General Samuel Crocker Lawrence’s CollectionIn 1916 the society moved into its present headquarters and museum on Governor’s Avenue. Groups of schoolchildren frequently visit the museum, and in 1990 one of those students went home and told his father, Noah Dennen, about the interesting collection of Civil War artifacts he had seen there.
Mr. Dennen, a Civil War buff, soon visited the museum himself, and Michael Bradford, the society’s librarian and curator, showed him a collection of Civil War photographs that had been stored for years in a wooden chest on the top floor of the building.
Astonished by the number and quality of the photographs and the fact that he had never seen many of them before, Mr. Dennen quickly suspected that the collection might be of interest to Civil War historians.
He invited Brian Pohanka, an expert on the Civil War, to view the photographs, and six hours later, black to the elbow with dust and dirt, Mr. Pohanka confirmed Mr. Dennen’s suspicion: the chest contained one of the largest and finest collections of Civil War photographs in existence — fifty-four hundred prints in all.The collection, it turned out, had been amassed by General Samuel Crocker Lawrence, commander of the Lawrence Light Guard during the war and later mayor of Medford.
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.
When The Boston Globe and Civil War Times Illustrated announced the discovery of the Medford collection, the society was besieged with requests to examine or purchase the photographs. A handful of historians and curators of photography were allowed to see the collection, and they agreed unanimously on 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 Medford Historical Society, now aware that it possessed priceless collection, moved the photographs to a vault at the Medford Cooperative Bank and formed a committee to decide what to do with them.
The 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, would remain in Medford, and would 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 have now been conserved at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts, and income from this book will be used to continue the conservation effort.
Until the collection is conserved, we have, regrettably, had to turn down the many, many requests we have received to view the photographs.
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.
Additional civil war photos from the Medford Historical Society Collection are here: More Civil War Photos.
Text is from Landscapes of the Civil War. Edited by Constance Sullivan. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1995.