To continue my recent exploration of Civil War photographers, today I would like to introduce you to Andrew J. Russell, a New Yorker who took his wartime experience and applied it to yet another monumental event in American history: the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. Born in Nunda, Russell began his career as a painter in New York. However, with the onset of war, Russell entered the army after aiding in the formation of a militia unit in his hometown. In 1863, fate found Russell as he was introduced to photography by an associate of Matthew Brady, Egbert Guy Fowx. Either Fowx was an excellent teacher or Russell a natural-born photographer (or both) because the skills he acquired quickly led to his appointment as the first official photographer of the United States Army. Charged with the documentation of Army construction projects as well as the general assignments of wartime engineers, Russell captured images of railroads, fortifications, buildings, weaponry, and countless other projects that give historians today an exclusive look at an aspect of war that is often neglected: the environment in which soldiers traveled, fought, and lived.[i]
After the war, Russell used the skills that he developed to complete a project in the territory to which the nation then turned its gaze: the West. Two forces began to trudge forward into the unknown wilderness with the conclusion of the war: settlers and technology. For years preceding the great conflict that divided the nation, politicians flirted with the idea of a transcontinental railroad. However, the tension which arose from the predicament surrounding its location ground construction to a halt. The northern politicians vied for the railroad to run through the industrial center of the United States while southern politicians advocated for its placement in a far more agricultural locality: the South. It comes as no surprise that politicians in the nineteenth century would promote their own state’s interests; this habit has yet to be broken even amidst the debate surrounding pork barrel spending today. However, construction was eventually approved which would connect the proposed Union Pacific Railroad with the Central Pacific, linking the East and the West as they never had been before. Russell took part in this vast accomplishment, capturing the early stages of the Union Pacific as well as the famous meeting at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869.[ii]
Andrew J. Russell is a significant figure in the multifaceted narrative that is the Civil War. He reminds us of both the integral role that photographers played and the necessity to expand our gaze to include the aspects of war that go beyond victors, losers, and casualty rates. The railroads that transported supplies and solders, the fortifications behind which troops gathered, and the other projects of army engineers including bridges and depots must be considered when measuring the magnitude of effort that both Union and Confederate forces committed. Through the lens of Russell’s camera, historians can catch a glimpse of the advancement of technology and, more importantly, how it was used to further goals on a national scale. If you are interested in more of Russell’s photographs from the Civil War, please visit the collection site from the Library of Congress HERE. You can also view Russell’s images concerning the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad HERE in the Western American Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
[i] “A. J. Russell Photographs of the Construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.” Western Americana Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Web. <http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/russell.html>.
[ii] “Andrew J. Russell Collection.” Oakland Museum of California. 1999. Web. 21 May 2012. < http://museumca.org/global/history/collections_russell.html>.