Civil War In Motion
In May and June 1864, during Union Gen. U.S. Grant’s bloody Overland Campaign in Virginia, photographer Egbert Guy Fowx took a remarkable series of glass plate negatives with four images on each plate. But instead of using a four-lens device typical of the era, Fowx used a rotating lens device, exposing each image seconds apart to create four sequential photos of the same scene.
It is unknown why Fowx did this, but his plates give us the ability to create actual Civil War photographs with motion. Below are eight of the 25 sequential photographs by Fowx that exist in the Brady Collection at the National Archives in the 111-B record group. The animations were created by CCWP member Steve Woolf after he meticulously restored each image.
Fowx took these photos at Belle Plain, White House Landing, City Point and other locations, traveling south as he paralleled Grant’s movements, never more than 20 miles from the front lines. In some of the most remarkable scenes, steamers come and go at the lower wharf at Belle Plain Landing, a thick column of soldiers march off the wharf at Belle Plain, Confederate prisoners banter at the Belle Plain prison camp and hundreds of freed slaves, or “contraband,” trudge across a wharf and onto a transfer barge at Port Royal, Va.
National Park Service historian Noel Harrison discovered the sequential nature and animation potential of these four-image plates around 2003, soon after the Archives made digital reproductions from its “Brady Collection” of some 6,000 Civil War photographs available online.
Belle Plain, Va. Upper Wharf, May 1864 (NARA 111-B-1892; ID# 526093): Man on ground playing with horse near center, barge moving at top, three wagons moving onto wharf for supplies while one is moving off, wagons assembling at right.
Belle Plain, Va. Lower Wharf, May 1864 (NARA 111-B-1893; ID# 526094): Steamer traffic, skiff maneuvering at wharf, wagon driving off wharf, people milling about near Sanitary Commission tents.
Belle Plain, Va., May 1864 (NARA 111-B-5219; ID# 529323): Rebel prisoners posing for photographer Egbert Guy Fowx in the “Punch Bowl.”
Weyanoke Point, Va. June 1864 (NARA 111-B-5217; ID# 529321): Cavalry at bridge abutment, herd of horses crossing Grant’s impressive 2,170 foot long pontoon bridge.
Port Royal, Va., Evacuation of May 1864 (NARA 111-B-5202; ID# 529307): 1st Corps wagon in foreground, contraband moving across bridge onto transfer barge, steamer docking at right.
White House Landing, Va., June 1864 (NARA 111-B-5196; ID# 529301): Railroad bridge repairs, distant party lifting beam in unison, photographer’s dark tent in foreground, bathers in Pamunkey River.
City Point, Va. Upper Wharf, June 1864 (NARA 111-B-5043; ID# 529153): Vessels and barges at anchor bobbing about, two men harvesting oysters in the shallows.
Belle Plain, Va., Lower Wharf. May 1864 (NARA 111-B-5215; ID# 529319): Steamer moving left-to-right at top, large group of soldiers (likely Union) on off-ramp.
A detail from a Fowx photo at the railroad bridge at White House Landing shows Fowx’s square, black darkroom tent with his sequential lens device sitting on top. Also shown is a reproduction of the original glass-plate negative of 111-B-1893 showing the lower wharf at Belle Plain. To see the plates, type in the ID# at https://catalog.archives.gov