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The Photographer of the Confederacy - May 1999 Civil War Times Feature

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1999 
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The Photographer of the Confederacy
The Photographer of the Confederacy

BY CONLEY L. EDWARDS III

In an attempt to explain why he undertook the task of battlefield photography during the Civil War, Mathew Brady said, "I felt I had to go, a spirit in my feet said go, and I went." The modern student of the Civil War indeed owes a great debt of gratitude to the spirit that moved Brady to overcome the complexities of his equipment, the necessity for a portable darkroom, and the great expense involved in photographically recording the first modern war.

The sheer volume of Brady's work, in addition to the excellence of his photographs, has made his work overshadow that of some of his contemporaries, especially his Southern counterparts. Only recently has attention been given to Southern photographers such as S. R. Seibert of Charleston, Edwards of New Orleans, Vannerson and Miley and camera-spy S. B. Lytle of Baton Rouge. Almost forgotten is the fact that in 1851, when Brady left the United States to travel in Europe, he turned over management of his New York gallery to a Southern photographer, George S. Cook of Charleston, South Carolina. Once the Civil War started, Cook became "the photographer of the Confederacy," producing photographs that rivaled Brady's in their excellence.

An orphaned George Smith Cook, born in Stratford, Connecticut in 1819, had gone south at the age of 14. Travelling down the Mississippi, he eventually settled in New Orleans where he was introduced to the newly developed process of daguerreotype photography and quickly established a prosperous business. Cook also attempted to establish an art gallery in New Orleans to display the works of American and European painters, but his plans for the gallery never materialized; by 1845 he was travelling through the South establishing daguerreotype galleries and spreading photography inland.

By 1849 Cook had settled in the port city of Charleston and established himself as a master of his photographic craft. Two years later, when Brady asked him to manage his New York gallery, Cook took the opportunity and subsequently opened a gallery of his own in New York. When Brady returned in the spring of 1852, Cook closed his New York gallery and returned to Charleston, but he later opened galleries in Chicago (1857) and Philadelphia (1858). As the possibility of civil war approached, Cook relinquished his northern enterprises and concentrated on events in Charleston.

The city was a center of secessionist activity and national attention was focused upon it and the small garrison manning the defenses in Charleston Harbor. Cook was kept busy taking photographs in ambrotype and producing cartes-de-viste, or card photographs, of military men anxious for mementos to send their families. As tensions increased, Cook was urged by photographic supplier Thomas Faris to obtain pictures of the principals involved. Cook responded in February 1861 by going to Fort Sumter and taking photographs of Major Robert Anderson and his staff. Cook sold the negatives to Faris and E. Anthony in New York for twenty-five dollars. Anthony shortly announced, "MAJOR ANDERSON TAKEN!' and offered Cook's photograph for sale in carte-de-viste form for twenty-five cents. The Charleston photographer himself sold twelve copies of the Anderson photograph the following month and sent copies as far away as Kentucky, Anderson's native state.

Meanwhile, tension in Charleston grew as Major Anderson strengthened the defenses at Sumter and the military authorities of South Carolina took possession of Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie and made demands for Anderson to evacuate Sumter. Finally, on April 12, 1861 George Cook wrote in his business diary, "Shut up. War, war, war," and in the margin noted, "Firing comm'd at Forts 20 to 5 oclock, at Fort Sumter 7 am." On the following day the photographer wrote, "War. Still firing. Ships also. Fort Surrendered."

With the beginning of the war Cook found himself extremely busy. In the month after the surrender of Sumter, he took over forty photographs of military men in his studio on King Street. Later he was kept busy taking pictures of military installations in the Charleston area and preparing photographic copies of maps and drawings for General Beauregard, the Southern commandant. By 1863 Cook had developed a prosperous business supplying photographic material to other photographers in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Like many other Southern photographers, Cook often surreptitiously secured the necessary supplies from New York and Philadelphia, sometimes marked as "orders to trade" with iodides and bromides going under the guise of quinine and with orders signed by President Lincoln. Cook supplemented this source of supplies by purchasing interests in coastal blockade runners which, when successful, delivered quantities of much desired staples.

But the blockade and inflation had their effect. During the early stages of the war Cook produced a full plate, or 4/4 photograph, for ten dollars. By 1864 the shortage of supplies forced him to charge twelve dollars and fifty cents for a one-quarter plate photograph. By demanding payment for his work in gold, and by investing in real estate, Cook was able to survive the financial storm caused by the war.

The photograph of Major Anderson and his staff would have assured George Cook mention in any photographic history of the Civil War even had he not continued to record events outside his King Street studio. Fortunately, the adventuresome Cook continued to record events at Fort Sumter until the end of Confederate occupation in February 1865. Cook was a sensitive photographer during this period, as is evidenced by a photograph of Confederate Zouaves guarding Federal prisoners at Castle Pinckney. There is a look of defeat on the faces of these Union prisoners of war–men captured during the First Battle of Bull Run and now far away from their homes in New York.

During the Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter in August and September 1863, Cook visited the fort often and produced two truly outstanding photographs, in addition to others showing the devastation caused by the Federal batteries. On September 8 Cook had positioned himself on the highest point on Sumter to photograph the monitors Weehawken, Montauk, and Passaic as they fired on the Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie. The photographer's presence on such a prominent position attracted the attention of the Union monitors, and Cook soon found himself under fire. One exploding shell knocked his plate-holders off the parapet. But Cook had secured his photograph and it was an amazing one, the first photograph of ironclads in action.

Cook also produced another unusual photograph on this trip to Sumter. Photographs of bursting shells were regarded as rarities and were seldom obtained by Civil War photographers. Cook managed to capture such an instance while photographing the interior of Fort Sumter in a picture that also reveals the destruction caused by the Federal bombardment. The view is from a point in the parade looking northward. On the left one sees the destruction of the upper casement from the fire coming over the eastern wall of the fort. The western barracks are nearly leveled to the first story. The parapet and terreplein are badly damaged. Moving to the right, there is more evidence of the destructive power of the Parrott rifles used from Morris Island. Centrally in the parade is the exploding shell, which has just fallen. To the right of the shell are some uninjured casements. The Stars and Bars is seen still flying on the ramparts. On the extreme right of the photograph are the eastern barracks with their third story and interior destroyed. Cook was probably in the process of exposing his plates when the shell burst, accounting for the rather poor quality of the resulting picture.

Other photographs by Cook show the destruction that resulted in the first breach in the walls of the fort by the fire from Morris Island. It was through this breach that Federal forces unsuccessfully attempted to take the fort. Another view of the parade, apparently taken after the photograph of the exploding shell, shows two Confederate soldiers atop one of the fort's bake ovens. The flag is no longer flying; the upper casement has been destroyed and the guns swept away.

With the end of the Civil War, Cook re-established his professional connections with the North, trading once again with his New York suppliers. In 1874 Cook bought out the photographic gallery of David and Daniel Bendann in New York, but this venture soon failed. By 1880 Cook had decided to move his principal operation to Richmond, Virginia, where he bought out the photographic studio of D. H. Anderson. Cook's eldest son remained in Charleston and managed the gallery there for ten years before selling it and moving to join his father in Richmond. George S. Cook continued as a studio portraitist until his death in 1902.

The Cook Studio continued to operate into the 1950's under the direction of George Cook's younger son, Huestis. The younger Cook furthered the reputation of excellence established by his father, photographing Virginia's industry, agriculture, lands, and people with a keen appreciation of natural beauty. A collection of Cook photographs is now maintained by the Valentine Museum in Richmond and consists of over 10,000 photographs, including over 500 photographs of personalities of the war such as Braxton Bragg, A. P. Hill, John Mosby and P. G. T. Beauregard.

George Cook's career spanned the early period of development of the photographic profession. During the first part of his career, Cook was a daguerreotypist. By the end of the Civil War, he had mastered the collodion wet plate and had produced ambrotypes and carte-de-viste photographs, and scorned the tintype as an inferior process, had produced dramatic stereographs, and had seen the dry plate supersede the wet plate. No one can fail to be impressed by the disregard shown to the "limitations" of the then current photographic medium, in addition to the fearlessness of the photographer, when viewing the Cook photographs taken at Fort Sumter. All during his career Cook continued to produce, as an 1881 advertisement proclaimed, "Beautiful Photographs… Unsurpassed in Artistic Effect."



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