Fading Memories

Echoes of the Civil War

Unidentified Union Army officer. Hand-tinted half-plate ambrotype, ca. Civil War era. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. HP.2011.35.1.

The power of a photograph to provide meaning when one is struggling with loss is undeniable. This is especially the case when a loved one goes to war. For those left behind, the likeness of a husband or son fighting in far-off battles provides tremendous solace.

And to the ones in battle, the portrait of a wife or child or parent brings relief from the dread of war. It is no surprise, then, that during the Civil War era, a brisk trade in cased-image photography catered to those in need of comfort. These early photographs—daguerreotype, ambrotype, and tintype portraits—were and are a wonder to behold. Amazingly sharp and with incredible detail, people came alive inside these little cases.

A husband could look longingly at his wife, and a wife at her husband, providing a visual lifeline between them. The well-worn cased images on display in Fading Memories are a testament to the loving and sometimes frightened hands that opened them to gaze upon a cherished family member. The tender nature of these wartime portraits stands in sharp contrast to the graphic horrors of the battlefield as captured by the photographers who documented the war.

The Fading Memories exhibit will open at the New Mexico History Museum’s Mezzanine Gallery on May 1, 2015.

Daniel Kosharek is photo curator at the Photo Archives of the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. The archives can be searched online (with the option of ordering prints) at palaceofthegovernors.org/photoarchives.html.