colonel of his regiment: “Mr. Charles F. Moore of Troy, son of Col. A. C. Moore of Plattsburgh and grandson of General Benjamin Mooers who commanded the Battle of Plattsburgh. Very good, don’t you think so?”

Reverse of carte de visite
The photographs assembled by Charles Moore are typical of carte de visite collections of the Civil War era. Not surprisingly, there are many photos of Abraham Lincoln and Union generals—McClellan, Halleck, Scott, Butler, as well as lesser-known figures like Erasmus Keyes and Israel Richardson. There are politicians like Andrew Johnson and Schuyler Colfax, and celebrities like Kit Carson and Ram Singh II, the Rajah of Jaipur. Cartes de visite of this type were sold by all photography studios, and cost about twenty-five cents. A number of the photos in Moore’s collection have stamps on the back indicating that the prints were made from negatives in Matthew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery. Brady sold his catalog of portrait negatives to the E. and L. Anthony company in 1861, and by 1862, they were producing 3,200 cartes de visite per day.

W. H. Walling, 16th NY Volunteers.
Moore recorded that Walling “captured
the Rebel flag from the parapet of
Ft. Fisher,” a Confederate stronghold
in North Carolina.
The majority of the photographs, however, seem to be of men that Charles Moore knew personally, either fellow soldiers in the 16th New York or other military acquaintances. Many of them are signed and bear the messages “Respectfully” or “Yours Truly.” By exchanging photographs, soldiers strengthened the bonds of friendship and brotherhood. Photos served as reminders of absent friends, and memorials to those who had died. They reminded men of why they were fighting–for loved ones at home, and for their comrades on the field.

After the war, Charles Moore returned to Troy, where he was a clerk in an insurance office. Eventually he went into partnership as an insurance broker with A. G. Peck; later he went into the real estate brokerage business and engaged in some very successful land speculation. But in November 1877, the shocking news that Moore had committed suicide reached his hometown. The newspaper report in the Troy Whig, reprinted in the Plattsburgh Sentinel, attributed Moore’s suicide to a “miasmatic fever” which, “together with overwork, doubtless caused temporary mental derangement.” It’s impossible to say now whether Moore had any kind of long-term mental health issues as a result of his combat experience, but recent research has shown that some Civil War veterans did exhibit symptoms that we would now identify as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time, however, these problems were labeled as “melancholia” or “mania”–or not acknowledged at all.

Charles Moore’s photograph collection gives a human face to the sometimes abstract image of war. And his life reminds us that even when soldiers return home, their stories don’t always have a happy ending. 


Andrea L. Volpe, “The Cartes de Visite Craze,” New York Times (August 6, 2013).

Christa Holm Vogelius, “Family Albums of War: Carte de Visite Collections in the Civil War Era,” Common-place Vol. 16 no. 1 (Fall 2015).

“A Brief History of the Carte de Visite,” American Museum of Photography. Part of the online exhibit Small Worlds: The Art of the Carte de Visite.

Tony Horwitz, “Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD?” Smithsonian Magazine (January 2015).


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