Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., draped in black-and-white mourning cloth, following his assassination. African American mothers holding their babies, likely the first generation born into freedom. A battlefield in the Virginia wilderness a year after the war, with trees stripped of bark by musket fire.
Snapshots from the era of the Civil War, they are among hundreds of rare images gathered over four decades by an 87-year-old Texas grandmother. Now, partly through a family tragedy, they are the property of the Library of Congress.
The library announced Friday that it has acquired more than 500 stunning images from the collection of Robin Stanford of Houston. They depict a United States marked by the scourges of war, slavery and assassination.
And in some cases they show life before the war. One shot shows South Carolina slaves worshiping in a spartan, plantation church, in what may be the only prewar photograph of its kind.
Almost all the images are so-called stereo pictures — two shots of the same scene printed on an oblong card that was designed to be seen in 3-D through a stereo viewer.
“They’re just tremendously significant,” said Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography, especially the plantation group. “These are not post-war . . . or after Union occupation. These are actual scenes of slavery in America.”
The purchase comes as the country concludes its four-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the 1861-1865 war next month.
The library, which received the images in December, has many of them digitized and posted online. Eventually, all of them will be.
Stanford’s collection is believed to include thousands of images. She said she is not sure how large it is.
“It took 40 years, maybe” to gather, she said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I’m a little old lady, so I’ve had plenty of time to do it. . . . I’m lucky.”
Stanford said she had planned to give the pictures to her son, John, a professor of astronomy and physics at Concordia University Texas in Austin. But he died suddenly last year at age 53.
“This is just a part of the collection,” Stanford said. “I was going to give the entire collection to my son. [His death] just took the air out of my balloon, collecting-wise.”
She said she decided to sell some items to help her daughter-in-law and help her grandchildren finish their education. “I would not have sold any of it if it hadn’t been for that,” she said.
She asked that the purchase price remain private. Zeller said some of the pictures are probably worth more than $1,000 apiece.
On Friday, Stanford, wearing a blue cardigan sweater, black necklace and gold earrings, visited the library to show some of her pictures.
“Of course, I’ve handled them for years, but now I’ve got to wear gloves,” she said of the protective white coverings the library had her don.
She said she has mixed feelings about parting with the pictures. “I’m so glad they’re here, because they will be available for everybody,” she said. “On the other hand, I’m going to miss them.”
Stanford said she attended Randolph-
Macon Woman’s College, now Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Va., for a time and has always been interested in history.
She returned to Texas, married a doctor and began her interest in the Civil War in the late 1950s, when her first son was a toddler.
“I was home all day with him,” she said. “I started reading the three-volume ‘Lee’s Lieutenants,’ ” a famous history of some of the Confederacy’s leading generals.
“That just got me rolling,” she said.
She started collecting in the 1970s after she and her husband bought a farmhouse and she was casting about for decorations. One day, she spotted an old stereo viewer with some pictures at an antique show.
“The whole thing was like 20 bucks, maybe,” she said. “I thought this would be fun to put in the living room in the farmhouse. It’s quaint, and on rainy days, it’ll be fun.”
“And you know how it is with collecting,” she said. “You put your toe in the water, and next thing you know, you’re paddling like crazy.”
She began collecting general images and gradually zeroed in on views of Texas and the Civil War. She started small and later became well-known as a discerning buyer whom dealers contacted if they had good items.
She found the views to be vivid windows into the past. And in 3-D, the photos had depth and reality.
Her late husband “wasn’t really interested in” her collection, she said. “He was a very busy family doctor.” But that was okay, she said.
Among the images the library purchased are a series shot in Fort Sumter, near Charleston, S.C., after it fell to the rebels in 1861. In one, a Confederate flag flies from a flagpole.
Another shot shows crowds packing the streets and rooftops of Philadelphia as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege passes.
Yet another shows the skeletons of soldiers at the site of the Battle of the Wilderness two years later.
Stanford said most stereo pictures were taken during the Civil War with a stereo camera, which had two lenses about as far apart as a pair of human eyes. Prints were made on light cardboard for use in the stereo viewer.
Seventy percent of photography during the Civil War was shot in 3-D, said Zeller, of the photography center.
“This was the photograph that was a viewing experience,” he said. “It was more than just a keepsake for a family member. . . . To put your head under the hood of a stereo viewer and sink into the details.”
“The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture,” he said.
Zeller said stereo viewing was a “mania” at the time. Lincoln had a stereo viewer, he said.
“This is fantastic,” Helena Zinkham, head of the library’s prints and photographs division, said Friday, especially the Southern images shot by Southern photographers.
“We’re benefiting from [Stanford’s] 40 years of careful collecting,” she said. “We have . . . more than 7,000 original glass plate negatives from the Civil War. These are cards for which the negatives didn’t survive.”