Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Samuel T. Busey: Ambrotype or Ferrotype?

You're looking at a photograph of Samuel T. Busey we have in our collection here at the Champaign County Historical Archives. Busey, of course, was the Colonel of the 76th Illinois Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, and would later co-found Busey Bank with his brother Simeon. He then went on to serve as a five-term mayor of the City of Urbana and as a Representative from the 15th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. This image is a portrait of him in his uniform during the war.

We were curious as to what type of image we had on our hands. Ambrotypes and ferrotypes (also commonly called "tintypes") both use a similar process - a silver based emulsion that produces a positive image on a dark, non-reflective support. The major difference: ambrotypes have a glass support, while ferrotypes, as the name suggests, are supported by a thin sheet of iron. The problem is that when ambrotypes and ferrotypes are placed in a case, they are virtually indistinguishable. So, how to tell? Carefully place a small magnet on the center of the case - if you get a response, you have a ferrotype! And our Col. Busey? A ferrotype it is.

Here are some other Samuel T. Busey materials indexed on our Local History Online index.


  1. Wikipedia says that Busey was "first lieutenant of the Urbana Zouaves in 1861 and 1862." What were the Zouaves?

  2. Great question, John G.!

    "Zouaves" were soldiers whose uniforms were patterned after 19th century French North African colonial troops. At the time of the American Civil War, Napoleon Bonaparte still guided the minds of American military thinkers, right down to their uniform and equipment choices. Zouave uniforms tended to be garish, and incorporated elements considered exotic at the time. An example can be found here:


    The reference to the "Urbana Zouaves" is interesting. While most towns of any prominence maintained a militia company before the Civil War (the state Militia Act required all able bodied white men between 18 and 45 to drill once a month), and Urbana most certainly did as well, we can find no references to a unit by that name. We'll keep digging, and if anyone has any leads, feel free to contact us!

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  4. There are several sites which mention his being an Urbana Zouave, including his Congressional biography:


    Find A Grave also lists this: