General Samuel C. Lawrence’s Civil War Photo Collection
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The Medford Historical Society & Museum presents its large and significant collection of Civil War photographs. They were donated in to the Society in 1948 and in an exciting turn of events, rediscovered in 1990. This was the collection of Samuel Crocker Lawrence, a Civil War general, Medford’s first mayor, and generous benefactor to the city.
There are 3,680 albumen prints in three size categories: ranging from large-format battle site landscapes, carte de visite studio portraits, and “half stereographs” which are stereograph views, unmounted and cut into two images . Many are identified and both sides of the photographs are shown. The images remain in unusually fine condition. They have largely escaped the fading common in albumen prints for two reasons: they were rarely exposed to light, and most were never mounted which spared them contact with the destructive impurities of low quality cardboard and adhesives. In addition, some prints were made before the delicate glass plate negatives developed cracks or emulsion loss which show up in later prints.
The importance of this collection lies in the content of the images, their artistic value, and as an example of early photography. Upon rediscovery of the collection, some of the photographs were exhibited and written about. Now in digital form, the full collection can be shared with the public for the first time.
The Story of the Photos and their Rediscovery
In 1916, the society moved into its present headquarters at 10 Governor’s Avenue. After many years in storage, the collection resurfaced in 1990. The collection, had been amassed by General Samuel Crocker Lawrence (1832-1911), commander of the Lawrence Light Guard during the Civil War and the first Mayor of the City of Medford in 1895.
Upon General Lawrence’s death, in 1911, the collection passed into the custody of the Light Guard, and in 1948 Colonel John J. Carew of the guard and Mrs. U. Haskell Crocker, General Lawrence’s granddaughter, donated the chestful of photographs to the Medford Historical Society & Museum.
When The Boston Globe and Civil War Times Illustrated announced the discovery of the Medford collection, the society received many requests to examine or purchase the photographs. A handful of historians and curators of photography were allowed to see the collection, and recognized its importance. Gordon Baldwin, of the Getty Museum, wrote that “the Medford hoard of photographs is without doubt one of the most important collections in this country of prints made from the original negatives of some of the most important photographers of the Civil War.”
The initial Civil War Photo committee, composed of Dr. Carl Seaburg, Stephen Johnson, Carol Sbuttoni, Jay Griffin, Michael Bradford, Noah Dennen, and Dr. Valeriani, agreed that the collection would not be sold, but should remain in Medford, and be made available to Civil War scholars after the photographs had been properly conserved. Although the photographs were visually in superb condition, most of the albumen prints had never been mounted on cardboard, and many of them had curled and needed careful physical conservation.
For two years, the society raised funds to begin this effort. About nine hundred of the photographs were conserved at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts, and income from the book lanscapes of the Civil War was used to continue the conservation effort.
A few photographs were exhibited at Tufts University during the inauguration of President John DiBiaggio, but except for that exhibit, Landscapes of the Civil War represents the first public opportunity to see a selection of the remarkable photographs General Lawrence assembled in the years after the Civil War. It is also a first step toward making the entire collection accessible to anyone with an interest in this momentous period in our nation’s history.
In 2009, the society mounted an exhibit entitled: “Of the People: Faces of the Civil War” curated by Jim Kiely. The exhibit marked one of the few public exhibits of photos from the collection, and the first of portraits. Timed to coincide with the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, the exhibit captured the incredible diversity of people engaged in the Civil War, and the social and moral ambiguities of the war itself.
Additional landscapes from the MHSM Civil War Photo Collection can be found here.
Text is from Landscapes of the Civil War. Edited by Constance Sullivan. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1995.