By now, I hope you have seen the new cover of the revised and illustrated second edition of “Beyond All Price.” It features the never-before-seen photograph of Nellie M. Chase, the plucky young woman who served as the matron of Pennsylvania’s Roundhead Regiment. After a year with them, she moved on to become one of the best-known nurses of the Civil War. The men she cared for christened her with titles like Angel of Mercy, The Florence Nightingale of the Western Army, and a Woman Beyond All Price. With that kind of reputation, it’s not surprising that there’s a lovely photograph of her.
There’s quite a story behind the image that graces this book cover. The photograph is taken from a carte de visite—a visiting card of sorts, but much more than that. Two developments in the 1850s made it possible. The first was a photographic process developed in France in 1854. With it, a photographer could print multiple copies of a small image, which could then be pasted onto a sturdy cardboard backing to make it durable. The second was a Civil War that took thousands of young men (and a few hundred women) away from their homes and families in 1861 to serve their country. These new little cards became keepsakes—a way for families and friends to remember their missing loved ones. At the urgings of their families, soldiers flocked to get their pictures taken, and a new fad was born.
The cards are small. The backing measures about two and a half by four inches.
The photographic sheets were smaller—approximately two by three and a half inches. (If you look closely at the image, you can see the borders). And then the image itself was often no larger than a penny.. As photographers grew more skilled and cameras more complex, the images became more detailed and often filled the entire card. But Nellie’s photograph was made in 1863, and it’s no larger than an inch. On the reverse of the card is a stamp identifying the photographer, but there are no identifying words printed on these cards because they were meant only for those who knew the individual.
As I began to research Nellie’s story, I learned that she had a carte de visite, which she could give to patients who asked for one. A small paragraph in a Philadelphia newspaper announced that Frederick Gutekunst had taken her photograph, but no such card existed in any of the boxes of documents that recorded her history. Members of the Society of the Roundheads began searching for her picture, but it was not until this past spring that one actually turned up.
The card displays only the tiny headshot. The reverse has Gutekunst’s seal and Nellie’s handwritten signature (which you will also see on the cover of my new book. The signature indicates that she gave this card to a “W. W. Blackman of North Carolina.” So far, his identity has eluded investigation. The card also has a penciled note in another later hand that identifies her as the “wife of Geo. W. Earnest of the 15th Pa. (name spelled wrong). and says they both died of smallpox (although it was actually yellow fever). But for me, this little card is--like Nellie herself--another treasure "Beyond All Price."