Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
George Houghton had planned to be a carpenter, but by a stroke of luck — our luck, that is — he switched professions. For reasons that are unclear today, he became a photographer and started documenting Vermonters’ participation in the Civil War.
Without Houghton’s contribution, our view of Vermont soldiers during the war would have been formed virtually entirely by the paper record – the diaries, letters, official correspondence and the like – that they left behind. Thanks to Houghton, however, we can catch actual glimpses of the war and the Vermont soldiers who helped fight it.
In 1857, Houghton, a native of Putney, moved to Kilbourn City, Wisconsin. Moving west offered opportunities for ambitious men like Houghton, who was 33 at the time. Upon arriving, he ordered a planing machine with the idea of launching a lumber finishing business for the growing community. But while awaiting delivery of the planer, he traveled with a photographer to a nearby community.
Something about that short trek seems to have fired Houghton’s imagination. He wasn’t new to photography. Before leaving Vermont, Houghton had been trained in the art of making daguerreotypes, an early form of photography using silver-coated plates. So as he watched the photographer work, Houghton would have understood what the man was doing as he went about the chemical process of preparing the plates to be exposed to light.
Houghton started a photography business in his Wisconsin town, but just two months later packed his things and returned to Vermont. The reason for this abrupt decision is unknown. One theory is that he had second thoughts about being so far from his aging parents.
Upon returning to Vermont, Houghton settled in Brattleboro and opened a studio. He may have been content to remain a small-town photograph, but three years later the Civil War erupted and Houghton was eager to join the fighting. The U.S. military was less eager about his serving, however. It rejected him because of his poor health.
(Whatever his health issues, being a photographer couldn’t have helped. At the time, photographers came into contact with harsh chemicals to prepare their plates. After taking a picture, photographers had to expose it to mercury vapor. Houghton’s chosen profession may have been a contributing factor in his death at the age of 42.)
The Army’s refusal couldn’t keep him from venturing south during the war. As he wrote his brother-in-law, “I have for a long time had a great desire to see our field of Battle here in Virginnia (sic). I thought I would think of some thing to do to pay me for coming. Well I am here & am going to make a trial.”
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Houghton traveled to Langley, Virginia, and camped beside the tents of the Vermont Brigade. Working with an assistant, he began to offer his services to individual soldiers and groups of soldiers, who wanted images of themselves to send home to loved ones. “(T)he artists are doing a fine business,” one soldier wrote in his diary, “housing their apparatus in a large tent, and living and sleeping in the same, quite in primitive style.”
For the next year and half, Houghton made regular forays into the South to capture the likenesses of Vermont soldiers. His photographs included many portraits of one or two soldiers, or sometimes a half dozen, but he also took shots featuring groups of 50 or even 100 men.
Some of his photographs show scenes from the war: a view of the giant tent city that was a Civil War encampment; sets of large chimneys that marked where intact buildings had stood before fighting ravaged them; a busy harbor packed with ships. Houghton sought to capture images that soldiers would want to send home to share some of the scenes they were witnessing.
Many of Houghton’s panoramic views appear eerily devoid of people, until you realize that photographic plates at the time were relatively insensitive to light and thus required exposures lasting several minutes. Anything that moved even a little became a blur. Anything that moved a lot became invisible. Many soldiers and workers were probably present in those grand panoramas; they just didn’t have time to stand around and pose.
One of Houghton’s most poignant images shows two men standing beside a cluster of crudely marked graves. One of the men seems to be leaning on a shovel.
This is about as close as Houghton gets to what we associate with wartime photojournalism. He seems to have taken no images of actual fighting. The heavy photographic equipment and slow shutter speeds of the day would have made that next to impossible. The haunting images of battlefield dead by Mathew Brady and his team of photographers were taken only after the shooting had stopped. Perhaps Houghton didn’t feel it appropriate to render such images, or he thought his clientele wouldn’t want to buy them anyway.
The Civil War ended for George Houghton in May 1863, when he returned from his last foray into the South (though he did photograph a large group of veterans that gathered in Brattleboro when their enlistments expired).
Houghton realized the historical significance of his photographs even before the war was over. He donated a collection of his works to the Vermont Historical Society in 1864. The gift might have received better newspaper coverage if not for events happening elsewhere. News of Houghton’s donation was crowded out by reports that Vermont troops had been engaged in a major victory at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia and, closer to home, that a band of Confederates had made a daring and wholly unexpected raid on banks in St. Albans.
Only now, a century and a half later, is George Houghton getting his due.
Note: The Vermont Historical Society has published a book of George Houghton’s Civil War photographs in “’A Very Fine Appearance’: The Vermont Civil War Photographs of George Houghton.” The book includes a biographical sketch of Houghton by historian Don Wickman. It can be ordered here.