This group of musicians belongs to the 26th New York Infantry, as evidenced by the regimental number on the drums and the NY waist belt plate worn by the principal musician seated on the left with a Model 1842 sword. Two buglers are seated next to him. Three drummers stand in the back. The frock coats with piping and Pattern 1858 forage caps worn by all the men suggest that they posed for this portrait early in the war. By 1864 these same musicians would wear standard four-button sack coats similar to every other member of the rank and file.
The brass chain crafted of long, thin links dangling from this militiaman’s coat presents us with something of a mystery. Chains of this style held a small whisk brush at one end with a vent pick secured to the other. They were used by flintlock musket and rifle-wielding soldiers to keep their weapon ignition systems clear of the black power residue that accumulated after only a few shots. The man’s hat and other factors suggest he posed for this image some time between 1858 and 1861, long after the flintlock era had passed. Therefore, why he wears the chain isn’t entirely clear. There would be no mystery, however, if his weapon were present. This artifact of a bygone era may have been ornamental, much like the tinsel on a Christmas tree. It may have been functional, however, at the time the photograph was taken. He still may have been armed with an obsolete firearm — at least until his state or the federal government could provide a more modern replacement. One wonders if the soldier’s weapon was just out of range of the photographer’s lens.
The Model 1849 Colt Pocket revolver and knife tucked into the waist belt of this Southern fighter enhance his determined expression. The faintest signs of crow’s feet around his light-colored eyes, and lines across his brow and neck, indicate that he was slightly older than the average volunteer. His overall appearance, including his hat with a five-pointed star, suggests that he hailed from Mississippi or Texas.
Reclining on a bedroll and knapsack, this thickly mustachioed federal foot soldier cradles his Model 1861 Springfield musket. Though the mountains and water feature painted on the backdrop behind him has a fantastical quality about it, the presence of camp tents indicates that the harsh realities of war can invade even the most peaceful corners.
Symbols of America at war, opposite, surround a man described as “Brother Jonathan,” a Revolutionary War era character akin to Uncle Sam. They include a small-bore ceremonial cannon, the Stars and Stripes, a young girl costumed as Lady Liberty, and a toddler dressed in apparent zouave-inspired attire. The gun was probably used for July 4th celebrations and other patriotic events.
A pair of images of a teenager, above, raises questions about his identity and military connection. In one portrait, he sits with his hands resting on the legs of his striped army trousers. His waist belt plate, a two-piece militia model that dates from 1845-1850, and the Pattern 1858 infantry horn on his hat, predate the Civil War. Pinned to his shirt is a medallion, perhaps an identification disk or a patriotic or political badge, and it has been heavily tinted with gold paint. The second portrait is distinguished by the presence of the Stars and Stripes that is affixed to a pole grasped by the teen. He is clad in the same shirt, pants and hat. A few differences are worthy of note. The hat may be worn backwards as the infantry horn is missing. The belt and militia plate have been replaced with the standard issue oval US plate. The two rings he wears are on different hands and fingers.
It is difficult from these observations to determine whether he served as a soldier or as a servant to a Union officer—or both. It is however a near certainty that these images were meant to be viewed together to commemorate a transition from slavery to emancipation or from slave to soldier. Moreover, that the more ornate (and expensive) frame used for the flag portrait indicates it was the more important of the two. These are familiar storylines to millions of men and women of color living in the war-torn South and the Union officers who encountered slaves and freedmen of all circumstances.
The provenance of the photographs is the estate of a prominent field officer who was killed in action during Grant’s Overland Campaign. Surviving family have requested his identity be kept private. This connection suggests that the teen was an escaped slave, or contraband, employed by the officer as a servant. But it sheds no additional light on whether this teen posed with the national flag to celebrate his freedom or his enlistment in the Union army.
A pair of images discovered at different times and locations appear to have been taken by the same photographer, based on clothing and the elaborately painted backdrop. An artilleryman identified only by the regimental number 15 attached to his plumed hat brandishes a Whitney revolver. The reason why he had his photograph made in two formats is not known. He may have wanted the unique ambrotype, right, with his knife-wielding comrade as a singular keepsake, and the carte de visite, below, from which numerous prints could be made from a glass negative for family and friends.
275,175 is the generally accepted figure of federals wounded in action during the Civil War. This soldier may have been among that number. He stands before the camera with his injured arm or hand supported by a sling fashioned from a handkerchief. The furrowed brow below cap protected by a rain cover suggests he is in pain—or perhaps a physical manifestation of emotional pain he endures.
Everything about this early war portrait of a Confederate infantryman suggests that he hails from Texas, and that he served in the Trans-Mississippi Theater of the war. His battle shirt and hat, and the pose he strikes, resemble other images from the region. The gun he holds appears a Model 1855 rifle musket.