© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Civil War Leaders — In An 1880s Insurance Ad?

Union commanders in composite photo, 1883-84.
Library of Congress
Union commanders in composite photo, 1883-84.

Take a look at this photo. It's a handsome group portrait of, according to the Library of Congress, President Abraham Lincoln, flanked by Adm. David G. Farragut and Gens. William T. Sherman, George Henry Thomas, George Gordon Meade, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Hooker, Philip Henry Sheridan and Winfield Scott Hancock. The men look healthy, distinguished, prosperous.

There are a couple of hitches, however.

First of all, the photo is dated 1884 by the library. Lincoln had been dead for 19 years, and several of the others were gone as well. So it's a made-up montage, a concocted composite.

Second, it was an advertisement. On the card are the words: "With compliments" signed by Travelers Life and Accident Insurance Co., according to the library's notes. The insurance company, based in Hartford, Conn., produced a similar photo card of Confederate generals, Civil War Talk points out. Both pictures were conjured up in the studio of photographer William Notman.

With Compliments

We contacted Travelers to ask about the ads. Mary Beth Davidson, director of records and information management, told us that the two doctored photographs — one of Northern commanders and one of Southern commanders — were created circa 1883 "for advertising purposes and given to our agents for display or distribution to customers."

The photo-artist "used individual photographs of the Confederate commanders and created a composite picture of them together," she says. "The figures were cut from the print and pasted on a painted background. This process would be similar to using software like Photoshop in today's terms to place images together in one photo."

The idea of using the pictures as advertising came from Maj. Edward Preston, the Travelers superintendent of agencies, Davidson says. "The first copy of the 'Confederate Commanders' was delivered to Jefferson Davis by the Travelers representative in Montgomery, Ala. Copies also were sent to all the living generals in both pictures."

She adds that the success of the ad campaign prompted more composites, including "Famous American Authors," "Eminent Women" and "Famous Editors."

'Trompe L'oeil'

The "Union Commanders" photo came to our attention after we posted a story recently about another montage, Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, in the Library of Congress archives.

We heard from Beverly W. Brannan, curator of photography at the library's Prints and Photographs Division. As for Civil War photographers, she says, "they may not have considered staging an image as 'trick' photography. They were not photojournalists or documentarians in the sense we now consider those terms. They may have seen themselves as artists, seeking to convey a message or looking to provide the 'best' image."

The library receives so many questions about the Grant photo, Brannan says, staffers have created a stock answer.

But what about other montages that might fool some folks into thinking they were actual, real-time, on-the-spot shots?

She mentioned a few composites in the library's vaults — including the "Union Commanders" advertisement.

One can't help but wonder about the thinking behind such ads. What did Civil War leaders have to do with buying or selling insurance? Was it assurance by association, like the Eli Manning Citizen Watch TV spot that shows the New York Giants quarterback NOT wearing a timepiece? Was it a warning that the world can be a warlike place? Or was it simply a reminder that things are not always as they appear to be?

Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.