Confederates captured David Heckendorn on an autumn day in 1863 as he traveled by train through Virginia towards Orange Courthouse. His seizure was perhaps no surprise in this volatile region inhabited by marauding rebels and Union patrols. But unlike most other prisoners, Heckendorn did not serve in the army—he worked as an approved photographer in the Army of the Potomac.
How Heckendorn came to be aboard the train tracks back to his passion for education and an interest in daguerreotypes.
A native Pennsylvanian descended from a Revolutionary War veteran, Heckendorn received an education at Mifflinburg Academy, located about 60 miles north of Harrisburg. He embraced public education, answered a call to be a teacher, and proved an able instructor. He also proved a capable administrator when, in 1857, he won election as school superintendent of Union County, Pa., and embarked on the first of two 3-year terms.
Active in his district, Heckendorn traveled by foot from school to school during the weekdays, staying at the homes of friends along the way. Weekends were spent at home in New Berlin, Pa., with his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1853, and their family, which grew to include five daughters. At some point along the way, he became fascinated with photography and kept an amateur daguerreotype studio.
In late 1861, the year of the birth of his youngest daughter, Heckendorn glimpsed the war firsthand. At the conclusion of an education convention in Harrisburg, he and a group of others visited Washington, D.C. Curious to see the Union army, but unwilling to pay the $10 to $15 per day ($300-$450 in today’s dollars) to hire a carriage, they instead walked across the Long Bridge spanning the Potomac River into Virginia. He noted in a letter to a niece on Dec. 6, 1861, “The Army of the Potomac consisting of from 150 to 200,000 men, well-fed and eager for a fight. Many forts proved an interesting sight, but the country presented a destitute appearance—all trees cut down to prevent the enemy coming unnoticed, rails cut up for fuel.”
His letter continued, “The basement of the capitol installed with ovens to bake bread—250 bbls of flour, enough for a fourth of the Army of the Potomac. More than a hundred four-horse wagons in line. Washington, D. C., presented a busy and exciting spectacle.”
Heckendorn faced Confederate invasion again two years later when, in June 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia crossed into Pennsylvania and took the war into Northern territory. In the midst of a state of emergency, his second term as school superintendent ended and he chose not to run for a third term. Instead, he turned to his hobby, photography, and joined an organization in great need of lensmen—the Army of the Potomac.
A few months after the Battle of Gettysburg ended Lee’s incursion, Heckendorn accepted an assignment as an approved photographist in the army’s Fifth Corps, and served under the blue Maltese Cross flag of the 3rd Division commanded by a fellow Pennsylvanian, Brig. Gen Samuel W. Crawford.
Heckendorn’s motivations for joining the cadre of army photographers is unclear. At age 39, he may have sought a break after an active life as an educator and father. He might have seized this opportunity to realize his dream of becoming a professional photographer. Or, he may have wanted to contribute in his own way to the war effort by making portraits of soldiers eager to share their likenesses with family, friends and comrades.
Also unclear is exactly when he left home. According to another letter to his niece, dated Oct. 10, 1863, illness delayed his departure.
The next bit of evidence concerning his whereabouts comes via a news report of his capture by Confederates on Nov. 28, 1863. The announcement appeared in a local Lewisburg newspaper, the Union County Star & Chronicle: “We understand he was pursuing his occupation, as a daguerreotypist and being only a private citizen—in nowise belligerent—and also in very infirm health, may indulge the hope that he will be exchanged for some Rebel citizen prisoner.”
Whether or not he joined the army and took photographs remains a mystery. If he did, his window of opportunity was narrow, a matter of weeks between the letter to his niece and the news report.
The Confederates who captured Heckendorn hauled him off to Libby Prison, where he wrote letters describing his experience. In one letter, printed in the Star & Chronicle, Heckendorn explained that on Jan. 1, 1864, his captors moved him to General Hospital #13. The facility was also known as Castle Thunder Hospital. The newspaper wished him well with his photographic pursuits, “We hope he will get good ‘types’ of all Rebs, and Union men he sees.”
Meanwhile, efforts to free him led to a $300 ransom payment by Heckendorn’s father, Adam, to gain his release. Heckendorn returned home on March 5, 1864, after about three months as a prisoner. A few days later, the Star & Chronicle provided an upbeat report that set Heckendorn’s departure from Richmond against the daring raid by Maj. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick and his Union cavalry that ended in failure on the outskirts of the Confederate capital: “Our old friend David Heckendorn, arrived, direct from Richmond, having reached that city a little in advance of Kilpatrick, and has been spending the winter there, not so much from choice as (military) necessity. His appearance indicates irregular diet, albeit he is lively, and left his stamping ground in Dixie without many regrets.”
Heckendorn looked to the future with optimism as he laid plans to go into the photography business in New Berlin. In early April, 1864, he wrote to his niece in nearby Perry County, Pa., “Do you want anybody down in Perry to take photographs yet!”
Shortly after he penned this letter, Heckendorn fell gravely ill and died two weeks later, on April 26, 1864. His remains were laid to rest in the cemetery at New Berlin. His wife and daughters survived him.
An obituary paid tribute to his character and contributions as a “faithful, energetic, and efficient school man,” who “was loved and respected for his many noble qualities” by both teachers and patrons of the schools. It also attributed his death, in part, to his brief stint with the army, noting, “The ravages of Libby prison were too great a drain on his vitality.” It ended with an admonition to teachers, “Your old leader has laid down his armor! Toil on faithfully, as he did, to advance the cause of Universal Education, and your reward will be sure!”
References: Deppen and Deppen, Counting Kindred of Christian Deppen and History of Christian Ruchty and Other Collateral Families, also the Complete Genealogical Family Register of Christian and Veronica (Ruchty) Deppen’s Family, Including the Carpenter, Yeakley and Heckendorn Lines; Dunkelberger, The Story of Snyder County, Heckathorn, The Heckendorn-Heckathorn Family in America, 1736-1982; Snyder, Union County, Pennsylvania: a Bicentennial History; Union County Star & Chronicle; Zeller, “Army of the Potomac Photographers,” civilwarphotography.com; “David Heckendorn,” theperryhistorians.com.
A resident of Central Pennsylvania, Sidney Dreese has had an interest in the Civil War since childhood. He and his wife, in their spare time, enjoy visiting Civil War sites. He holds an MA in American Studies from the Pennsylvania State University.
Diane Mazze of Pottstown, Pa., is the great-great-granddaughter of David Heckendorn.