In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Early Maine Photography


Two of the treasures of the Maine Historical Society’s collection of early photography are daguerreotypes of Revolutionary War soldiers Conrad Heyer of Waldoboro and the Reverend John Sawyer of Bangor. Both Heyer and Sawyer were born in the mid-eighteenth century, fought in the Revolution as young men, and lived for more than a century – long enough to be photographed in old age.

Legend often states Conrad Heyer was the first white child born in the German immigrant community of Waldoboro. In his twenties, Heyer joined the Continental Army, serving for a year before being discharged in December, 1777. Returning to Maine, he settled on a farm in Waldoboro, where he never experienced a day of sickness until shortly before his death on February 19, 1856, at the age of 106 years, 10 months, and 9 days. On June 17, 1856, Conrad Heyer was buried in Waldoboro’s German Cemetery during an elaborate military funeral attended by more than four thousand people.

The Reverend John Sawyer sat for his daguerreotype in 1854 when he was 99 years old. Born in Oxford, New Hampshire in 1755, Sawyer joined the Continental Army in 1777 and participated in the Battles of Saratoga. He was present at General John Burgoyne’s surrender on October 7, 1777. After the Revolution, John Sawyer entered Dartmouth College, graduating in 1786. Ordained in 1787, he preached in his native Oxford for the next nine years. From 1796 to 1806 he served as the pastor for a church in Boothbay, Maine. He then moved to Newcastle to pursue a new career as a traveling missionary. His journeys took him to Bangor, where he preached and taught school from 1812 to 1818. That year he settled in Garland, where he devoted most of the balance of his life to ministering and teaching.

Reverend Sawyer lived five days beyond his 103rd birthday, dying on October 14, 1858. His funeral, which was held at the First Congregational Church in Bangor, "was attended by a great concourse of people, who thereby testified their love and respect for the aged veteran of the Cross, who had for so many years lived and labored in their section of the State."

As the Civil War began in 1861, the ambrotype was joined by the tintype as a form of photography "popular with soldiers and camp photographers alike," according to Robert Wilson’s biography of Matthew Brady. Wilson cites the widespread practice of soldiers being photographed by quoting Humphrey’s Journal for February, 1862:

"The photographer accompanies the army wherever it goes, and a very large number of soldiers get their pictures taken and send them to their friends. Friends at home, in return, send their portraits to the soldiers…Most of these are taken on the (tintype) plate for the reason that it is light, durable, and easily sent in a letter."

Maine sent more than 70,000 men to fight for the Union between 1861 and 1865, and many of them sat for the camera before they left or were photographed in camp studios. Large numbers of pictures of the common Maine soldier have survived, and the Maine Historical Society Collection has several representative examples.

There were two widely used poses, sitting and standing. Of the former, an unidentified solider posed for this tintype in a field studio, with a painted backdrop ornamented with tents and an American flag. Other seated images include tintypes of Private John Mahoney of Augusta, who served for four years in the 7th Maine and the 1st Veteran Infantry, Corporal George B. Follett of New Sharon (9th Maine), and Private George Allen Soule of North Yarmouth (1st Maine,10th Maine, DC Cavalry, 1st Maine Cavalry).

Some Mainers such as Randall Tolman Gammon of Machias joined out-of-state regiments. Private Gammon served in the 39th Massachusetts before transferring to the 12th Massachusetts on June 25, 1864. In August of that year, he was captured in Virginia and died in November in the Confederate prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina.

Examples of standing soldiers include an ambrotype of Captain Harrison G. Smith of Columbia Falls (1st Maine Heavy Artillery), described as a "farmer and lumberman, sturdy, robust, and practical, a most useful officer." In his tintype, Sergeant Nelson W. Jones (at right) strikes a military pose and looks determinedly into the camera of a photographer whose painted backdrop depicts an army camp scene. Sergeant Jones grew up on a farm in Palermo and enlisted in 1861 at the age of eighteen as a private in the Third Maine. This young soldier from Central Maine fought in such notable battles as First Bull Run, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville before being killed at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. He is buried with 103 other Maine soldiers in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Seven of his letters to his mother survive in her pension file in the National Archives. Less military in appearance is Private Loring Marriner of Gardiner, who served with Second Maine Cavalry. Standing before a plain backdrop with his left hand on a cane-seated chair, he stares earnestly at the photographer, seemingly unconcerned by his half buttoned jacket and ill-fitting pants.