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Mathew Brady and Civil War-era photographs

Above: A carte de visite of the Hon. Alexander Hamilton Bailey, the gr-gr-great grandfather of Brenton Simons, as photographed by Mathew Brady.

For many years, I have been interested in Mathew Brady (1822-1896), the famed photographic chronicler of the Civil War. Among his famous subjects were eighteen American presidents - ranging from Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams to William McKinley - and numerous others, including Jefferson Davis, Edgar Allan Poe, and Daniel Webster. After his business ultimately collapsed, Brady died penniless in the charity ward of a New York hospital, a very sad ending to an American who recorded our 19th c. history in such an important way. Long after I first knew of Brady, did I discover that my gr-gr-great grandfather, Alexander Hamilton Bailey (1817-1874), a New York politician and judge, was photographed twice by the celebrated photographer.

Alexander Hamilton Bailey served in the New York Senate during the Civil War and in 1867 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican. As a politician actively involved in Civil War affairs, he was a perfect subject for a Brady portrait, and although we have family photographs of Bailey, these particular photographs did not descend in our family. I was fortunate enough to find the Brady photograph above from a collector and add it to our family collections.

In the other photograph of Bailey, owned by the National Archives and Records Administration, Brady captured my ancestor - looking forlorn and rather crumpled - before a plain backdrop. This Brady photograph (pictured above), is a better portrait of Bailey, possibly taken while he was a New York State Senator. Here - in a neat suit, legs crossed, and seated in an ornately carved Victorian chair - he faces the camera with a relatively somber, but less morose, expression. The fate of our nation rested heavily upon the shoulders of the men Brady photographed, among countless others who contributed to the history of the period in a myriad of untold ways.

I hope this example encourages other family historians to seek portraits or photographs of ancestors that may previously have escaped their attention!

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