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Dear Mr. Milstead,
Thank you for contacting History Hub. The following reply comes from archivist Nicholas Natanson in the Still Pictures unit at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland:
“You're correct about our Brady negatives coming to National Archives in the 1940's, but the plates were actually in federal government hands for many decades before that.
The nearly 6,000 plates that are now in our holdings were originally acquired by the War Department in two segments: an estimated 2250 plates purchased by Secretary of War William W. Belknap ($2500) in New York in July, 1874 from Charles McEntee, a warehouseman who had gained possession of the materials following bankruptcy proceedings against Brady; and the rest purchased by the War Department directly from Brady in April, 1875, under express Congressional authorization to "acquire a full and perfect title to the Brady Collection of photographs of the War, and to secure and purchase the remainder now in possession of the artist [for] $25,000." The negatives were in the custody of the War Records Office for the bulk of the next decade (1879-1886) before being shifted to the Supply Division and, in the 1890's, the War Department Library. In September, 1919, the negatives were transferred to the Signal Corps, where they would remain until their accessioning by the National Archives in 1940.
Our vintage (19th Century) prints made from the Brady negatives represent the fruits of the War Department's fits-and-starts efforts during the 1870's-1880's to preserve the Brady images through mass printing. Department-sponsored printing projects were undertaken by the Signal Corps Lab (Summer, 1875); former Brady associate William R. Pywell (November 1875--March 1876); the Thomas W. Smillie Studio of Washington, D.C. (1877); Gen. Albert Ordway of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, Massachusetts Commandery (1884); and the John F. Jarvis Studio of Washington, D.C. (1885-1886). The master set of prints made from the Brady negatives, along with a considerable volume of Civil War prints flowing into War Department Library possession from other sources (e.g., Quartermaster General, Adjutant General), comprised a collection that was officially catalogued by the Library in a project completed in 1897. Prints remained in the Library until their transfer to the National Archives in 1941 (shortly after the aforementioned transfer of the negative plates from the Signal Corps Lab).
There is evidence that, at least by the 1890's, the War Department Library was making copies of Brady prints in response to inquiries from the public. A small portion of the prints had been mounted into large, sewn-bound albums (now a treasured part of our vintage Civil War holdings) that seemed to have functioned as a reference resource of sorts. Note, for example, Assistant Secretary of War Lewis A. Grant's description of the Library holdings in an August 22, 1890 response to a request for Appomattox-related photos from Col. J.C. Battersby of New York City:
"I beg to state that the only photographs in the possession of the Department, such as those you refer to, consist of a single copy from each of what are known as the Brady negatives, which include views, portraits, etc. These prints have never been catalogued or classified and but few of them have been identified. Those that have been identified, among which are several mentioned in the letter, are bound into books and are kept in the War Department Library. If you should visit this city and will call at the Department, opportunity will be afforded you to examine the collection and have copies made of such of the portraits as would subserve the object you have in view."
There is some evidence of continuing reference activity (made a little easier by the War Department's publication of the List of the Photographs and Photographic Negatives Relating to the War for the Union, Now in the War Department Library, in 1897) and reproduction activity during the first two decades of the 20th Century. An increasing number of veterans' organizations, book and magazine editors, historians, and other citizens expressed interest in tapping the 1860's pictorial record. The experience of R.L. Ditmars, representative of the New York veterans' organization, the "New York 200," is probably typical in this respect. War Department records indicate that on May 6, 1911, Ditmars wrote the Department inquiring whether it had any "album showing prints," and that if so, Ditmars would "come to Washington and select from such album the prints desired." By May 27, Ditmars was requesting 152 reproductions "as per list enclosed, list being selected from albums of Army . . . [viewed] during recent visit." On at least one occasion, the Library actually loaned some of the albums themselves for exhibit purposes: a September 14, 1915 memo indicated that the Library would "forward 14 volumes of Brady photos and 6 volumes of Quartermaster General's Collection of Civil War [views] for exhibit at the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] Convention."
So, prints were being generated by the War Department in response to reproduction requests during the period in which you are most interested . . . as for exactly what was generated for whom, and in what format, and when, I'm afraid the War Department records are not going to provide anything close to a complete accounting. After the glass plates were shifted to the Signal Corps in 1919, the Signal Corps Lab undertook a 1920's round of systematic printing, generating two comprehensive sets of modern (gelatin silver developing-out) prints from the respective plates. These prints, all attached to Signal Corps cardboard mounts, were ultimately included in the aforementioned Signal Corps-to-National Archives transfer that brought us the original plates in 1940. These mounted prints have been the go-to Brady reference resource for on-site National Archives Still Picture researchers for many decades.The images have been available in digital form (and on the NARA Web site) since the late 1990's, when NARA scanned a high-quality set of film negatives that had been made, in the late 1980's, from the original plates through an interpositive copying process.
Keep in mind, of course, that the Brady Civil War negatives in National Archives holdings (what we refer to as our Record Group 111, Series B) are not the only Brady Civil War negatives around (and not the only Brady Civil War negatives that have been printed from through the decades). There's also the very substantial set held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (viewable digitally on the LC Web site). The story of how that collection (really a combination of collections, with the Brady-Handy Studio of Washington, D.C. and the Rand-Ordway Civil War Collection figuring heavily) ended up at LC is long and very complicated, and is better provided by the Prints and Photos Division. Bottom line is that if you have Brady-related prints made in the early 20th Century, you may not be able to rule out the possibility that the prints came from these "other" caches of Brady negatives that were passing through various hands on a long and winding path to LC.
In any case, I hope this background helps. Any further questions, feel free to contact the Still Picture Reference Team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.”