The Past in Color: A Short History of Hand-Colored Photos During the Civil War Era

The Past in Color: A Short History of Hand-Colored Photos During the Civil War Era

The American Civil War was one of the most photographed events of the nineteenth century. Powerful images of battlefield carnage, life in the camp, and studio portraits of soldiers in uniform stimulate an emotional response that reminds us of the human cost of war. Likewise, touching photos of grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends back home show another side of the war’s consequences. Previous conflicts like the American Revolution can only be visualized through the creative hands of artists using paint, oil, or slate to capture an imagined reality of warfare. Our memories of that war are shaped in large part by what those artists wanted us to see. With Civil War images, the photographer’s art likewise reflects what they wanted us to see, but this art form uncovers new layers of human complexity through wrinkles, bags under eyes, freckles, fingertips, unkempt hair, period clothing, and stoic expressions.

While my interest in Civil War photography goes back to seeing Mathew Brady’s images on the overhead projector as a student in the 1990s, I took a great interest in colorized images when I began seeing them online about ten years ago. I was particularly inspired by artists Marina Amaral and my friend and public historian Mark Loehrer, both of whom have creatively used colorizations to change my perceptions of the past. During the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to start teaching myself how to create colorized photos. Since then I have used GIMP, a free open-source alternative to Adobe Photoshop, to create around 100 colorizations of nineteenth century photos. I subsequently started an Instagram page to highlight these works and have been fortunate to see a few of my works already being used at museums and historic homes.[1]

Figure 1: An unidentified African American Woman in St. Louis during the 1850s colorized by the author. Original photo is from the Missouri Historical Society

It is easy to assume that all nineteenth century images are in black and white. However, many early photographers were acutely aware of the technological limits of their medium. They began experimenting with the use of color shortly after Louis Daguerre’s development of the first commercial form of photography in 1838. Part of this interest came from painters who were anxious to remain employed. Understanding that photography could threaten their bottom line, some painters partnered with photographers to add color to fully developed photos, while in other cases the photographer took on this work themselves. Originally, paint was directly applied to the photo with a brush, but the results were often splotchy and uneven. By the early 1840s, painter and photographer Johann Baptist Isenring developed a standard coloring method. Using a combination of paint pigment and heated gum arabic, artists would apply the combination to the photographic plate and cool it gently blowing until it stuck to the plate.[2]

Figure 2: An extensively tinted ambrotype of an unidentified woman, circa 1850s or 1860s. From the author’s collection.

Examples of tinted photographs can be seen in all forms of early nineteenth century photography, including daguerreotypes (silver plates with copper backing), ambrotypes (glass plates), tintypes (japanned metal plates), and carte-de-visites (paper). Tinted and painted tintypes became a particularly important form of portraiture in the 1860s and 1870s. For people who did not have the time or money to sit for a painted portrait, hand colored tintypes—which usually cost between 25 cents to $2.50—offered an affordable alternative. A new exhibit on colored tintypes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston argues that this form of photography represents “an important visual record of 19th century America and the strivings of everyday people to present themselves at their very best.”[3]

Civil War soldiers were also anxious to present themselves at their very best and often sent photos of themselves in uniform back to loved ones at home. Some of these photos, especially tintypes, were hand colored. One of my favorite examples of a color tinted soldier portrait is an unidentified African American soldier in the 103rd United States Colored Troops Infantry Regiment, Company B.[4] Housed at the Library of Congress, the man in this tintype photo stands proudly in his uniform, which has traces of gold flaking on his kepi, buttons, shoulder epaulettes, belt buckle, and decorative sword case. My favorite aspect, however, is the soldier’s pants, which are tinted blue to reflect the color seen on the pants of enlisted men in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. For me, the blue pants serve as a subtle but important signifier of this soldier’s military service. It makes clear that he was taking a side and fighting for the causes of union and emancipation.

Figure 3: An unidentified soldier with the 103rd United States Colored Troops Infantry Regiment, Company B, Library of Congress.

I have come to appreciate the idea that modern colorizations could be considered an extension of a long practiced tradition of coloring black and white images.[5]

Modern colorizations have provoked important ethical discussions about how history is represented through photography. These discussions have only intensified with the emergence of AI technologies that estimate color tones based on the gray tones of a black and white photo. AI makes it easier to colorize historic photos, but the final results are often poor and use colors that distort the subject’s skin color.

Figure 4: This AI colorization by a Twitter bot (@colorize_bot) demonstrates the shortcomings of AI. The WWI “Harlem Hellfighters” seen in this photo would have worn green uniforms and the hands of the soldier in the foreground are colored purple.

In 2021, an Irish artist colored photos of tortured prisoners in Cambodia during the 1970s. He then went a step further by using AI to add smiles to the prisoners, stripping the photos of their historical context and making light of a human tragedy.[6] While the colorizations themselves were not a point of controversy, the use of AI to change these prisoners’ facial expressions challenges artists to consider the degree to which historic photos can be manipulated in a respectful way, if at all. For those of us who study the Civil War era, who we choose to colorize and how we represent the past through these photos hold great ramifications for how we want people to empathize with history. Colorization artists sometimes frame their work as “bringing life” to a black and white image by generating dignity and a shared sense of humanity with historical subjects through the use of color. But as writer Roshaya Rodness points out, this argument implies that original black and white photos lack life and dignity. “For some, dignity is inherent to an original, for others, dignity is something you add.”[7]

For me, colorizations are sort of like a cover song. These images are creatively remixed tributes to great art that should ideally help viewers better appreciate the original work. I agree with Amaral, who argues that colorizations can help people relate to the past by reminding them that history didn’t happen in black and white. “Are you used to watching football matches in black and white or in color? What seems closer to your reality? What feels more familiar to you?,” Amaral asks.[8] The challenge, then, is to create something artistic, respectful, inspiring, and relatable in a colorization without discarding the context, intent, and dignity of the original photo.

I ultimately decided to start creating colorizations because I found it an interesting way to connect with history. Colorizations touch the margins of public history work depending on how much research the artist does on the photo and how they interpret the image’s meaning. However, since the colors of a subject’s clothing, skin tone, hair, and other factors are often unknown, I consider them more works of art than an extension of my history work. In any case, I took on this hobby not just because I found colored images fascinating, but because of my love of photography in general. If people are inspired to study and connect with history further because of a colorized image, then it seems like a worthwhile endeavor for me.

[1] For examples of my work, see Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, “Slavery in St. Louis,” National Park Service, 2023, accessed August 17, 2023.; Ulysses S. Grant Cottage National Historic Landmark, “A New Light on Old Flowers,” Ulysses S. Grant Cottage National Historic Landmark, August 4, 2023, accessed August 17, 2023. I am also currently working with the Cape Girardeau [MO] History Center to develop an exhibit with one of my colorizations.

[2] Sean William Nolan, Fixed in Time: A Guide to Dating Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, & Tintypes by their Mats and Cases, for Historians, Genealogists, Collectors, and Antique Dealers (New York: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2017), 22-23.

[3] MFA Boston, “Painted Tintypes: Photography for the People,” MFABoston, 2023, accessed August 17, 2023.; Library of Congress, “Ambrotypes and Tintypes,” Library of Congress, 2009, accessed August 16, 2023.,cost%20almost%20%246.00%20in%202009.

[4] The image can be viewed and downloaded at Library of Congress, “Unidentified African American Soldier in Union uniform and Company B, 103rd Regiment Forage Cap with Bayonet and Scabbard in Front of Painted Backdrop Showing Landscape with River,” Library of Congress, no date, accessed August 16, 2023.

[5] Marina Amaral, “Colorization Before the Digital Age,” The Colour of Time with Marina Amaral, April 9, 2022, accessed August 17, 2023.

[6] Prak Chan Thul and Kay Johnson, “After Outcry, VICE Removes Images Adding Smiles to Khmer Rouge Victims,” Reuters, April 11, 2021, accessed August 16, 2023.; Marina Amaral, “What Should and What Shouldn’t Be Colorized?,” The Colour of Time with Marina Amaral, June 18, 2022, accessed August 14, 2023.

[7] Roshaya Rodness, “The Controversial History of Colorizing Black-and-White Photographs,” Fast Company, May 20, 2021, accessed August 15, 2023.

[8] Amaral, “What Should and Shouldn’t be Colorized?”

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

One Reply to “The Past in Color: A Short History of Hand-Colored Photos During the Civil War Era”

  1. I could be wrong, but I believe I have read in secondary sources that the Hellfighters were outfitted with French horizon blue combat uniforms and not the US green.

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