Mystery photos from Civil War still seeking homes
By Steve Szotak
RICHMOND, Va. — The names of the two little girls are an enduring mystery, their images found among crumpled bodies on Civil War battlefields. Each is posed primly on a chair, ringlets cascading past the rouged cheeks of one, the other dressed in a frilly hoop dress.
But no one knows the identities of the girls in the photographs, nor the stories they might tell.
The photograph of one girl was found between the bodies of two soldiers — one Union, one Confederate, at Port Royal, Va., 150 years ago this June. The other was retrieved from a slain Union soldier’s haversack in 1865 on a Virginia farm field, days before a half-decade of blood-letting would end with a surrender signed nearby at Appomattox.
Though photography was in its infancy when the war broke out, its use was widespread. Many soldiers carried photographs of loved ones into battle and for the first time, photographic images of war were available — and the Museum of the Confederacy has its own vast collection of images today, many of them identified.
But now museum officials are releasing the unidentified images of the two girls, along with six other enigmatic photographs, on the admittedly remote chance someone might recognize a familial resemblance or make a connection to a battlefield where they were found.
There is no writing on the backs of these photographs. No notes tucked inside their wallet-sized frames. For a museum that prides itself on knowing the provenance of its holdings, the photographs offer few clues.
“We don’t know who they are and the people who picked them up did not know who they were,” said Ann Drury Wellford, curator of 6,000 Civil War images at the Richmond museum that has the largest collection of artifacts of the Confederate states, civilian and military. “They evoke an utter and complete sentimentality.”
Museum officials can only speculate on the children and adults, including soldiers, shown in the photographs. But whether they were sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, or siblings, the prospect of identifying each grows dimmer with the passage of time.
Typically they were found by another soldier and handed down through generations. Ultimately an attic would be cleared or a trunk would be emptied and the photo would be given to the museum. Some have been in the museum’s possession for 60 years or more.
Even in its infancy, photography was booming during the Civil War. Photographers were assigned to Northern divisions and traveling photographers were the early version of photo booths as they visited encamped troops between battles and photographed them.
Photography was evolving from daguerreotype to ambrotypes and other mediums in which images were produced through a wet emulsion on glass and were more accessible to a wider audience.
“It had more versatility than it had ever had,” according to Jeffrey Ruggles, a historian of photography. “It was the early blossoming of photography. The war just happened to hit at a time when people were very interested in seeing these pictures.”
Bob Zeller, president of The Center for Civil War Photography, said soldiers carrying photographs of wives, children and other loved ones off to battle was common. Finding a photo on the battlefield without a clear connection to a dead soldier was uncommon and highly evocative.
“Much of it is the unknown factor that the image carries,” he said. “It’s something that everyone cherishes, a photograph of their loved ones, but there it is out on this battlefield with these seemingly nameless, faceless corpses.”
Zeller, the author of several books on Civil War photography, including “The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography,” described such photos as the link for many Civil War combatants to “a reality that, for many of them, had just disappeared.”
Sometimes, the story behind an unidentified photo is eventually told. Zeller relates the story of a Union soldier who died at Gettysburg, clutching a photograph of his family. Widespread efforts in the North to identify the family ultimately proved successful in tracing his family to upstate New York.
As for the girl’s photos, there is no hint of who these subjects are and the connection to the combatants who once cherished them is lost.
Unlike modern soldiers, few Civil War troops had the modern-day version of dog tags and few carried identification. The Civil War also did not have the kinds of mortuary units that now strive to collect all the possessions of the war dead and return them to their families.
Each photograph is in a hinged case with a leather or composite exterior. The cases protected the fragile images, which include early photographic processes such as tintypes and daguerreotypes.
“We’re very fortunate that we know where they came from and how they were found, and many people who donated them were hopeful a family member would see them and identify them,” Wellford explained. But the museum official said it would be too costly and time-consuming, she said, for curators to do their own detective work.
Private Thomas W. Timberlake of the 2nd Virginia Infantry found the portrait of the girl with the ringlets and hand-colored pink cheeks on the battlefield of Port Republic between the bodies of the two dead soldiers.
Fought in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s forces turned back Northern troops led by Brigadier General James Shields, who lost 67 men. The Union troops hailed from Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The other girl, who had short hair parted down the middle, was found by Pvt. Heartwell Kincaid Adams of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry in the haversack he found on a Union soldier’s body at the battle of High Bridge in Virginia, only days before the war ended at Appomattox in 1865.
“I think they’re utterly compelling, especially the little girls,” Wellford said. “You can see that they’re dressed well and they’re posed in elaborate studios. There was a lot of thought and effort that went into taking those pictures.”
The other photographs released by the museum offer scant information on their origin. Many lack the dates they were found and locations, but Wellford hopes the public at large could help.
A Confederate soldier, standing ramrod tall and staring intently, who left an ambrotype of himself with Mrs. L.M.C. Lee of Corinth, Miss., on the eve of the Battle of Shiloh. The soldier never returned and is presumed to have been killed in battle.
An officer, the epaulettes hand-painted a still-glinting silver, found on a battlefield near Richmond. The museum identified him as a lieutenant but was unable to determine for which side. It was not unusual for a militia officer from the South to wear a U.S. Army issue uniform dating from before the nation was divided by the Civil War.
An unidentified woman found in the effects of a soldier identified as Joseph Warren. Her cheeks were painted a pink blush; her earrings, rings, and necklace were painted gold.
Two young girls flanking a somber-looking woman, found in the effects of Joseph Warren.
An unidentified couple with two young children. A Union soldier known only as Kilmartin found the photograph on the Fredericksburg battlefield. It was later passed on by Mrs. Walter Blunt of Richmond to the museum.
An unidentified man found in a tent somewhere in North Carolina during the war.
Wellford said the photographs show there was more to the war than combat and death.
“You have these guys out their killing each other and all sorts of bloodshed and he’s carrying a picture of a little girl,” Welllford said. “It shows the humanity.”
Museum officials said, even 150 years later, it remains important to return the photos to families who had a link to the Civil War. The two girls, they said, still evoke powerful emotions.
“You think about these little girls at home and their daddies never return and they don’t know what happened to them,” said Sam Craghead, a spokesman for the museum. “It’s just a really, really human story.”
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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
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The Center for Civil War Photography: www.civilwarphotography.org
Museum of the Confederacy: www.moc.org
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