The assistance rendered the national arms during our late war by photography and the photographers was much greater and very much more important in its results than many people imagine. We propose, as best we may, to gather tip these fragmentary reminiscences on either side, and publish them for the benefit of our readers.
Anyone, therefore, who may be in a position to aid us will kindly do so. The following, from the pen of Capt. A. J. Russell, will be read with interest:
The memories of our great war come down to us and will pass on to future generations with more accuracy and more truth-telling illustration than that of any previous struggle of ancient or modern times; and the world is indebted to the photographic art and a few enterprising and earnest men, who were not backward in furnishing means, and to a score or less of daring workers – men not afraid of exposure and who could laugh at fatigue and starvation, could face danger in add shapes, and were at all times ready to march, often between the two armies, in the trenches, on the ramparts, through the swamps and forests, with the advance guard, and back again at headquarters – not a flank movement, but the willing and indefatigable artist at his post of danger and adventure. The public do not and cannot realize the part that the camera served in bringing down the facts of the date war for future history; one cannot look back but with wonder and admiration on those few industrious, painstaking men such as Roche, Sullivan, Woodbury, Barnard, Coonley, Fowx and one or two others who played their parts so well.
It would afford me pleasure to recount the whole history of this great wood if I were as competent to describe understandingly as the incidents have followed in my memory to the present time; they were all known personally to me, having been thrown in contact on the field, in camp, in victory and, defeat, in the charge of a successful army and in the retreating columns before a victorious foe.
I cannot but relate a little incident among the thousands that transpired. It was at City Point, just before the move on Petersburg. Mr. Roche (now with Anthony & Co.,) entered my headquarters, and said, “Cap., I am in for repairs and want to get things ready for the grand move, for the army is sure to move to-night or tomorrow night. The negatives on hand I wish to send North with some letters, prepare my glass and chemicals; in fact, get everything ready for the grand move, for this is the final one, and the Rebellion is broken, or we go home and commence over again.”
This prophecy proved to be correct, for in this great final move Lee was captured and the confederacy collapsed. I sat up with Mr. Roche until the “wee sma' hours;” he had everything in A No. 1 order for the morrow. We sat smoking and talking of adventures, etc., etc., and among others of Dutch Gap Canal, and of the pictures taken there under difficulties a few days before, of which a friend of mine had been an eye-witness. The enemy were bombarding the works from Howlett's Point, throwing immense shells every few minutes, tearing up the ground and raising a small earthquake every time one of them exploded. He had taken a number of views and had but one more to make to finish up the most interesting points, and this one was to be from the most exposed position. He was within a few rods of the place when down came with the roar of a whirlwind a ten-inch shell, which exploded, throwing the dirt in all directions; but nothing daunted and shaking the dust from his head and camera he quickly moved to the spot, and placing it over the pit made by the explo¬sion, exposed his plate as coolly as if there was no danger, and as if working in a country barn-yard. The work finished he quickly folded his tripod and returned to cover.
I asked him if he was scared. “Scared?” he said, “two shots never fell in the same place.” At this moment the heavy boom of cannons were heard in the direction of Petersburg. Roche jumped to his feet, and rushing to the door said, “Cap., the ball has opened; I must be off,” calling to his assistant. In the next quarter of an hour two horses were harnessed, everything snugly packed, and shaking my hand with a “we will meet to-morrow at the front,” said “good bye,” and the wagon rattled off into the darkness of midnight towards that doomed city above which was such another display of pyrotechnics as few photos. have ever witnessed – shells flying in all directions, leaving their trails of fire and fading away only to be replaced by others. This was not all. The whole world seemed alive; every road was teeming and the call to arms seemed to find a response from every foot of the ground; the rumbling of artillery, the clatter of cavalry, the tramp of infantry, the shrieking of locomotives, calling men to their posts, plainly told that the time had come - that the destiny of a nation hung in the balance.
In the morning Petersburg was ours. I found Mr. Roche on the ramparts with scores of negatives taken where the fight had been the thickest and where the harvest of death had indeed been gathered - pictures that will in truth teach coming generations that war is a terrible reality.
A few minutes later I saw his van flying towards the war-stricken city, and in the wake of a fleeing enemy. Many were the records he preserved that day that will last while history endures, to relate the eventful story of a victory sorely won.
A. J. Russell, "Photographic Reminiscences of the Late War," Anthony's Photographic Bulletin (1882)
Andrew Joseph (A. J.) Russell was captain of Company F of the 141st New York Volunteer Regiment. In 1863, still attached to the army, he began to work as a photographer. In this recounting of his experience, Russell praises the significance of photography and the role of the photographer in depicting the reality of war and its impact. He describes the work of fellow photographer Thomas C. Roche in documenting the final campaign in the long siege of Petersburg, Virginia in spring 1865. Amid threats of starvation, marches through swamp land, and artillery exchanges, Roche and others managed to produce remarkable photographs. After the war, Russell was employed by the Union Pacific Railroad to record the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
Creator: A. J. Russell
Date: July 1882
Source: Anthony's Photographic Bulletin XIII