Civil War-Era Personal Tintypes Exposed: Your Questions Answered

Today’s post is by Jackie Budell, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

**Please note that the following post contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers.**

This is the first of three posts about tintype images in the Civil War Pension Application Files from the Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs (Record Group 15).

Full length portrait of William Carmen.
Photographic image from the approved pension application file of Emeline Carman, widow of Private William Carman, Company A, 115th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, WC 48977 (NAIDs 99523538 and 197025958). This tintype was rediscovered while preparing NARA’s largest pension file series for digitization. 

It is the unspoken hope of many researchers who visit the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. to rediscover a photographic image of a Civil War soldier amid the pages of a Federal pension application file – hoping to see the youthful face of a fresh volunteer who bought a tintype “likeness” to impress his sweetheart back home, or the weathered face of a veteran soldier who anticipated his last battle and longed to be remembered by family and friends. Instead, researchers are sometimes startled to find an image of a disfigured old man or astonished to find an image of his wife, now a widow.

Why do some pension files have photographic images and others do not?

Evidence! Photographic images are most often found in pension application files in which the person who sought government aid (the claimant) attempted to provide evidence of injury, identity, or relationship. The objective was to prove one’s entitlement to a pension. These files are part of Record Group 15 (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs) and include several pension series with claims filed either by a surviving soldier or his dependent (a widow, parent, sibling, minor child or children). 

A head-to-toe image of a soldier in uniform like that of Private William Carman (shown above) is certainly an exciting find, but no less valuable are medical examination images taken for the specific purpose of documenting war injuries. Researchers can do more than read about a gunshot wound – in these rare cases, one can see it. Hence, so could the pension examiner, and hopefully, the claim was quickly approved! 

Portrait of William Mixon showing his gunshot wound.
Photographic image of Private William Mixon of the 2nd U.S. Infantry from the approved pension file of Matilda Butz Nicholson, widow of both Mixon and Private Jeremiah Nicholson, 66th Ohio Infantry, WC 55265 (NAIDs 116008446 and 201383529). A gunshot passed through Mixon’s left elbow at the Battle of Gaines Mill, Virginia in June 1862, shattering the joint. He submitted this tintype image to the Pension Bureau in 1889 to support his application for an increase in his monthly pension rate. 
Portrait of Landsman Philip Dudley showing his injury.
Photographic image from the approved ‘Death or Disability/Old Wars’ pension file of Landsman Philip Dudley, U.S.S. Lexington, SC 2274 (NAIDs 74624425 and 200157659). Dudley was serving aboard a timberclad gunboat in April 1864 when wounded by enemy musket fire from the shores of the Red River in Louisiana. He submitted this tintype to the Pension Bureau to show that his upper left arm was amputated too near the shoulder joint to allow for the practical use of an artificial limb. 

Photographs of additional spouses, siblings, and even imposters involved in fraudulent schemes have been uncovered – and while these provide a fascinating visual history, their purpose was to document identity and support the case for a pension. 

Portrait of a man with lettering that says "imposter"
Photographic image marked “The Imposter” from the approved pension file of Private David F. Douglass, Company H, 37th Indiana Infantry, SC 912726 (NAIDs 72004541 and 201696123). The ‘real’ Private David Douglass stated that he never saw this man in the “plate picture” who claimed his identity and service to fraudulently secure a pension. 

Often an image is referenced in written affidavits within the file that were taken by the Pension Bureau’s special investigator. Questioning a witness about a person seen in “Exhibit A” was a valuable method of collecting evidence and a means to get to “the truth” when memories were fuzzy or “alias” identities unclear.  

The variety of images found in pension files reflects the fact that these were working files created by the Federal government during a time when standardized vital records did not exist to prove one’s identity or relationship to another person. Adopting an alias in the 19th century was simple and undetectable even by the U.S. military; and one did not always bother to secure an annulment or legal divorce before marrying a second (or third, or fourth!) spouse.  

A small number of pension cases contain an image due to the claimant’s desire to simply reflect an emotional connection or prove one’s social standing, but these are the exceptions. Claimants were not likely to part with a cherished image unless it supported their case. Thus, researchers are extremely fortunate when the application process just happens to reveal a personal treasure more than a century later. 

framed portrait of Mary Smith
Photographic image from the approved pension file of Mary Smith, widow of Private Edward J. Smith, Company K, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, WC 415058 (NAID 201607680).

Does the National Archives have a photographic image of every Civil War soldier in any other record series?

The Union government did employ photographers during the Civil War to document Army life and units, groups of personnel, equipment, the construction of military works such as fortifications and bridges, the aftermath of battles and other activities. In fact, the Civil War was the first major prolonged American conflict to be photographed extensively. However, the U.S. military did not contract with photographers to create personal or individual images except for some high-ranking officers.

The average soldier would have paid to have a “likeness” taken by a private photographer in the town where he enlisted or by one of the many roving photographers who set up portable studios near military camps in the field. Thankfully, many soldiers made the personal choice to spend money on a photograph, but the item was not Federal or military property that would eventually make its way to the National Archives. Only when a claimant for pension intentionally submitted an image to the Pension Bureau did it become a permanent part of the case file as Federal evidence, and thus, is housed permanently in NARA’s holdings. 

How many pension files contain photographic images? 

There are more than two million pension application case files (approved and disapproved) relating to 19th century military service in NARA’s holdings. An inventory of the contents of these files does not exist; therefore, photographic images are rediscovered by staff and researchers as each one is opened for current use. 

Pension files are among the most requested record series at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., so there are plenty of eyes upon these papers. However, the sheer volume of material means that photographic images known to date appear to be relatively “rare” rather than “common.” Greater use of the records over time and accelerated efforts to digitize the holdings may tip the balance slightly further toward “common” as more are rediscovered and documented in the future. Only time will tell, but meanwhile …. 

How can researchers discover Civil War personal photographic images in NARA’s holdings?

Explore NARA’s online catalog! The BIG news is that ALL of the tintypes found to date are now available in our Catalog allowing for easy digital access! Recognizing the great interest and value of these personal images, NARA’s processing, digitization and cataloging teams worked together to make them available digitally, and images will continue to be added as more are identified. 

We invite you to check back often!  You may be surprised by what you find! 
You can see the online digital collection to date by visiting this link:

Tintypes in the National Archives Catalog

To recreate this search in The National Archives Catalog follow these steps:

  1. Enter the keyword tintype in the search box;
  2. Click on the Images tab at the top to locate digitized photographs;
  3. Select Record Group 15 on the left side of the page to refine or narrow the search results to pension files and related Veterans Administration record series.

To search for exact terms of interest, enter the keywords tintype AND:

  • a personal name (soldier, alias, family member, photographer) – such as tintype AND William Carman;
  • a geographic location – such as tintype AND Helena AND Arkansas;
  • a military unit – such as tintype AND “colored troops”
  • a physical attribute – such as tintype AND tax stamp.

How do these personal images get from the “stacks” to the NARA catalog? 

Step one is the identification of appropriate photographic images by format, or more specifically, the materials with which they are made.  Archivists flag all RG 15 files holding photographic images composed of metal or glass to be forwarded to the assigned processing unit. This includes daguerreotypes (exposed on a copper plate), ambrotypes (exposed on a glass plate), and tintypes (exposed on a varnished sheet iron plate).

The tintype format was most popular during the Civil War due to its low cost and durability to survive the mail. If one file contains both paper-based prints and those composed of metal or glass, all photographs are removed from the file for processing to maintain the relationship of the images and associated materials. 

Step two, a NARA photo conservator evaluates each item and performs treatment measures that will stabilize its condition, ensure visibility of all attached handwritten text if possible, and enhance clarity of the image (often by cleaning when it is safe). The conservator also makes recommendations for final storage of the item in NARA’s ‘Vault’ for specially protected holdings and drafts handling guidelines for the next step in the process: digital imaging. 

Step three, an imaging specialist takes a series of digital images of each item using a studio setup that does not harm the original. The specialist  follows the handling guidelines prescribed by the photo conservator to ensure that no damage is done while attempting to capture as much of the original image and associated documents as possible. If a tintype can be safely removed from its unsealed paper mat, for example, images will be taken both with and without the mat to show details toward the edges not otherwise visible. 

Top of the line camera and lighting equipment in NARA’s digital imaging lab allows for some stunning photographs. A soldier’s face that is shrouded by cloudy glass can sometimes make a star appearance in the hands of a talented imaging specialist! 

Step four, publication online! The digital images are uploaded to NARA’s online catalog to provide researchers with access to the best view of these priceless items, while the originals are placed in custom boxes in the Vault for long-term preservation. 

The originals will not be pulled for use in the central research room again to afford them protection from further damage. Just imagine what could happen if a beautifully framed – but fragile – tintype were to inadvertently fall from the file without support? Even oil found on the skin of your fingers permanently damages the surface of these 19th century images, as does abrasion and prolonged exposure to light, so Vault space has been dedicated to protecting them for future generations.

Finally, the Research Services processing unit gets to work so researchers can discover these historical images in two ways. Fully searchable file and item descriptions are written and added to the online catalog, then color paper copies are printed of the photographs and added to the textual file for researchers using the original on-site. 

The processing of a personal photographic image from Record Group 15 is complete with this step – except for its rediscovery by YOU! Will your research be enhanced by a one-of-a-kind photograph preserved at NARA? What personal story will it tell? 

NEXT: Discover more about Private William Carman. Why did William send a tintype to his wife during the war? Follow their story in William’s own words.