Conservation of a Damaged Civil War Photograph

by Carolyn Ravenscroft

Rare and recently conserved photograph of the officers of the 7th Massachusetts Infantry

Occasionally I come across an item at the Drew Archival Library that needs the extra care only a professional conservator can provide. One such item was the Civil War photograph of the officers of the 7th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

When the photograph was donated to the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society the board used to mount the albumen print had discolored with age and the image had actually adhered to the glass with which it was framed. Some aspects of the photograph were difficult to see either due to over exposure, fading or, just plain old dirt and grime. We decided the best thing to do for such a remarkable image was to have it conserved at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, MA. Luckily for us, the cost of conservation was covered through the generous “adoption” by Rick and Nancy Heath.

Once the photograph was at NEDCC, experienced and highly qualified conservators removed from the photograph from it’s frame and began the intricate task of cleaning the image. After the surface dirt had been removed, pieces of the photograph and emulsion that had remained adhered to the glass of the frame were re-attached using a wheat-starch paste. Small losses to the image were retouched using watercolors. Because the photograph was so fragile, the conservators chose not to remove it from the stained, acidic board on which it had been mounted 150 years ago. To support and protect the image a sink-mat was made with 100% rag paper and a sheet of mylar was placed over the photograph.

While the photograph is in no way pristine, its conservation will ensure the image is viewable for generations to come.

History of the 7th Massachusetts

It was especially gratifying to conserve the photograph this year, the 150th anniversary of the formation of the 7th Massachusetts. The unit was comprised of men and boys who mostly hailed from Bristol County in the southeastern part of the state. The 7th Massachusetts left Camp Old Colony in Taunton, MA on July 11, 1861 and headed for Washington DC. It remained in DC for almost a year, helping to fortify the Capital with the construction of Fort Stevens.  In March of 1862 the men of the 7th joined the Army of the Potomac under General  McClellan.  The 7th was later sent to Northern Virginia where it participated in the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Wilderness, among others.  The regiment was mustered out of service on June 27, 1864.

It is difficult to precisely date the photograph as the 7th Massachusetts had a series of commanding officers between 1861 – 1862 and none seem to match perfectly with the gentleman seated at the center of the image.  The location is also somewhat of a mystery.  If the photograph was taken in 1862 it is quite possibly a building located at Fortress Monroe.  If anyone has a better guess or can identify the subjects of the photograph please contact me at the Drew Archival Library.  I would love to be able to better date the image and/or identify the officers and the young boy in the striped socks!