RUSSELL, Andrew J. (1830-1902), photographer. United States Military Rail Road Photographic Album. N.p., [ca.1865].
110 mounted albumen photographic plates by Russell, 16 x 10 in. and smaller, a number with top corners decoratively rounded before mounting, some smaller images (7 x 10 approximately) mounted two to the page. All affixed to stiff paper mounts, most with neat printed captions (number, subject, date) on small slips beneath images, some captions carefully written in ink directly on mount (by Russell?). Mounts attached to buckram guards. Folio (17 7/8 x 14 in.), original half morocco (very worn, spine detached, several corners defective), contemporary red morocco label gilt-lettered with title (several mounts soiled, not affecting plates, a very few images lightly faded at edges, or with light areas).
ONE OF ABOUT FIVE RECORDED ALBUMS OF RUSSELL'S REMARKABLE PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORD OF THE CIVIL WAR
Russell was certainly prescient when he wrote 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, New York, 1869), a chronicle of the mammoth effort made by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868 and 1869 to complete the first transcontinental railroad. Russell's celebrated photograph, "East Meets West at Laying Last Rail," taken at Promontory point on May 18, 1869, has become an iconic visual symbol of American technological progress.
But Russell's less well-known earlier work as a government photographer during the Civil War is documented in this exceedingly rare album comprising images captured mainly in the Eastern theater of the war, between Spring of 1863 and Summer 1865. He enlisted in the 141st New York Volunteers in August 1862, and his commanders were quick to perceive the potential of his skills as a photographer. Promoted to captain, he was assigned to Brigadier General Herman Haupt (1817-1905), the brilliant head of the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps. In that capacity, Russell was detailed to document the experiments and acheivements of 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 (ca.1816-1892) and General Daniel C. McCallum, Superintendent and General Manager of the Military Railroads. "Russell's work was highly valued by the government...at the time, as much for its artistic quality as for its usefulness..." (J. Buberger & M. Isenberg, Russell's Civil War Photographs, 1982, preface).
Russell's striking panoramic photographs chronicle the destruction in Virginia and the ambitious engineering projects undertaken by the Union Army. Arsenals, aqueducts, marshalling yards, batteries, mortar emplacements, gun boats, ordinance, docking facilities and of course, railroad depots and trestle bridges are represented. Also present are a remarkable series showing the devastation of the rebel capital, Richmond, immediately after its fall to Grant's armies (in some shots, numerous Union cannon shells lie in the streets.) Unfortunately, because his work was not widely circulated at the time, Russell's efforts were largely forgotten after the war and much of his work was later erroneously attributed to Mathew Brady. It was not until 1978, when Civil War photo-historian William Gladstone called attention to Russell's oeuvre, and the subsequent Dover reprint of selected images that Russell's acheivements were resurrected.
While individual prints by Russell occasionally appear on the market, this well documented bound series is remarkably rare. The ordering of the plates is unique to each of the few surviving albums. The random sequencing of photographs is typical of both this and Russell's Union Pacific Rail Road series. The editors of the Dover reprint sought to regularize Russell's idiosyncratic arrangement, which is neither numerical or chronological. (A full list of the images present in this copy is avaiable by fax or e-mail.)
BOUND ALBUMS OF RUSSELL'S PHOTOGRAPHS ARE EXCEEDINGLY RARE AND ONLY A HANDFUL WERE PROBABLY PRODUCED. The photographs were assembled, probably by Russell himself, sometime in July 1865, well after the Grand Review of the Armies and the mustering out of the Union's victorious troops. The cost must have been prohibitive: to produce each album, it was necessary to print the albumen photographs, mount them, have printed captions set in type, cut out and attached to the relevant image, and the mounted sheets gathered and bound. It can be surmised that the few completed albums may have been presented to high-ranking commanders and dignitaries associated with the Union Army (the present album, interestingly, was originally owned by General W.S. Hancock). Very few examples of the album are extant. The most extensive is that at The Virginia Historical Society, Richmond (136 plates), while partial albums or groups of loose prints are in the Library of Congress, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Getty Museum and the Huntington Library. An album containing 117 images was part of the Joseph Laico Collection (sale, Christie's East, 12 May 1999, lot 215, $178,500).
References: Fels, Thomas W. Destruction and Destiny...the Photographs of A.J. Russell. Directing American Energy in War and Peace 1862-1869, Pittsfield, Mass: Berkshire Museum, 1987. 32pp.
Provenance: R.K. Hawley of Baltimore, gift of General Winfield Scott Hancock (1824-1886) -- Virginia Hawley, his daughter, bookplate and with her pencil note inserted: "General Hancock gave this book to my father...at the close of the Civil War..." -- A New England Institution.