Special Report

50 Photos From American Life in the 19th Century

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1862: The crew of the USS Monitor

Launched in January of 1862, the USS Monitor was the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad ship, and a participant in the historic Battle of Hampton Roads on Mar. 9 of that year, when it fought its Confederate counterpart, the CSS Virginia (built on the hull of the scuttled USS Merrimack). This photo shows the crew of the Monitor relaxing on the James River on July 9. The ship had a short lifespan: It was lost at sea in December that same year.

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1863: The William H. Webb shipyard in New York City

William Henry Webb has been called America’s first true naval architect. Inheriting the Webb & Allen shipyard from his father in 1840 and renaming it for himself, he became the country’s most successful shipbuilder. He designed scores of vessels and his enterprise turned out some 133 ships between the time he took it over and 1865. This image shows the construction of the Re Don Luigi di Portogallo, an ironclad built for the Italian government.

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1863: U.S. Military Railroad ties in Alexandria, Virginia

The US Military Rail Road (USMRR) was an organization established by the United States War Department to maintain and operate any Confederate rail lines seized by the Union Army during the Civil War. Established in February, 1862, the USMRR would come to be responsible for over 400 locomotives and over 6,000 railway cars. In this picture from a USMRR rail yard in Arlington, Va, one can see the supply of rails kept on hand to make sure that the lines could continue to operate to the Union’s benefit.

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1864: The U.S. Sanitary Commission in City Point, Virginia

The United States Sanitary Commission was a volunteer relief organization established in 1861 to provide moral and physical support to sick and wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War. One of its initiatives was sending canned and pickled produce to the front for the army’s nourishment. The soldiers and volunteers pictured here are at the Commission facility in City Point, Va., since renamed Hopewell.

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1865: Cattle grazing in Washington D.C.

The grounds where the unfinished Washington Monument stood were used during the Civil War for military drills and for the grazing and slaughter of cattle (as many as 10,000 fed there at one time, according to the poet Walt Whitman). The large building in the background on the right is the U.S. Treasury, and the top of the White House is just visible to the left, above the trees.