Civil War-Era Personal Tintypes Exposed: Why Private William Carman Sent a Tintype to His Wife

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

This is the second 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 body portrait of soldier.
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).

Looking into the eyes of a long-ago soldier can certainly bring historical events just a little bit closer to home. Digging into the story of why a photograph is part of a government file can help us gain a better understanding of what it was like to live through those times – making 19th century history more accessible, transparent and personal.

William and Emeline Carman’s story was very personal, but Emeline had no choice but to tell all to the Pension Bureau’s Special Examiner. Although you may have anticipated this post was going to focus on William’s story, it is actually more her story. Through it all, it was likely his face in this tintype that she gazed upon for many hours with affection, then grief, and eventually despair.

William F. Carman called his new bride “Emma” when they were married in Baltimore, Maryland in May 1848. Their daughter, Josephine, arrived soon after. By the time the 1860 Federal census was taken, the family had moved to the 3rd Ward of Philadelphia. William worked as a shirt cutter before enlisting on April 2, 1862 to serve a three-year term in the Union army. This left Emma alone to raise their teenage daughter and eventually find a means of support as the Army was slow to pay the soldiers. 

William was devoted to Emma. Emma’s pension file contains thirty-two handwritten letters from William spanning eleven months, the earliest one dated July 1, 1862. The details revealed in these letters not only document the last chapter in their love affair but provide context for the importance of his tintype in their story.

Missing “My Dear and Affectionate Wife” 

William’s letters were usually sent weekly, sometimes more often. He addressed Emma as “My Dear and Affectionate Wife” and routinely started by acknowledging that he had just received her latest letter.

It appears they both eagerly anticipated the mail as William repeatedly asked Emma to send him postage stamps, envelopes and paper (and the occasional plug of tobacco). He asked her to keep writing, assuring her that the mail will catch up to him even if they are ‘on the march.’ After describing the battle at Malvern Hill, William declared that only death would keep him from writing to her:

… it makes no difference where I go, I will write to you if I live and when you don’t hear from me you may just assume that something is the matter.” 

As the summer months gave way to autumn, William grew weary of soldiering. When winter arrived, William declared:

“I would give most anything to be home for this kind of soldiering is enough to kill the devil. We have nothing comfortable what (so) ever, it is very cold, snow on the ground and nothing but a blanket to cover with, hardly any tents, my fingers are very cold writing this, I hardly know what to say.”

Neither the cold nor anything else seemed to keep William from writing to Emma whenever he found the time and postage stamps. Her lonesome heart was surely broken to read William’s Christmas Day letter written just two weeks after the hard-fought battle of Fredericksburg:

“This is Christmas Day and all we have for breakfast is one cup of coffee and hard crackers. It is a very poor Christmas for the soldier. They can get nothing for love nor money for there is no place to buy anything.” 

William’s thoughts always circled back to those he loved, missed and worried about back home. As much as he enjoyed smoking a rare plug of tobacco, it seemed more about bringing a bit of home to the field:  

“PS: If Captain Murphey ain’t out (of Philadelphia) in 10 (days’) time, you will please send the pipe to me by mail and fill it full of tobacco so I will have a nice smoke when I get it and be thinking of home at the same time and the one that is so dear to me.” 

handwritten letter
Postscript to a letter written by William Carman to his wife Emeline from camp near Falmouth, Virginia on January 16, 1863 (NAID 99523538, image 77).

Even as William slept, he dreamed of home and the simple affection of his beloved dog, Faney, as noted in his letter written March 1, 1863: 

“I dreamed the other night that Faney came running into the tent to me and I couldn’t get her out.”   

William never failed to let Emma know how often he thought of her and Josephine, signing that letter:

“I send my love and think of you all every day and night. Remain your affectionate husband, William Carman.”

“I can only send my love …”

Another major recurring theme in William’s letters was money. William frequently bemoaned that the soldiers were paid late, but he hoped it would be soon so he could send money home for Emma, for Josephine’s gift, and even for Faney, “I want you to buy Faney as much meat as she can eat,” he pleaded.  William anticipated his pay throughout the summer, but the paymaster did not come. When he was finally paid in October, his total amount was reduced to cover the cost of clothing items he had drawn. He also felt obligated to send money to family in Baltimore for his mother’s funeral expenses. Not much of his scant pay was left for either him or those at home.  

Into the New Year of 1863, he tried to encourage Emma but was clearly frustrated:  

“Dear Emma, I know it is very hard to get money and it seems harder to me that they don’t pay the soldiers so they can send money home to their wives. It is now nearly 5 months since they paid us, and they had promised to pay us every two months… For my part I think they treat the soldiers very bad for they only pay the men when they see fit.”

And by April 1863:

… they will owe me 8 months’ pay this month and I think it very hard that we don’t get paid … It vexes me every day to think that they don’t pay me. I can only send my love to you and Josephine.”

The paymaster at last returned by the time William wrote again on April 27, 1863, from camp near Falmouth, Virginia, a small town on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg:

“My Dear Wife, your kind letter I received and (I) was glad to hear you got the money. They only paid me one half of what was coming to me. If they had paid me all I could have sent you $75. They say they will settle up with me the first of January, but if I live, I will be home before that. I didn’t keep money for myself for I knew that you must stand in need of all I sent for you were sick …” 

“No Place for Ladies”

Yet money was only part of William’s personal worries as his letters also reflect Emma’s increasing restlessness with their separation and her desire to travel to see him. William tried several times to explain how difficult it was for civilians to travel south to military camps, even to Camp Hooker near Alexandria, Virginia: 

“No person can go anywhere about the South without a pass from the government,” he wrote on September 23, 1862, “and you can’t do nothing without money.”

It surely did not calm Emma’s nerves to learn that William had gone to Washington, D.C. on a short furlough. She apparently saw this as a missed opportunity for them to reunite. Just five days later, he wrote again: 

“You say that you wished I had wrote to you to come to Washington but that would have been expensive. All strangers have to have a pass from the government.” 

Likely feeling guilty, William quickly wrote again the next day: 

“When I was in Washington, I didn’t enjoy myself one bit. I had all I wanted to eat and drink but that didn’t satisfy me for I wanted to get home to see you and Josephine.” 

It appears that Emma persisted with her travel plan, pressing William to write even more to counter the notion. On October 9, 1862, William insisted: 

“You needn’t think of coming out here for we have no accommodation for ladies, besides we are a good ways from Alexandria and no one is allowed to go to town without a pass. We are under marching orders and don’t know how long we will be here.”

William’s regiment soon began their march, and by the time he arrived at Camp Van Lear, Virginia, William’s language became very explicit on the topic in his letter of October 29, 1862:  

“You say that you would like to come down here but you take a fools advice and stay home for this is no place for ladies for they ain’t nothing but men and boys down here and some of them ain’t got no manners about them whatever … And there ain’t no accommodation whatever for there ain’t no place that you could stay a night and it is very disagreeable weather just about this time of the year for the roads are knee deep with mud and we have had a very rainy week of it.”

close up on face of William Carmen

“You needn’t to take this likeness around for show nor laugh at it for the man that took it did the best he could out here.”

However, William apparently had a plan to soften Emma’s reaction to his staunch argument, and it is this plan that brings all of us here to learn their story. If he couldn’t be there with her in the flesh, he decided that it would be worth spending his remaining coins to purchase a tintype image of himself to keep her company. He continued writing: 

“Dear Emma, I can only send you my likeness but if there (is) any way of getting a furlough or getting to Philadelphia this winter I will try to come. You needn’t to take this likeness around for show nor laugh at it for the man that took it (did) the best he could out here.” 

Page from a letter written by William Carman to his wife, Emeline, on October 29, 1862 that included his tintype “likeness” (NAID 99523538, image 49).

Surely William hoped the photograph would calm Emma and encourage her to stay safe at home despite his being very self-conscious about it. Indeed, William was very anxious to know how Emma liked his photograph. In his next letter dated November 5, 1862, his very first sentence is “I received no letter and I sent you my likeness.” He added with great urgency “The whole army (is) going to Richmond and we expect a great battle in a few days.” He was still concerned when he impatiently wrote his next letter just three days later: 

“Dear Emma, what is the matter that you don’t write? I would like to hear from you. We expect to have a battle soon, the whole army is moving to Richmond. … Let me know how you like the likeness.” 

It appears that Emma was also writing a letter on November 8 which William received November 15. He answered her that very day as the regiment had just camped after weeks on a grueling march. William was relieved to learn that Emma was well and had just been busy moving house. He tells her they expect to have “one of the great battles that ever was,” and true to his nature, adds “don’t neglect Faney if you have moved.” He signs off, “No more at present but remain your husband til death.” Unfortunately, there is nothing more in William’s existing letters to tell us about Emma’s reaction to the tintype. But she must have been touched by the gesture and desired to do the same. One can imagine that Emma endeavored to save a bit of money each week until she was able to have her likeness taken that Spring 1863. From his camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia on April 17, William wrote: 

“I received your letter with the likeness last evening as we were getting paid and was glad to hear you are well as I am able to send you some money.”

April 17 must have been a happy day for William, at least as good as it gets for a soldier. He received his pay and mail containing an image of his beloved wife – he could see the face he missed so terribly for nearly a year. Now William and Emma could “see” each other from a distance. We could never measure the emotional value of this affordable photographic process called the tintype for the common soldier and his loved ones.   

“I remain your affectionate husband until death”

But there were no more happy days ahead. William wrote to Emma early in the morning on April 27 to tell her how glad he was to know that the money reached her safely. About the time William put down his pencil and paper and dashed off to picket duty at 7 am, Union General Joseph Hooker was beginning to lead the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River and the Chancellorsville campaign was underway. William would soon find himself in the fiercest battle of the campaign on May 3 – the day that would become the second bloodiest day of the Civil War. Emma likely feared the worst when so much time had passed without receiving a letter. 

From the 3rd Army Corps Hospital at Potomac Creek, William wrote to Emma on May 16, 1863, to finally break the news:

“Dear Wife,

I received your letter of the 30th yesterday. I was wounded in the Battle of Chancellorsville on the 3rd of the month by a gunshot in the left hip besides three slight wounds on the same leg. I am in no danger and not much pain. I expect this hospital will be broken up and we will be sent to our respective states in a short time.” 

William Carman wrote to his wife Emma on May 16, 1863 to break the news that he was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville, (NAID 99523538, image 99).

William makes no mention in this letter that he had been taken prisoner during the battle and subsequently paroled on May 15 to the regimental corps hospital. This information from his Compiled Military Service Record at NARA explains his two-week absence from letter writing and affirms how important it was for him to immediately write to Emma as soon as he was back behind Union lines.   

Even though William tried to reassure her that his injuries were not serious, Emma was certainly suspicious of his true condition when she received the next letter another two weeks later. Dated May 29, the letter appears to be written by someone else’s hand, an indication that perhaps William was weakening. However, the same themes were front and center, hoping to be paid and going home: 

“My darling and affectionate wife, I received your letter this day by my friend Thomas K. Allen … I am in good spirits myself – my wound is getting better. They say the regiment will be going home to recruit again and take the sick to Philadelphia where they will be treated better. I expect to be paid 2 months’ pay on Monday, I will send you some money home then. 

I have no more to say at present but hope to be home soon. Mr. Allen is well and all the boys … only the two that was killed … God be with them. From your affectionate husband until death, William Carman …  Kiss this in memory of me.” 

The last letter from William in the pension file also appears to be inscribed by someone else and suggests that he had received a letter from Emma while at the hospital:
“My dear wife,

… I am not out of bed yet … I expect to get home in a few days … I have not received the handkerchief and do not know what is the reason. Mr. Thomas K. Allen is here doing duty at the Provost Marshal’s … he is great comfort to me. He comes twice a day to see me, tell his wife that he is here and she should direct her letter the same as mine. I have no more to say to you at present … hoping to be able to see you before long. I remain your affectionate husband until death.” 

This letter is dated June 6 and appears to be the last one Emma received from William. His death came three days later on June 9. 

Emma’s pension file does not provide information on how – or even if – she and Josephine were notified of William’s death, but it does document Emma’s struggles to survive without him. 

As her mental state spiraled downward, we see her lose grip of William’s letters and his “likeness” in an effort to establish herself as his “legal widow” within the strict bureaucratic government system brokered by the Pension Bureau, only to be overturned in the end by a Special Agent with his ear to a churning neighborhood rumor mill. 

* Spelling corrected in letter excerpts for readability. 

NEXT: We’ll uncover Emma Carman’s story after William’s death. Why did William’s tintype and a bundle of letters become evidence in her twenty-year battle for “legal widowhood?”