Ever since elementary school, I’ve been fascinated with studying the American Civil War, particularly its generals. I’m most interested in the generals who died during the course of the war—either from wounds, illnesses, or accidents. I’ve been collecting antique photographs since I can remember—my father is a full-time antique dealer and his father bought and sold guns, knives, and watches for a living. Antiquing is in my blood. I’ve combined my interests for Civil War generals and antique collecting into a satisfying and unique hobby.
I’ve enjoyed collecting military carte de visites—commonly referred to as CDVs among collectors—for a decade. These paper photographs (2 ½” by 3 ½”) mounted to a piece of cardboard (2 ½” by 4”) originated in France in 1854. They easily surpassed the popularity of daguerreotypes and tintypes because they were inexpensive to buy and easy to carry and store. Millions of families across Europe filled their photo albums with CDVs of their friends and relatives. They also added to their albums CDVs of heads of state, politicians, writers, artists, actors, priests, generals, and explorers. In a way, collecting CDVs of notable individuals during the nineteenth century was a precursor to the practice of collecting tobacco and baseball cards popularized in twentieth-century America.
CDVs were first introduced to the United States in 1859. They became so popular, that within five years after they were first introduced, Oliver Wendell Holmes declared them to be “the social currency, the ‘Green-backs’ of civilization…” Thousands of CDVs depicting Union and Confederate generals were produced and circulated during the Civil War—the golden age of CDVs—in both the North and the South. These CDVs have become desired collectibles among modern collectors.
There are a handful of elements that dictate the value of Civil War general CDVs: the photographer (The E. & H. T. Anthony and Matthew Brady backmark is the most desirable), the individual sitting for the photo, if it is autographed, if the individual is in a common or rare pose, if it is a photograph or an engraving, and its condition. (In many cases CDVs were trimmed to fit into the albums or have been damaged from exposure to dirt, dust, oils, insects, or mold). Civil War general CDVs can sell for as little as $5.00 to well over $2,000. The more desirable CDVs tend to sell in the $150 – $350 price range.
It can be a very expensive hobby, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Lately, the most convenient and economical way for me to find them is by searching eBay. Over the last, few weeks I purchased CDVs of Maj. Gen. John K. F. Mansfield, Brig. Gen. Frederick W. Lander, and Maj. Gen. Phil Kearny for $10.00 – $15.00 apiece. It’s hard to believe you can purchase a 150-year-old piece of Civil War memorabilia for about the same price as a trip to Chipotle or Starbucks!
Since adding these three CDVs to my growing collection, I’m now on a quest to accumulate as many CDVs of generals who died during the war as I can. For me, this isn’t just a hobby, but it’s a way to pay tribute to these fallen officers, in many instances mere footnotes in the history of the American Civil War.
Note: If you do decide to take up collecting CDVs, make sure you are properly protecting them. They can easily be destroyed by a collector’s negligence. Bags Unlimited Inc. offers some excellent CDV sleeves and storage boxes for a fair price. I’ve been buying sleeves from here for years.
Holmes, Oliver W. Soundings from the Atlantic. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864.
Lewis, Russell E. Warman’s Civil War Collectibles. 3rd ed. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2010.
Mace, O. Henry. Collector’s Guide to Early Photographs. 2nd ed. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1999.
Van Camp, Kristel. “Damage Atlas for Photographic Materials.” CeROArt. http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/1770. (accessed December 19, 2018).