Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Found in a bin: Pre-Bull Run 2nd Rhode Island soldier photos

2nd Rhode Island Corporal Francis Ronien (left) stands with brothers 
James and John Newell, who were privates in the regiment, in a camp in Virginia.
 (Providence, R.I., Public Library)
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Days before the first major battle of the Civil War, three soldiers in Company F of the 2nd Rhode Island posed outdoors for a photographer in the employ of Mathew Brady. In an image taken at the regiment's camp at Centreville, Va., Francis Ronien, the bayonet of the musket he held towering above him, stood next to brothers James and John Newell of Smithfield.

Soon, the lives of each of these young men would be dramatically altered.

At the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Corporal Ronien "was struck by a shell," according to another officer in the regiment, "which took off his leg between the knee & hip." He died a short time later, perhaps at a makeshift field hospital at Sudley Church or somewhere nearby.  "He was a promising soldier," a regimental history noted, "and fell with his captain bravely fighting." The 25-year-old machinist from Pawtucket left behind a wife named Mary and two sons, a 1-year-old named Francis and an infant, James Henry.

Wounded and captured at Bull Run, Private John Newell wouldn't be released from a Rebel prison until May 1862. For brother James, the war ended when he deserted at Harrison's Landing in Virginia on Aug. 8, 1862.

Two years ago, the fabulous image of Ronien and the Newell brothers surfaced when a librarian at the Providence (R.I.) Public Library discovered the carte de visite in a plastic bin of donated items that included five other photographs of Company F soldiers.  Each of the images was taken by a Brady photographer at the regiment's Centreville camp. (Read my Military Images magazine story on these photographs.)

"I came across a folder of photographs that piqued my interest," Kate Wells wrote on the library's blog. "Sometimes when you work in an archive you find a little trove and then you're down the rabbit hole, so to speak.  I just couldn't get the men in these images out of my head and so I decided to do some research."

Thankfully, the last names of many of the soldiers were recorded in blue ink under each image.  A note, shown below, found with the images showed the photos were taken July 17-18, 1861, days before the First Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Va. The slip of paper was signed by R.H. Johnstone, most likely one of the soldiers shown in the image below and perhaps the man who donated the images to the Providence Public Library more than 100 years ago. The name of the donor is lost to history.

Ronien is the only identified soldier in these images who died during the Civil War.

Note found with the images notes photos were taken in Virginia on July 17-18, 1861, days before
First Battle of Bull Run.
From left, George Wood, George Kidder and Theodore Jenks.
From left, Robert Robertson, Francis Osgood, Smith Salisbury, David Douglass.
Thomas Potter, John Manning, William Frazier and David Douglass.
Image includes Robert Johnstone, Joseph or Lewis Barnes, William Worger,
Peter Taylor, Samuel Newman and Albert L. Smith.
Charles Godfrey, Benjamin Hughes and Jonathan Davidson.
Writing from a conscript camp in Connecticut, Captain William Sears of the 2nd Rhode Island
noted how Francis Ronien died at Bull Run. (fold3.com via National Archives)


  1. The 2nd Rhode Island was Major Sullivan Balou's regt., he of the famous letter to his wife priow it's presentiment of his dying in the same battle.

    1. Rob Grandchamp8:49 PM

      Ballou didn't write it.


  2. Great read and visual. As always awesome article.