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Keeper of History

If you ask Rich Jahn about the photographs he has collected for more than four decades, he takes a long view.

“We never own these images. We are only the keepers of history during our tenure of collecting. Someday someone else will be looking at these soldiers and saying, ‘I wonder where this image came from. Who had it before me? How did these images survive after all these years?’”

Jahn, of Paramus, N.J., became aware of the Civil War in boyhood after his father bought him a souvenir felt kepi with crossed rifles and an American flag decal. That was in the mid-1950s, when Jahn was about 10 years old and the Civil War Centennial approached on the near horizon. Later on, an eighth-grade class trip to Gettysburg and exposure to military history in high school heightened his enthusiasm. “My more intense interest came when my brother’s best friend invited me to his home to see his Civil War collection,” Jahn explains. “I was hooked.  From that day on I knew I would become a collector.”

Jahn became serious about image collecting in the mid-1970s after he bought a carte de visite of a Union infantryman for four dollars. Back then, he bought anything and everything—broken, bent, damaged, of questionable authenticity. Then. his brother’s friend stepped in with some advice: “You’re a young guy, Rich. You have a lot of years ahead of you to collect. Buy the best! Buy from reputable sellers or dealers. Go quality, not quantity,” Jahn recalls. “His words always ring true in my mind every time I make a decision on a trade or purchase.”

Over the years, Jahn developed his own collector’s instinct, evident in the representative images displayed here. “Sometimes I see a soldier armed to the teeth, loaded with photographer’s props, flags, rare carbines, etc.,” he says. “Do I try to add them to my collection? You betcha. But there is more to collecting than that. I might see a young soldier sitting tensely or nervously as he is photographed but he doesn’t have any props, weapons, flags etc., but I’m captivated by the pose, content, size of the image or contrast or just plain wondering who he was.”

What really drives Jahn to collect though is a connection to our country and its history.

“I’m a guy who loves America and the men and women who fought to protect what they thought were the right ideals for each other. The Civil War soldiers were heroes—whether from the North or South. That’s what it was all about. Hopefully, that’s what I’m about.”

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

The Stars and Stripes provide an appropriate backdrop for this pristine portrait of this patriotic trooper. He grasps a Model 1860 Cavalry saber in one hand and rests the other on the handle of a 12mm caliber French Lefaucheux revolver. His slightly wrinkled, dark blue kersey over shirt contrasts with a neatly tied silk cravat. The uncommon octagonal case frames the portrait nicely. “I was drawn to this image because of the condition and arrangement of the elements,” Jahn explains. This is one of my favorites.”

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

This guardian of the colors illustrates Daniel Webster’s oft repeated phrase, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” in this portrait. The infantryman appears resolute in a standard issue frock coat and cap with rain cover. How the Star-Spangled Banner became fastened to the crude pole held by this soldier suggests that this image may be the sole surviving relic of an untold story of the war.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

Campaign and camp may have been the subject of this pair of portraits, housed in the same case, of a cavalryman. On the left, the saber-cradling trooper appears in his uniform, sans cap. On the right, he strikes a similar pose in shirtsleeves and suspenders. The painted backdrop bears a strong resemblance to the well-known “Fort on the Hill” artwork seen in portraits by photographer Enoch B. Long, who operated out of Benton Barracks in St. Louis. But a closer look reveals differences, including the presence of a cannon muzzle and stack of munitions not found in Long’s backdrop.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

A young soldier with a tentative expression peers into the camera lens, seeming uncomfortable with his martial trappings. He grasps a Belgian-made musket and wears a canteen with leather sling and a weatherproof haversack with a wide muslin strap. A button attached to the corner of the haversack held the strap in place, though one can imagine that an overloaded haversack would force the button to become undone.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

A thickly bearded infantryman sports a prominent wheel hat identified to antebellum military, though the rest of his uniform speaks to the early Civil War period. He holds a French Model 1842 musket—in cocked position, with a finger tickling the trigger—and carries a Smith and Wesson No. 2 in his belt.

Ninth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Ninth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

The horror of war is evident in this portrait of this federal soldier. The empty sleeve hanging from his four-button sack coat cannot hide a radical amputation that appears to have included part of his shoulder. Despite the loss, his fleshy face and the way he grasps his coat with his remaining hand suggest he has made a full physical recovery. Yet one wonders what emotions lay hidden beneath the surface. “His pinned-up sleeve represents the sacrifices these young and older soldiers gave to their cause,” Jahn suggests.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

The ornate cap worn by this infantryman was very possibly sent from home. If true, he may have sent this portrait to his family as proof that he received it. The cap may be strictly for casual wear, or could have a fraternal connection. Whatever its origins, the cap would have been worn in camp and not in battle. Jahn says that it “is similar to others seen in images, but what caught my eye was the fact that he is not sitting in a relaxed atmosphere but instead he is dressed and armed as if he was ready for action.” This observation may explain a desire to impress the family with his military might, as evidenced by the Model 1856 Enfield rifled musket with sabre bayonet and a .36 caliber Allen and Wheelock Navy revolver.

Quarter-plate tintypes by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate tintypes by an anonymous photographer.

Musicians armed with fifes and drumsticks pose for their portrait in a camp studio. The flautist seated on the right wears a Pattern 1826 eagle plate for his waist belt, perhaps a memento from his father or another person who served in the military at an earlier time. The gent with the waxed mustache standing on the right carries an uncommon knight’s head militia sword. The leader of this band, seated at the lower left and in the separate portrait on the right side of the case, wears an officer’s frock coat without shoulder straps.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

This equestrian portrait is a study of the Union trooper. Jahn suggests that the pose “may fulfill the cavalryman’s fantasy that he is actually facing the enemy.” He adds that the view reinforces “the legend of the charging mounted soldier—saber in hand and fearlessly advancing toward the enemy without regard for his own well-being.”

Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.

A thickset first sergeant wears all the trappings allowed to a non-commissioned cavalry officer. Jahn explains, “This soldier has a most unique face, which drew me to the image at first sight. His nose appears slightly misshapen and eyes appear as though they have ‘seen the elephant.’”

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

A corporal adopts a bold and aggressive stance with his musket at the ready, aided by a photographer’s headstand placed behind him. A second stand is in full view below the musket. He appears posed in one of the many popular drill positions outlined in Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics or U.S. Infantry Tactics. But none reflect an exact match. Jahn opines, “The stance suggests the battle cry, ‘Let’s get ‘em boys!”

Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.

Though cavalrymen and other soldiers possessed full-dress, plumed Hardee hats and field caps, rarely do we see them together in a single portrait. This trooper shows off both. Whether the idea was his or an enterprising photographer seeking to create a more interesting portrait is not known. This is likely an early war view, as the soldier wears dark blue kersey trousers that were phased out of the cavalry in 1861. Also, troopers were not fond of the Pattern 1858 Hardee hat because of its poor aerodynamics and lack of chinstrap, and they soon discarded it.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

The sheet of paper held by the individual at the center of this portrait is an important clue to his identity, and that of his comrades. Although whatever is written, drawn, painted or printed is not visible, we can reasonably conclude that a map holds their attention, and that the artfully arranged three men are scouts. Their worn, casual civilian attire, tin cups and the backdrop of tents, in an otherwise bucolic valley scene, support the idea of seasoned travelers connected in some way to the military.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

A soldier reclines on the dirt floor of a camp photographer’s makeshift studio with an unadorned backdrop. He leans casually on a wood box or platform while holding his musket with his hand and bracing it upon his shoulder. He left behind his accouterments with the exception of a bayonet scabbard attached to his belt. “The casualness of his pose drew me to the thoughts that might be going through his mind as he relaxed before the photographer’s camera,” notes Jahn. “Thoughts of home? Thoughts of battle? Who knows. This part of his photo remains unanswered.”

Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.

An infantryman kneels with musket at the ready. His right index finger is placed inside the trigger guard. His cap bears what appears the regimental number 10. Faintly visible in the upper right are superimposed typeset words in blue ink that include “1863” and “spring.” This is likely the remains of a scrap of paper once tucked into the case against the surface of the image.

Sixth-plate ruby ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate ruby ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.

A pair of pards show off their Model 1842 muskets, knives and revolvers for posterity. The latter two weapons are neatly sheathed and holstered on a thin custom belt with a small buckle. Each belt is different, which suggests that they were not standard issue or photographer’s props, but privately purchased. Also, considering that early in the war the Union army forbad infantry soldiers from carrying personal revolvers, these men are likely new recruits.

Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.

A Zouave soldier and a friend in civilian clothes rest a hand on each other’s shoulder in a gesture of friendship and support. The soldier dressed in a Zouave jacket with unique tombeau trim is reminiscent of those worn by the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry. He also wears pantaloons and a sash, which support this regimental identification, though he lacks a vest and leggings, and has a casual hat instead of a fez. The men and officers of the 155th received regulation Union blue when they formed in the late summer of 1862. They switched to the Zouave style in early 1864.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

The red beard of this infantryman frames a set of steely blue eyes and deeply creased brow. Though his name is not currently known, several visual clues can help pinpoint his identity. The company letter D and the regimental designation 67 is visible above the double-buckle chinstrap of his cap. They appear in reverse due to the hard-plate photographic technology of the times. Dressed in a Pattern 1858 uniform coat, he brandishes an Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle musket and carries a Model 1849 Colt Pocket revolver.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

The bonds of love, loyalty and patriotism are evident in these handholding Northerners. The veteran seated in the center is not known by name, but metal numbers and letters attached to his hatband reveals the company and regiment in which he served: D 91 PENNA. The 91st Pennsylvania Infantry was recruited in the autumn of 1861 and remained in service throughout the war. The unit participated in many of the momentous battles with the Army of the Potomac, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and operations in front of Petersburg and Richmond in 1864 and 1865. The fate of this soldier and his companions remains a mystery.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

A trooper poses with a full complement of arms for his branch of the service. A Third Model Burnside Carbine, produced from 1863 on, hangs from his side. Tucked into his waist belt is a Remington Revolver. He rests his hands on the pommel and guard of his saber. Everything about his uniform is regulation with the exception of his cap, which was a private purchase. Like many military men, he went to great lengths to reverse his equipment to compensate for limitations of hard plate photography. It is as if that the revolver’s holster and cap box were removed when he inverted his belt. The elaborately painted military backdrop behind him includes the figure of a lone sentry walking the parapet of a fort.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

An analysis of this equestrian portrait suggests that the soldier is a pre-Civil War standard bearer from a Southern militia company influenced by European military styles. The trooper holds an officer’s cavalry saber of a French style imported to the U.S. He wears what appears a European uniform, but his Hardee hat is American. The banner he holds may be the emblem of his militia company. The horse tack seems a European make that predates the Civil War. The Americans and the French favored the crupper, or leather strap attached to the back of the saddle to keep it and other equipment from sliding forward. The non-regulation stirrups are of a type used by militia.

Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

A dashing cavalry officer stares confidently into the distance. A backdrop featuring a fort and flag adds to the drama. His greatcoat, with the single cuff loop of a first lieutenant, and protective headgear cover indicate that the photo was taken during the cooler seasons. “The arrangement of the soldier displays fantastic foresight on the part of the photographer or perhaps the soldier himself,” observes Jahn. “I am captivated by this image as I see in the subject a sense of confidence and military conviction. You get the effect of a committed cavalry trooper who appears to be a somewhat seasoned veteran. The way he stands with a foot positioned on the chair—that might have been a large rock if taken outdoors—makes it seem as if he is analyzing an enemy position, movement or just plain anticipating what might be happening next.”

Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.
Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.

A clean-shaven first lieutenant appears calm and resolute in this profile. He wears his high collar jacket complete with shoulder straps and two-piece brass buttons. Jahn believes that this close-up portrait may have been intended for a “loved one who wanted a memory his handsome face.” He adds, “Just a good, honest officer seated for a photograph that will be his way of being remembered long after his gallantry and service have expired.”

Full-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.
Full-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer.

A trooper in the 1st Vermont Cavalry sports two decorations on his uniform. To the left is an identification badge composed of crossed sabers and a prominent star that hangs from an eagle with outstretched wings. On the right is a ribbon with a badge of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s Veteran Corps. This badge suggests that the soldier belonged to Company M, which served a stint as Hancock’s escort in 1864. The 1st participated in 76 engagements during the war, including the Battle of Gettysburg, where it suffered heavy losses in Col. Elon J. Farnsworth’s ill-fated charge.

Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.
Sixth-plate tintype by an anonymous photographer.

Two soldiers with muskets stand for their portraits outside a photographer’s studio, the front-facing wall of which covered with an array of images. These framed, large-format portraits are reminiscent of the work of Mathew Brady and his team. Is the acclaimed photographer possibly inside? Some of the portraits depict soldiers wearing white cross-belts, which suggest they may hail from the Empire State. The three civilian men may be prominent citizens or politicians whose identities remain unknown. An entrepreneurial photographer who put his best and most expensive examples on display could also have taken all of the images. The smaller and more affordable images may also be present, only outside the frame of this shot. How the soldier came to pose outside the studio rather than inside remains a mystery. One wears a checkered shirt, the other, a greatcoat. A group of large outbuildings stand in the background. Jahn notes that, “Maybe these two soldiers were photographed separately, and their images hung outside the studio with the others.”

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