Saturday, February 20, 2016

Lost and found: A Confederate ambrotype returns to family

A 1/9-plate ambrotype of teenager John Robertson Argenbright, a private in the 52nd Virginia.
(Courtesy Joshua Raymond Drega) 
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By April 1865, Private John Robertston Argenbright may have felt fortunate to be alive.

According to this National Archives document,
Argenbright was made to forfeit six months'
pay for being AWOL in late 1863.
A 17-year-old farmhand from western Augusta County in Virginia, he had enlisted in October 1861 in Company A -- the "Augusta Fencibles" -- of the 52nd Virginia under Captain James Skinner. A grandson and great-grandson of Revolutionary War veterans, Argenbright went AWOL in November 1862 and was forced to forfeit six months' pay in April 1863 for being AWOL again from November 23-Jan. 20, 1863. But he also saw action in some of the most severe battles of the war with the 52nd Virginia, which fought at Cross Keys, Port Republic, Gaines' Mill, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Courthouse,  the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Third Battle of Winchester, the Siege of Petersburg and elsewhere.

At the Battle of  Sailor's Creek, a disastrous Confederate defeat in the closing days of the war, Argenbright was among 54 soldiers in the 52nd Virginia who escaped death or capture. (His older brother, James, also a private in the 52nd Virginia, had suffered a severe wound to his left eye at the Battle of Carter's Farm on July 20, 1864.) According to a regimental history, the 52nd Virginia fired the Army of Northern Virginia's last volley before it surrendered at Appomattox.

A little more than three years earlier, perhaps on the very day he enlisted, John proudly posed for a portrait image, probably in a studio in Staunton, Va., where the regiment was first organized in August 1861. Sporting a neatly trimmed beard and slicked-back hair, Argenbright had a large musket resting on his shoulder and what appears to be a knife or bayonet tucked into his trousers. The ambrotypist added extra touches: red tinting to the teen-aged soldier's cheeks and forehead.

Three years after the war ended, the son of Peter and Hannah Argenbright married a woman named Henrietta Simmerman in Staunton and raised a family. Outliving his wife by more than three years, Argenbright died five days before Christmas in 1920, and the 76-year-old veteran was buried near Henrietta in Jerusalem Chapel Cemetery in rural Churchville, Va..

A family treasure, the wartime image of Private Argenbright was handed down from generation to generation. Like some heirlooms, however, the beautiful keepsake sadly was lost or perhaps sold at auction in the 1960s. But this story has a happy ending.

John Argenbright was listed as a 16-year-old laborer in the 1860 census.

Fast-forward to the 21st century.

Argenbright's descendant, Joshua Drega, became enamored with the Civil War at an early age. "My first real, actual memories were being in camp at the 135th Gettysburg in 1998 with my parents, who were Confederate and civilian re-enactors," said Drega, now 24. "I was 6 at the time."

Joshua Drega, a re-enactor, was stunned when
he tracked down his ancestor's Civil War image.
Also born and reared in Augusta County, Drega enjoyed relic hunting with his father on the Piedmont battlefield, where they found bullets, buckles, buttons and more. Like his parents, Drega eventually caught the re-enacting bug and even has formed a batallion to portray his ancestor's old regiment. He and his fellow re-enactors plan to honor the 52nd Virginia at preservation events at the Cross Keys and Port Republic battlefields in Virginia in June.

Recently, Drega's friend alerted him to a 1/9-plate image on the Internet that he thought may be Argenbright. The young man wore a uniform typical of soldiers in the 52nd Virginia, and he distinctly resembled a charcoal portrait of Argenbright that Drega had acquired.

"I was floored, to say the least," said Drega, who eventually contacted the dealer who sold the image seven years ago. In a long-shot effort, Drega posted a copy of the ambrotype to the Civil War Faces Facebook page last month, hoping to connect with the current owner of the image. In a needle-in-a-haystack moment, he was indeed contacted by the man, who sold it to Drega for $500. It was money, as it turned out, very well-spent.

"It was a shock and a half," said Drega, who was told by the collector that the image had scribbling on the inside of the case. "When he opened the case and took out the picture. I was floored. There was an inscription reading 'M E Argenbright Spitlers Mill [signed] John.' To me it was confirmed."

In a wool and felt pouch, Private Argenbright's ambrotype today rests in a safety deposit box, part of his family once more.

(For more amazing Civil War photo find stories on my blog, click here and here. For all of my Faces of the Civil War posts, click here.)

Joshua Drega purchased this charcoal portrait of John Argenbright at a family 
auction for $45. The image is in its original frame.
 (Courtesy Joshua Raymond Drega)
Private John Argenbright's writing inside the image case.
Joshua Drega shot this photo of  Private John Argenbright's ambrotype at his grave.


  1. Your comment says the writing inside the case of the John Robertson Argenbright ambrotype says "M E Argenbright Spitlers Mill (signed) John". When I see the photo, it looks like the first word is "Mrs." written in script. Because it is signed "John", it would appear he was sending this to Mrs. ?? Argenbright (his mother?). If addressed to his mother, it could be Mrs. H. Argenbright or many times women in this era were known more by their husband's name, Mrs. P. Argenbright. Just a thought...

  2. Something of interest that you mightn't know about, but John is a cousin to the actress Melissa Benoist, who plays the character "Supergirl" on the series of the same name. Augustine Argenbright, the captain in the Virginia Miltia during the War of Independence, and John's great grandfather, is also a great grandfather of Melissa's. More distant,of course. All this would make Joshua Drega her cousin, as well. I don't know how much Melissa knows about this side of her family, but I think she would be really chuffed to know about it. Especially the fact that there are pictures of her Civil War relative that still survive.