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Revealed: The Identity of an Officer in an Iconic Group Portrait

By Kurt Luther

As photo sleuths, many of us spend significant time working with relatively obscure images. We may stumble across a loose tintype at a flea market or unearth a stack of cartes de visite from a dusty attic, and safely assume that we are the first to view that image in many decades. This rediscovery process is one of the great joys of photo sleuthing, allowing us to restore meaning to images and subjects that would otherwise remain forgotten.

Photo sleuths should not underestimate however, the mysteries remaining to be unlocked in more familiar images. Photographs that have entered the public consciousness through books, museum exhibits and documentary films often have more secrets to divulge. Sleuth pioneers, such as William Frassanito and Garry Adelman, have demonstrated how in-depth research can help us see widely published field photographs in a new light. These insights can transform the way we understand the experience of soldiers and sailors, from camp life to the battlefield and its aftermath. As the following example illustrates, studying well-known portrait photography can yield equally significant discoveries.

In 2007, Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite Jr., published an online essay, “Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph,” about a noted group portrait of soldiers disseminated during the Civil War, and long afterward. The image, probably an albumen print, features 18 African-American soldiers standing at attention, fully equipped with muskets and winter greatcoats, joined by a sword-bearing white officer on the far left. The men stand in a semicircular arrangement of two rows, in a room just wide enough for the purpose. Decorative carpeting, and a window or door, are faintly visible along the edges.

The original of this image has not surfaced since it was sold by dealer James Spina, the former proprieter of a Connecticut antique shop, to an unknown collector in the 1970s. Spina made this copy before selling it. The photographer who took this group portrait is also a mystery. Courtesy of James Spina.

The original of this image has not surfaced since it was sold by dealer James Spina, the former proprietor of a Connecticut antique shop, to an unknown collector in the 1970s. Spina made this copy before selling it. The photographer who took this group portrait is also a mystery. Courtesy of James Spina.

The photo gained some notoriety in the early 2000s, when a neo-Confederate group, leveraging the tendency for sky-blue Union greatcoats to appear gray in black-and-white images, cropped out the white officer and superimposed the text, “1st Louisiana Native Guard, 1861,” passing off the revision as purported visual proof of black Confederates. Handler and Tuite’s essay thoroughly debunked this claim, establishing them as Union soldiers, and provided the image’s fascinating backstory.

During the Civil War, this image served as the reference for a Union recruitment poster. Since direct printing of photographic images for a poster was not yet possible, an artist created a lithograph based on the photo, and then replaced the room background with a more evocative outdoor camp scene, complete with a Sibley tent, U.S. flag and drummer boy. This poster was commissioned by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments and printed by Philadelphia-based P.S. Duval & Son.

Library Company of Philadelphia.

Library Company of Philadelphia.

The poster’s caption describes the scene as “United States Soldiers at Camp ‘William Penn’ Philadelphia, Pa.,” and invites viewers to “Rally Round the Flag, boys!” Variants of this poster in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian archives bear the alternate caption, “Come And Join Us Brothers.” Though Camp Penn exclusively trained U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, the men are identified simply as “United States Soldiers.”

After the war, this recruiting poster frequently accompanied and helped illustrate discussions of the role of the U.S. Colored Troops. The photo appears to be less well known, in part, because the original image has apparently not been seen since James Spina, former proprietor of a Connecticut antique shop, sold it to an unknown collector in the 1970s. Spina made a photographic copy of the image before selling it, and this copy represents the only known version of the image that has been located. It has since been published in several mainstream venues, such as a 1973 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.

While Handler and Tuite proved beyond a doubt that the men are Union soldiers, surprisingly little else is known about their individual identities, or the image generally. Handler and Tuite reported on their consultation with Andy Waskie, an expert in Pennsylvania regiments, who identified the soldiers as members of the 25th U.S. Colored Infantry—an identification that has become widely accepted. Waskie, they wrote, “has confirmed the photo is of the 25th USCT unit (possibly Company C or G), mobilized at Camp William Penn in February 1864 and sent to war in March 1864. Waskie makes this identification from the clearly visible numerals ‘25’ on the top of the caps of several of the men in the photo. Moreover, Waskie adds, ‘Since the 25th Regiment, U.S.C.T. was not raised until February 1864, and the fact that the men are also wearing the U.S. Army regulation light blue overcoat issued for winter wear, this photo must date to the winter of 1864, probably February or March 1864, after the unit was organized.’”

This analysis sounds reasonable. But upon my close inspection of the image, I was unable to distinguish any clearly visible brass numerals on the soldiers’ caps. Aside from infantry hunting horns, the only cap insignia I identified with confidence was a company letter A (on the fifth soldier from the left), which apparently contradicts the proposed “Company C or G.” Although a long shot, I attempted facial identification using reference images of 18 gem tintypes of 25th USCT soldiers from the Winter 2014 issue of MI. But I came up empty. While I agree with Handler, Tuite and Waskie that the image depicts USCT infantrymen, their uniforms and faces failed to confirm or deny a specific identification of the 25th regiment

Who, then, were these men? The only remaining clue in the image is the white officer. Standing off to one side (or even cropped out) of an image notable for featuring black soldiers, the figure is often overlooked. Indeed, I could only locate one attempt to identify him, in Donald Scott’s book, Images of America: Camp William Penn, in which the image caption suggests that the officer “resembles camp commander Louis Wagner.” This is a reasonable theory; as Camp Penn commander, Wagner was a logical choice to appear in the photo. Before the war, he worked as a lithographer in Philadelphia, and likely knew Peter Duval. Wagner may have even devised the idea for the recruiting poster.    

However, the visual evidence quickly rules him out as the mystery officer. First, as commander of Camp Penn since its formation in early 1863, Louis Wagner held the rank of lieutenant colonel. The officer in the photo wears a frock coat with a single row of buttons, indicating a lieutenant or captain. If indeed Wagner, he would be dressed in the coat of a field officer, including two rows of buttons. Secondly, while Wagner bears a passing resemblance to the unnamed officer, a closer inspection reveals major differences. In a wartime view (featured in the Spring 2015 issue of MI), Wagner wears a full, curly beard with thin whiskers around the chin, and is noticeably balding. The mystery officer has a mustache and a goatee with full whiskers around the chin, and an ample head of hair.

Furthermore, according to Scott, a contributing factor in Wagner’s selection for the job at Camp Penn lies with a severe leg injury that he suffered at Second Bull Run. His wound recovered slowly; he sometimes could not walk and had to be lifted into the saddle to ride a horse. Sustaining a standing pose for a long-exposure promotional photo on a cold winter day could easily have been too taxing.

Therefore, if the mystery officer isn’t Wagner, who then is he?

George Edwin Heath (1834-1905), right, is the mystery officer. Formerly a corporal in the 10th New Hampshire Infantry, he became a first lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Colored Infantry and post adjutant of Camp William Penn in Philadelphia. Library Company of Philadelphia, Library of Congress.
George Edwin Heath (1834-1905), right, is the mystery officer. Formerly a corporal in the 10th New Hampshire Infantry, he became a first lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Colored Infantry and post adjutant of Camp William Penn in Philadelphia. Library Company of Philadelphia, Library of Congress.

Drawing on Waskie’s theory, perhaps he is an officer of the 25th. Only two images of officers from this regiment are available via the American Civil War Research Database (HDS), and both of the identified men, John Angier and Eben Jackson, clearly do not resemble this man. Fortunately, a much richer source of images available in the Gladstone Collection of African American Portraits, purchased by the Library of Congress in 1995, includes a digitized album of approximately 45 identified CDV portraits of officers in the 25th. Unfortunately, none of the officers in the album look anything like the unknown officer. However, the album also contains a few other portraits. One unidentified view is clearly of Camp Penn commander Louis Wagner. Another portrays George E. Heath.

Heath served as a first lieutenant, and later a captain, of the 6th USCT. Upon initial inspection, he seems out of place in an album comprised of almost exclusively 25th officers. But this inconsistency is quickly explained through a bit of research. Along with his regimental assignment, Heath was Post Adjutant for Camp Penn, Wagner’s second-in-command. An album with Wagner’s image would likely include Heath’s photograph, too.

There is something else interesting about the Heath picture, namely that he strongly resembles the mystery officer. Besides possessing the same facial features and cropped beard, Heath holds the appropriate rank for the uniform in the photo. As Post Adjutant for the only camp dedicated to training black troops, Heath’s position would have made him an appropriate choice to appear in a photo for a recruiting poster. As second-in-command to Wagner, he would have been highly visible as “the face” of the camp leadership to many enlisted men.

Heath, however, also saw his share of action outside of Camp Penn. According to Amherst in the Great Civil Conflict of 1861-5 by E.D. Boylston, Heath enlisted in August 1862 as a private in the 10th New Hampshire Infantry, and was promoted to corporal. But he harbored aspirations of higher command. In July 1863, he was commissioned first lieutenant of Company D, 6th U.S. Colored Infantry. He was stationed at Camp Penn as Post Adjutant, and “assisted in the organization of several Regiments of Colored troops.” In May 1864, he rejoined the 6th, which soon saw significant action. At the Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia, the 6th suffered 55 percent casualties: Heath’s Company D suffered 87 percent killed or wounded, the greatest percentage of any company in a single engagement in the war. Several members of the 6th later received the Medal of Honor for their gallantry. In early 1865, Heath was promoted to captain of Company B, and survived the war.

Returning to the original question, can Heath’s identity shed new light on those of the black soldiers? Heath’s tenure at Camp Penn from September 1863 to May 1864, along with the soldiers’ winter overcoats, helps date Spina’s photo to the winter of 1863-64. Eleven African-American regiments trained at Camp Penn, with Heath present during seven of them.

In mid-September 1863, the 3rd U.S. Colored Infantry departed for Hilton Head, S.C., well before the Philadelphia weather turned frosty. The remaining six regiments (6th, 8th, 22nd, 25th, 32nd and 41st) all trained at times that overlapped with Heath’s tenure, and could feasibly have required overcoats from September 1863 to March 1864. The 8th, 22nd and 25th, which trained from January to March 1864, probably endured the coldest weather, and would likely have been photographed in heavy clothing. This process of elimination narrows down the possibilities to between three and six regiments, or 3,000 to 6,000 soldiers. Facial similarity to identified reference images could be used to further whittle it down.

In conclusion, Spina’s photo depicts U.S. Colored infantrymen, probably at Camp Penn. The regiment could be the 25th, as was previously claimed. But the unit could be just as easily the 6th, 8th, 22nd, 32nd or 41st U.S. Colored Infantry. The white officer pictured with them has previously been unidentified, or suggested, as camp commander Louis Wagner. The evidence presented here however, indicates that he is George E. Heath, first lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Colored Infantry and Post Adjutant for Camp Penn. Heath’s term at the camp and the soldiers’ winter coats help date the image to the winter of 1863-64.

While Heath’s identification answers some important questions, new ones also arise. Most significantly, it broadens the possibilities for the black soldiers pictured beyond the 25th to membership in several other regiments. Perhaps these new leads will help reveal not just the unit designation, but more importantly, the identities and stories of these men whose sacrifices won freedom for themselves, their families and all African Americans. This example also illustrates how even familiar military images, particularly portraits, can be surprisingly mysterious. Yet, thorough research and a bit of luck can cast doubt on old assumptions, as well as reveal new historical truths.

We encourage you to pick up the torch to continue this investigation and, as always, submit other photo mysteries to be investigated as well as summaries of your best success stories to MI. Please also check out our Facebook page, Civil War Photo Sleuth, to continue the discussion online.

Kurt Luther is an assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech. He writes and speaks about ways that technology can support historical research, education and preservation.

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