Friday, September 17, 2021

Did this daguerreotype save a soldier's life at Antietam?

On Oct. 2, 1927, the Baltimore Sun printed this photograph of daguerreotype a
5th Maryland soldier carried into battle at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.

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Soldiers often carried a photograph of a loved one into battle during the Civil War. Images of sweethearts, wives, or family members sometimes were discovered with the fallen by burial crews or souvenir hunters. Following Gettysburg, a carte de visite of three children clutched by a dead Union soldier led to his identificiation—Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th New York became one of that battle's most famous casualties. At the war's bloodiest single-day battle, a family photograph may have even saved a soldier's life.

The 5th Maryland monument near Bloody Lane
at Antietam. 
On Oct. 1, 1861, George D. Wernex enlisted in the 5th Maryland, a Union regiment. He survived the Civil War physically unscathed, mustering out as a corporal on Sept. 1, 1865. At the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, he carried with him a daguerreotype of his 25-year-old sister, Anna Mary—before he marched off to war, he promised to carry the picture of his bejweled sibling in the breast pocket of his coat. 

During that day's brutal fighting, perhaps near Bloody Lane, a bullet struck Wernex in the chest, denting the daguerreotype but apparently doing no physical damage to him. Wernex was among the lucky ones in the 5th Maryland, which suffered 39 killed and 109 wounded at Antietam.

"Returning to his home [after the war]," the Baltimore Sun reported on Oct. 2, 1927, "he presented the picture to his sister, asking her to retain it always as the charm that saved his life." After the war, George served as a Baltimore fireman—he missed only three alarms in 30 years—and ran a cigar store for 42 years. 

"His customers numbered many of those who were frequent passengers on trains leaving Camden Station, his business being located just across the street from the depot," the Sun reported after Wernex's death from Bright's disease at age 71 in 1915. "He had been a reader of the Sun ever since he had received sufficient education to be able to read."

Werner undoubtedly was pleased that his sister prized the battle-damaged photo. After she married  Charles L. Mattfeldt, the couple gave the daguerreotype a "prominent place in their home." After Anna Mary's death in 1916, the image was inherited by her son, Charles, a doctor and Baltimore County health officer. He kept the "cherished" photo, "draped with Stars and Stripes," in his office in Cantonville, Md. Dr. Mattfeldt died in 1934.

The current whereabouts of the image, however, are unknown.

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  • Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1915, Oct. 2, 1927
  • Find A Grave

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