Reed Brockway Bontecou was born in Troy, New York, to Peter and Samantha Brockway Bontecou, on April 22, 1824. A science enthusiast, he began collecting and classifying seashells at an early age. After graduating from Troy High School, he studied at Vermont's Poultney Academy before entering Troy's Rensselaer Polytechic Institute, where he received a degree in biology in 1842. From there, he returned to Vermont where he studied medicine at Castleton Medical College, becoming an M.D. in 1847. He married Susan Northrup in 1849, and together they had five children, two of whom died in infancy. Also in 1849, Dr. Bontecou received his commission to serve as surgeon for the 24th New York Cavalry Regiment, and later entered the 2nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he tended patients wounded during the battle of Big Bethel (Virginia), during the Monitor and Merrimac skirmish, and later during the siege at Yorktown in 1862. He was later moved to the Army of the Potomac, where he served as a member of Surgeon General William A. Hammond's staff, and subsequently assisted during an outbreak of yellow fever in the South. Also in 1862, Dr. Bontecou was called upon to collect anatomical specimens for the newly established Army Medical Museum to study to improve the quality of patient care. When named chief of Harewood Hospital in Washington, DC, Dr. Bontecou began using photography to document wounded soldiers pre- and post-surgery. When Pvt. Lewis James Matson of the 2nd New York Cavalry suffered an injury that required amputation of his left leg at the knee, Dr. Bontecou's camera chronicled the successful results. Dr. Bontecou's postwar photography was a stark and chilling contrast to the sentimental CDVs his contemporaries photographed in the hopeful early days of the War. A particularly dramatic photograph featured Corporal Israel Spotts of the 200th Pennsylvania Volunteers. The albumen silver print graphically depicts the young man's injuries with the bowl into which pus was drained from an infected lung serving as a focal point. Dr. Bontecou's portraits stripped away the rosy idealism that sparked the conflict and replaced it with the brutal and unflinching reality of its bloody aftermath.
Dr. Bontecou continued photographing wounded soldiers until he left the military in June 1866. He resumed his surgical career, later becoming an assistant surgeon at Troy's Watervliet Arsenal. He managed to preserve his professional reputation after a personal indiscretion led to a divorce from his wife. Eighty-three-year-old Dr. Reed B. Bontecou died after a brief illness in 1907, and many of the photographic images for which he remains best known can be found at the Army Medical Museum and Library and within the six-volume series, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865).
2004 Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World by Jack Kelly (New York: Basic Books/Perseus Books Group), p. 215.
1897 Landmarks of Rensselaer County, New York by George Baker Anderson (Syracuse: D. Mason & Company), pp. 601-602.
2013 The Napoleon of Surgeons by Ron Coddington (URL: http://facesofthecivilwar.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-napoleon-of-surgeons.html).
2011 Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography by Martin A. Berger (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 45.
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