The Wet Plates of Chancellorsville

Published:May 29, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


Today I’ve been working on captions for images we will upload with an already published entry about the Chancellorsville Campaign. In this particular photograph, Union infantrymen in John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps huddle together on the west bank of the Rappahannock River on April 29 or 30, 1863.

Until the 1980s, the image was mis-credited to Mathew Brady and mis-captioned as showing Union soldiers in the trenches at Petersburg. The actual credit belongs to Captain A. J. Russell of New York, official photographer of the U.S. Military Railroads and one of the few military photographers in the Union army. A landscape and portrait painter before the war, Russell had no previous experience in photography and had only been in the position a few months when he took this image using massive fourteen-by-seventeen-inch wet plates.

So how does one create a photograph using wet plates? The Center for Civil War Photography, with Rob Gibson and the Pamplin Historical Park, has provided a video to answer just that question.

It was a lot of work, turns out.

IMAGE: U.S. National Archives