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Hidden in Plain Sight

Situated on the banks of the Pamunkey River in Virginia, White House Landing had colonial connections. It bore the name of a nearby plantation owned by John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington, and later William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee and great-grandson of Martha.

During the Civil War, the landing emerged as a hub of activity. Captured by Union forces, its wharves were often crowded with transport vessels depositing supplies vital to the war effort. In addition to operating as a major logistical base, White House also served as a gathering point for wounded soldiers awaiting transport to larger hospitals and Confederate prisoners of war to any number of Northern camps.  

The latter is the scene displayed in this albumen photograph, which depicts captured Confederate soldiers at White House Landing. The picture was originally published in the third volume of Francis Trevelyan Miller’s 1911 book, The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes. William Frassanito, the preeminent historian of Civil War photography, identified it as the work of assistants with Brady & Co., and noted that it was listed as Plate No. 9202 in Matthew Brady’s 1864 catalog. There, it appeared as “View of Rebel Prisoners at White House Landing.” Heritage Auctions sold this print in 2014.

Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com

Photography was a relatively new medium at the onset of the Civil War. The remnants of thousands of images that were struck of soldiers both North and South provide an invaluable tool for scholars who attempt to understand, analyze and interpret these warriors. While numerous photographs exist of Union soldiers in the field, the number of Confederate images in this category is considerably smaller. Therefore, researchers turn to prisoner of war photographs, such as this one, to study the Southern soldier.

Frassanito identified these soldiers as prisoners captured during the Overland Campaign in early June 1864. The dating suggests that many of them served during the glory days when the Army of Northern Virginia stymied Union forces and achieved a string of major battle victories. Though the war had not gone their way in 1864, their posture, uniforms, and facial expressions suggest an air of confidence that speaks more to their makeup than might a myriad of books.

This image supplies a wealth of information. A wide variety of uniforms are visible upon close study. Although most of these well-shod soldiers are wearing short Richmond Depot type jackets, a few have hung on to the earlier frock coats, both military and civilian. Nearly all of them appear without knapsacks. A few retain their blankets and ground cloths. Hardly any wear military headgear. Most sport civilian-style hats with a number of them shaped and worn in a rather jaunty manner. Of special interest are the items that some soldiers display. One clutches a can converted into a boiler, while another holds forth a single piece of hardtack.

Though all of the subjects are intriguing, several stand out. One figure on the extreme left of the photograph appears to be relieving himself. Also on the left, a black man stands behind the individual with his hands on his hips. Another interesting character, a boy, has his back turned, as if trying to hide. He is on the right side, amid the first standing row. To his right, a crouching prankster makes a hand gesture behind his unsuspecting pard’s back, causing some around him to smile. This humorous scene provides an ironic contrast to the dire predicament of these prisoners of war. One wonders if this fun-loving jokester survived.  

Remarkably, two individuals appear to be quite feminine.

Documentation shows that, in fact, one woman was among the captured Confederates at White House Landing. Some researchers point to the possibility of two more, but camp rumor may have resulted in garbled stories that actually referred to the same woman: Jane A. Perkins. She and her brother, John, were Irish immigrants who settled in Pittsylvania County, Va., before the war broke out. After her brother enlisted in a Confederate artillery unit, Perkins went with him because she “did not want to be left alone in a strange country.”

She served until 1864, when Union troops took her prisoner. Some accounts claim she fell into enemy hands during the Battle of Cold Harbor. This is likely a mistake however, resulting from the fact that she arrived at White House Landing with approximately 900 Confederate soldiers, a number of whom were taken prisoner during that battle. Further accounts note that she was captured at her cannon while bearing the rank of either a sergeant or lieutenant, depending on the source. Perkins told reporters she was taken while fetching water. Moreover, military records list her rank as a private, and document her capture in the vicinity of Hanover Junction on May 27, 1864, while serving with an unnamed Virginia battery.  

Upon her arrival at White House Landing, Federal captors learned that she was quite a feisty and defiant Confederate, fiercely loyal to the Southern cause for which she was prepared to die. The best supporting evidence of this stems from the fact that she petitioned the two governments in the press to allow her and Union Dr. Mary E. Walker to settle the country’s differences in mortal combat. Perkins claimed to have met Walker just two months prior when the latter served as a contract surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry. The Confederates captured Walker as a spy, and Perkins claimed that she was one of the guards who escorted the doctor to prison in Richmond.  

But now it was Perkins who was a prisoner, and quite a surly one at that.  

A reporter in the Pittsburgh Gazette noted that she “curse[d] the Yankees most fervently.” George Perkins, a private in the 6th New York Independent Battery simply said that, “She did not talk nice.” Engineer Washington Roebling described her as “independent and saucy.” Later on in her imprisonment, a Massachusetts soldier noted that she was “noisy and troublesome” and that she “steadily sets at defiance all the rules.” Indeed, Perkins’ hot mouth proved a catalyst for multiple physical confrontations with guards throughout her stay in various federal prisons.  

Perkins’ appearance was as rough as her demeanor. Eyewitnesses described her as a “Dirty looking specimen” and a “large, muscular masculine looking woman.” One Ohio soldier observed that she did not cut her hair, unlike her sister soldiers. Rather, she wore it braided and tucked up under her hat. Therefore, she did not make much of an effort to disguise herself as a man when she enlisted. As a matter of fact, one newspaper reported that her male comrades had always been aware of her true identity.

With this description of Jane Perkins in mind, a close study of the image of Confederate prisoners at White House Landing reveals one individual who appears a perfect candidate for her. The soldier standing approximately fifth from the right, and just to the left of the jokester, possesses all of the characteristics eyewitnesses attributed to her. The individual certainly appears to be a woman as evidenced by masses visible in the chest area, indicating the presence of breasts. With hands on hips, the soldier strikes a pose that exudes defiance and pride, traits Perkins consistently exhibited, much to the frustration of her Yankee captors.

“These observations—a feminine riding style hat, no jacket when most others have one, and womanly features— beg the question: Does this look like a soldier in the Confederate army?”

The clothing is noteworthy. The collar indicates the soldier wears a shirt as opposed to a jacket or frock coat. The individual certainly could have had such a garment and removed it prior to posing for the photograph. The shirt is made of cotton or muslin, and contains pleats on the front. The garment’s material and style indicate a civilian manufacture as opposed to military. The shading at the left hip perhaps denotes the presence of mule ear pockets, a common feature in civilian pants and some Confederate military trousers. The hat is of a rather obscure type. The mid-crown and very short brim more closely resembles a woman’s riding hat, rather than a military or man’s civilian model. And it would be the perfect style to hold hair stuffed up inside it, just as eyewitnesses described Perkins wearing her hair.

These observations—a feminine riding style hat, no jacket when most others have one, and womanly features— beg the question: Does this look like a soldier in the Confederate army? The answer is a resounding no, unless that soldier is Jane Perkins.

Alternatively, this individual may be an unidentified cook, laundress or officer’s wife who accompanied the regiment. There were instances of such women killed or captured during action.  For example, two women, Margaret Leonard and Janie Hunt, were incarcerated in Andersonville when Confederates captured their husbands. Both elected to go to prison rather than suffer separation from their loved ones. Commandant Henry Wirz ultimately sent both women north. The accounts of these women are well documented. No sources have thus far come to light however, detailing any such woman possibly among the Confederates at White House Landing.

Is the soldier in the image the “large, muscular masculine looking woman” known as Jane Perkins? While a definitive identification may prove elusive, scholars can certainly make a case for it, especially considering the fact that primary sources, including military documents, list her as a prisoner of war at White House Landing at the time of this photograph. If this person is indeed Jane, then this image represents the only one known of a female soldier with her male comrades in the field.

When the Federals shipped off the soldiers in this photograph to Point Lookout in Maryland, Perkins went with them, arriving on June 8, 1864. She stayed there for a month before the Federals transferred her to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. In October 1864, officials sent Perkins to Fitchburg, Mass., and confined her in the House of Correction, a facility used to hold particularly disagreeable women. Five months later, she boarded a train bound for Fortress Monroe, where she was exchanged as a prisoner of war. Her imprisonment lasted 10 months.

Perkins then disappeared from history. In 2014, researchers found a burial record for an individual named Jane Perkins who was interred on Sept. 25, 1865, in an unmarked grave in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va. They believed this resting place held the Civil War woman soldier, and set out to petition the Veterans Administration for an appropriate marker. Three years later, in September 2017, Jane Perkins received a military headstone in Section R, Lot 117. A closer examination of the burial records however, shows that this Jane Perkins was 39 years old at the time she was killed, and was born in Nottoway County, Va. Meanwhile, the soldier woman Jane Perkins was an Irish immigrant, and in her mid- to late-20s when she was captured in 1864—10 years younger than the individual interred in Hollywood Cemetery. Therefore, it appears that the wrong Jane Perkins received a military headstone.

A search continues to locate her true resting place.

References: Pittsburgh Commercial, June 16, 1864; Pittsburgh Gazette, June 10, 1864; Beil and Beil, Lady Rebel: The Story of Private Jane Perkins, CSA; Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War; Case Files of Investigation by Levi C. Turner and Lafayette C. Baker, 1861-1866, (Turner), file 2169 (RG 94, NARA); Confederate Prisoners of War, Register of Prisoners at Point Lookout (RG 109, NARA); Confederate Compiled Service Records, Unfiled Papers and Slips (RG 109, NARA); The Center for Civil War Photography Facebook page, June 10, 2018; Heritage Auctions; Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865; Hollywood Cemetery Website, “The Life of Jane Perkins”; Lincoln, Life with the Thirty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry in the War of the Rebellion; Miller, The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes (Vol. 3); Perkins, Three Years a Soldier: The Diary and Newspaper Correspondence of Private George Perkins, Sixth New York Independent Battery, 1861-1864; Boston Traveler, Dec. 27, 1864.

Shelby Harriel received her M.Ed. in history and mathematics from the University of Southern Mississippi. She currently teaches mathematics at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss. Her book, Behind the Rifle: Women Soldiers in Civil War Mississippi, is slated for publication by the University Press of Mississippi in 2019. Visit her website at sites.google.com/view/shelbyharriel.

Mark Hidlebaugh has shared his knowledge of the life of the common soldier through participating in living history programs and giving presentations for more than 35 years. A lifelong student of the Civil War, his idea of a perfect vacation is visiting and studying Civil War battlefields with his fiancé, Shelby. He also volunteers his time coaching Special Olympics basketball in Muscatine, Iowa.

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