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Dwelling in Peace in the Land of Spirits

In September 1862, a freshly minted Union enlisted man posed for a photographer in or near Camp Susquehanna on the outskirts of Binghamton, N.Y. There, the state’s 137th Infantry trained for war, drilled to precision by the outfit’s colonel, David Ireland, a veteran of the 15th U.S. Infantry. The private, wearing a newly issued frock coat and kepi, its visor gleaming, had two tintypes made during his visit.

On another September day 156 years later, an exhausted Paul Mehney collapsed in bed after witnessing his wife’s 18 hours of labor to bring their newborn son into the world. Though after midnight, he couldn’t sleep. A Civil War collector, he decided that a flip through social media to see if any new images had surfaced might serve to relax his mind. He found none. He did, however, see Ron Coddington’s smiling face on Facebook with his post of the previous evening’s Military Images Live webcast.

Mehney started to watch, and, about 10 minutes into the program, Ron began talking about the 19th century practice of “memorial photography”—images taken of earlier views of soldiers who had been lost in the war. Ron shared a particular portrait to illustrate the topic, a late 1860s era carte de visite apparently copied from an earlier hard image. The photograph pictured Pvt. Admiral T. Coon of the 137th New York Infantry, posed with a child on his lap.

Sixth-plate tintype attributed to a photographer at Camp Susquehanna, Binghamton, N.Y. Charles Joyce Collection; Carte de visite by E. Murphy & Brothers of Binghamton, N.Y. Cara Leigh Stewart Collection.
Sixth-plate tintype attributed to a photographer at Camp Susquehanna, Binghamton, N.Y. Charles Joyce Collection; Carte de visite by E. Murphy & Brothers of Binghamton, N.Y. Cara Leigh Stewart Collection.

Mehney paused in disbelief. Not only did the carte generate obvious emotive appeal for him after the previous day’s events, it also looked an awful lot like an image in his own collection. Could it be? Or was he just seeing things due to a mixture of fatigue, nerves and adrenaline?

Out of bed, down the hall and into the collection room, and there, on the wall, hanged the tintype that exactly matched the carte. Moreover, Mehney had two more tintypes of the soldier, including one that showed him with a young lady. He had owned the trio of images for about five years.

To add to Mehney’s incredulity, his friend and fellow collector Charles Joyce owned the carte featured on the program. Mehney shot off a short note to Joyce to alert him of this discovery.

It turned out that the carte in Joyce’s possession, taken by E. Murphy & Brothers in Binghamton, had been recently found in a box of old photographs in that city, along with another, slightly faded version that had a period ink identification on the verso: “Admiral Coon- Killed at Gettysburg.” This pair of cartes de visite had been put up for auction on eBay. Alerted to them by a collector friend, Joyce lost a bidding war for the pair. But the seller kindly put him in touch with the buyer, Cara Leigh Stewart, who agreed to sell him one of the two cartes.

Joyce and Mehney worked out a trade that ended with the hard images going to Joyce and the carte de visite coming into Mehney’s possession. Together they researched Coon’s story, aiming to answer key questions about the images. Who was the young child perched on his lap? Who was his lady friend?     

Here is what they found.

Born in Binghamton in 1835, Coon barely knew his mother, Mary, who died before his fifth birthday. A decade later, his father, Jesse, suffered debilitating injuries in an accident with a runaway team of horses.

Coon was a middle child. Two older brothers died as young adults; one on the eve of the war and the other, Jesse Jr., of disease after he enlisted in the 27th New York Infantry. Coon had two younger sisters. Mary, two years his junior, cared for their invalid father. Ruth, his other sister, had married Byron Layton. They were parents of Edward, born on Sept. 28, 1859.

In Life and In Memorium: Admiral T. Coon holds his nephew, Eddie, in this tintype portrait. The edge of the dress of a woman is visible along the lower right side of the mat. She is likely Eddie’s mother and Coon’s sister, Ruth. Sixth-plate tintypes attributed to a photographer at Camp Susquehanna, Binghamton, N.Y. Charles Joyce Collection.
In Life and In Memorium: Admiral T. Coon holds his nephew, Eddie, in this tintype portrait. The edge of the dress of a woman is visible along the lower right side of the mat. She is likely Eddie’s mother and Coon’s sister, Ruth. Sixth-plate tintypes attributed to a photographer at Camp Susquehanna, Binghamton, N.Y. Charles Joyce Collection.

The discovery of Edward’s name provides the key to identifying the child and woman posed with Coon. Mehney had long believed they were Coon’s wife and child, a reasonable assumption considering other similar images of wartime families. But a period ink inscription on the back of the newly discovered carte, “Little Edward Layton,” tells a different story. The child was Coon’s nephew, not his son. Further examination of the un-matted tintype from which the carte was copied reveals a portion of a dark dress of a woman, who is likely Edward’s mother, Ruth. As the woman wearing the same dress posed with Coon in one of the other tintypes, it is reasonable to conclude that she is Ruth.

Given the fact that all three—brother, sister and nephew, posed together, it became apparent to Mehney and Joyce that these tintypes were taken during the regiment’s September 1862 sojourn at Camp Susquehanna. Coon’s clean cut and crisp uniform reinforces this date, as he had enlisted only a month earlier.

Little Eddie was just shy of his third birthday when he posed with his uncle. The photographer who produced the tintypes may be the same lensman who made the copy carte—Ezra Murphy, who is listed in the 1860 federal census as a daguerreotypist who resided in Binghamton.

Soon after the tintypes were taken, Coon and the rest of the regiment, some 967 strong, departed camp and entrained to the seat of war, passing through the south central Pennsylvania town of York, just a short distance east of Gettysburg, before they arrived in Washington, D.C., in early October 1862. There, the New Yorkers joined the Army of the Potomac, assigned to Brig. Gen. George Sears Greene’s Brigade in the Second Division of the Twelfth Corps.  

The regiment did not see large-scale action until the Battle of Chancellorsville the following May, fighting on the defensive behind hastily-built breastworks. It sustained three killed, 17 wounded, and 36 missing, and won the praise of Greene, who wrote that the men had “displayed great coolness and good discipline.” Coon emerged unharmed.

Sixth-plate tintype attributed to a photographer at Camp Susquehanna, Binghamton, N.Y. Charles Joyce Collection.
Sixth-plate tintype attributed to a photographer at Camp Susquehanna, Binghamton, N.Y. Charles Joyce Collection.

Two months later, on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, the 137th arrived at Gettysburg with 425 men, its numbers whittled down by half due to disease, death, desertion and discharges. Though the regiment had performed well at Chancellorsville, Col. Ireland worried his men were not fully prepared. His fears heightened during the early evening of July 2, when the regiment occupied a critical spot on the end of Greene’s thin line of New York regiments defending the Union right flank on Culp’s Hill.  

Filling existing entrenchments left empty by other men of the 12th Corps that had moved off earlier in the day to bolster Union defenses elsewhere, Ireland’s boys took position in a single rank along the saddle and lower summit of the Hill. Dangerously spaced out, the 137th could not begin to cover the entire front of the departed regiments. Its right flank lay completely unprotected. No more than 500 yards to the rear lay Baltimore Pike, the principal line of supply and retreat for the entire Union Army. If Confederates carried these works, they might block the Union army’s single lifeline and achieve a decisive victory.

The 137th had not been in position long before enemy troops descended upon them with deadly force and superior numbers: 2,100 battle-hardened veterans of Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart’s brigade of Virginians, North Carolinians, and the 1st Maryland Infantry.

The right of Steuart’s command struck the Union line first and were roughly handled, caught in the depression between the two summits of the Hill and hit by converging fire from the 137th and the regiment to its left, the 149th New York. The far left of rebels’ assaulting column, however, charged up the lower slope beyond the exposed right flank of Ireland’s men and swept into and behind abandoned breastworks. “At this time,” Ireland later reported, “we were fired on heavily from three sides—from the front of the works, from the right, and from a stone wall in our rear. Here we lost severely in killed and wounded.”  

“We were fired on heavily from three sides—from the front of the works, from the right, and from a stone wall in our rear. Here we lost severely in killed and wounded.”  

Among the fallen was Coon, shot through both knees.

Facing possible annihilation, Ireland ordered his men to pivot 90 degrees backwards into a traverse line of breastworks that had been constructed earlier in the day by a prescient Greene in the event of just such an emergency.

Ireland’s order came at well past 8 p.m., by which time the moon had not risen above the heavily wooded ground. The darkness and dense black powder smoke from sustained musket fire rendered visibility near nil. In the confusion, Coon and other wounded were left where they fell. Those still on their feet executed this complicated maneuver, tumbled into the traverse, and continued the desperate fight for two more hours. Twice the New Yorkers emerged from the traverse and drove back the attackers on the point of bayonets. Finally, with the aid of reinforcements from the Union First Corps, they pushed the rebels back, at least for the evening.

A sergeant in the 137th recalled in a letter home, “We stood firm not flinching & gave them what they say was the most murderous fire that they ever came in contact with. There was more or less firing all night & great many killed on our side & the rebs piled in heaps. …We were a hard looking set of fellows when the battle was over our faces were as black as cole. Our clothes were covered with blood & dirt. Some places in the trenches the ground was saturated with Human blood.”

It was well past 10 p.m. on the night of July 2 before the survivors could venture out to collect their stricken comrades. Coon’s tentmate, Pvt. Thomas Jefferson Finch, discovered him “in a hopeless condition,” with a fresh gunshot wound in his abdomen. He helped Coon into an ambulance, which trundled a few hundred yards down a farm lane to the barn of Abraham Spangler, the temporary field hospital of their division.

Coon and his comrades occupied a critical spot on the end of Brig. Gen. George S. Greene’s thin line of New York regiments defending the Union right flank on Culp’s Hill. Detail of a stereo card produced by Gettysburg photographer William H. Tipton. Charles Joyce Collection.
Coon and his comrades occupied a critical spot on the end of Brig. Gen. George S. Greene’s thin line of New York regiments defending the Union right flank on Culp’s Hill. Detail of a stereo card produced by Gettysburg photographer William H. Tipton. Charles Joyce Collection.

Coon’s rapid transport from the battlefield to the division aid station is noteworthy, as the hospital wagons in his Corps traveled with the troops. In other corps, ambulances sat far behind the front, and often became hopelessly mired in traffic headed toward the main lines. Given the more immediate access to medical supplies, one hopes that Coon received the benefit of morphine or a spoonful of brandy to ease the pain caused by his horrific wounds. No medicine could prevent his death, which occurred at some point on July 3. He never knew that the battle that cost him his life ended in victory for the Union.

The next day, July 4th, Finch and others buried Coon and his fellow fallen of the regiment together on the north side of Spangler’s field, near the woods. Finch recalled that they placed “a board with the name of the sleeper at the head of each, that their friends [could] readily find the spot where their loved one lies.”

The 137th lost 34 percent of its men defending the end of the Union line on Culp’s Hill.

A soldier correspondent paid tribute to Coon in a letter to the editor of the Binghamton Standard on July 11, “Too much cannot be said in praise of the brave and patriotic Admiral T. Coon, who received wounds Thursday night which proved fatal. Ever ready and willing to do his duty without a word of complaint, helping his comrades when in want, he soon won the respect of officers and fellow soldiers, and we mourn for him as those only can who have lost a loved companion in arms.  May we imitate his many noble traits and virtues, and be prepared like him to dwell in peace in the land of the spirits.”

Coon’s body was later exhumed, returned to New York and buried in the Layton Family Cemetery, not far from the grave of his brother Jesse. Coon’s gravestone is inscribed with what might be his dying words: “Tell Mother I have hopes of meeting my savior.”

Another fresh mound of earth was also nearby in the Layton graveyard: That of little Eddie, who had fallen sick and died in May. That same month, his bereaved mother gave birth to another son, whom she and her husband named Admiral P. Layton.

It may have been Coon himself who wanted these images to be discovered more than 150 years after the birth of another young boy.

References: Admiral T. Coon military service record and pension file, National Archives; Binghamton Standard, July 11, 1863; New York at Gettysburg, Vol. III; Jorgensen, “Holding the Right,” Gettysburg Magazine 15 (1996); Fennell, “George Greene’s Defense of Culp’s Hill,” Blue & Gray Magazine Vol. XX, No. 2 (1996); Koss, “Culp’s Hill- Action on the Lesser Summit,” Blue & Gray Magazine, Vol.XIV, No. 5 (1997); Cleutz, Fields of Fame and Glory; Gottfried, Brigades of Gettysburg; Hoisington, Gettysburg and the Christian Commission; Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery; Busey and Busey, Union Casualties at Gettysburg: A Comprehensive Record, Vols. 2 & 3; American Battlefield Trust, “Death on the Baltimore Pike,” battlefields.org/learn/articles/death-baltimore-pike; Samuel Lusk, 137th New York Infantry, to his parents, July 6-7, 1863, Gettysburg National Military Park (Note: The quote featured was slightly modified for comprehension).

The former assistant editor of Michigan History Magazine, Paul D. Mehney currently serves as a public communications director in the Department of the Army.

Charles Joyce, a Senior Editor of MI, focuses his collection on images of soldiers killed, wounded, or captured at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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