Saturday, July 23, 2011

Faces of the Civil War: Unknown II

A Civil War officer poses with his sword. This 1/6-plate tintype is in my collection.

The same man as shown above, dressed
as a civilian. This ruby ambrotype probably
 was taken before  the Civil War.
Like many Civil War soldiers, the officer above decided to have a keepsake photograph made. Unfortunately, as is common of  many photographs of soldiers from that era, the man in the image is not identified, so his name may be lost to history forever.


A little detective work could eventually I.D. "Mr. Unknown." Here are reasonable conclusions that can be made about these images, both of which are in my collection:

+ Based on the uniform, this man served in the Union army. Because he wore shoulder boards, he was an officer -- probably a captain, according to Civil War photo dealer Mike Medhurst. Civil War uniform experts may be able to narrow down what state he came from.

+ The Civil War-era shot above is a tintype, a photo made by creating a direct positive on a sheet of metal. On June 30, 1864, Congress passed an act that placed a tax on photographs. Pretty stunning, huh? Photographers were required to add a revenue stamp on the back of a tintype photo. No evidence of such a stamp appears on the reverse of this photo, so it's reasonable to conclude that it was taken between 1861 and spring 1864.

+ For this man's sitting, the photographer used a backdrop resembling an outdoor scene that included trees and what appears to be a flag or perhaps a ship in the upper right. The backdrop also includes a checkerboard pattern. If I come across a similar photo of an identified soldier, this may help me at least narrow down the state and regiment for which this man served. Or perhaps identify where the photo was taken and by what photographic studio or photographer. If it were taken shortly after this man enlisted, as I suspect, there's a good chance the image was made in this subject's hometown.

Both images of the man in this post are housed in
this elaborate thermoplastic case.
A scenic backdrop was a popular prop in city studios. Photographers with portable studios often followed the armies during the war, but the backdrops they used were not elaborate, so it's a good bet this man's photo was taken in a city studio.

+ The photos in this post show the same man. Genius observation there, right? In the civilian photo, the man looks several years younger than in his Civil War-era shot at the top. The civilian shot is a ruby ambrotype, a  photographic process that was most popular in the 1850s and early 1860s. If the soldier photo was taken by the spring of  1864 and the man dressed as a civilian is at least four years younger, it's reasonable to conclude the ambrotype was taken in the late 1850s or 1860. It's my story and I'm sticking to it.

+ Both of these photos came in a molded thermoplastic case with an ornate design, a more expensive option than a leather case that was also popular but more fragile. So it's reasonable to conclude that this officer was a man of some means.

Of course, identifying this soldier would be a slam-dunk if a long-ago relative had simply slipped a piece of paper with his name on it and placed it behind the images in the case, as sometimes occurred. I looked yesterday. No such luck.

The detective work continues.


  1. Anonymous9:02 AM

    I have a photo of my great-great granfather and he has a clover on his left breast. His name was Elisha A. Hincks. He was with the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. His brother (Edward Winslow Hincks) was the Commanding Officer. Anyway, I am wondering if there is any significance to this badge? My family really has no irish blood in it. Thanks in advance.

  2. Anonymous7:56 PM