Beaufort captured by a Yankee with a camera

mlutz@historicbeaufort.orgSeptember 16, 2013 

In the early 1860s, at the northwest corner of Craven and Scott streets, stood a two-story structure that housed a business that even then distinguished Beaufort from most small towns of its size: a photography studio.

From that studio was produced a photographic memory of Beaufort during the Civil War that also sets it apart from most small towns. Photography was in its infancy, yet because of the war, Beaufort not only was captured by Union forces, but it also was captured on film. What a gift to the ages.

Photographer Samuel A. Cooley was one of several businessmen who operated out of the house. There was also a watch repair shop and a grocer. But Cooley had come to Beaufort following the federal troops to provide war shots to send North.

Civil War photography was the work of some 300 men, but the number of those remembered today is small. Mathew Brady was the best known, along with Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, Timothy O'Sullivan and James Gibson, all of whom followed the Union army. George Cook photographed much of the early war for the South, but most of the images were destroyed during an 1864 fire. From his home in Charleston, he recorded the effect of the war on the city and later moved to Richmond, VA. and amassed the most complete collection of photographs of that devastated city. Other than Cook, the South had few photographers since supplies became difficult and later impossible to obtain.

Some photographers had contracts from the army to produce records of the terrain and battle conditions. Others worked for news organizations of the day, which transferred their images to wood cuts in order to be printed. Some worked under contract for studios in Washington, D.C., and New York.

Beaufort had Cooley capturing a town under occupation. Today his images provide an immeasurable resource for Beaufort's historians and preservationists. While Cooley didn't come here to photograph buildings, that's what appears in the background of his photos of soldiers and citizens, thus the City of Beaufort's Historic District Review Board and Historic Beaufort Foundation regularly refer to Cooley's photos to establish baselines for preservation of antebellum structures.

To see many of Cooley's Beaufort images, Google "American Memory" or go to www.memory.loc.gov at the Library of Congress. However, a current focus on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War by the Beaufort County library system and local history-oriented organizations provides face-to-face experiences of Cooley's photos through October.

At the Verdier House alone, Cooley's photos are used in a free permanent exhibit of Bay Street during the war, and a new diorama based on Cooley's photos illustrates Bay Street in 1863 in three-dimensional models by Dennis Cannady. A four-month exhibit about the first African-American troops mustered in Beaufort County uses Cooley photos, among other artifacts, at the Beaufort History Museum.

Pick up a copy of "One County Reads the Civil War" at the library, the Verdier House, the Beaufort History Museum and other locations for a listing of all the exhibits and events related to the war during September and October. Or go to www.beaufortcountylibrary.org/civilwar to download the schedule. Vouchers are also available to receive discounted admission to specified museums.

Maxine Lutz is the executive director of Historic Beaufort Foundation.

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