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Finding My Great-Grandfather

By Mark H. Dunkelman 

I have often said that you never know when something will turn up.

That was confirmed for me in February 2016, when what turned up was so surprising, personal and curious that it ranks as one of the most fantastic finds I have uncovered in the six decades that I’ve searched for the Civil War legacy of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry.

The 154th New York was my great-grandfather’s regiment. My initial childhood inspiration to study the unit stemmed from that personal link. My father and aunt had a trove of family stories and relics of Grandpa Langhans, as they called the old veteran they lived with during their youth on a Cattaraugus County, N.Y., farm. Those treasures were bequeathed to me during my boyhood and as a young man. The memorabilia included the leading image in an old family photograph album.

Carte de visite by Bell & Brother of Washington, D.C. Author’s collection.
Carte de visite by Bell & Brother of Washington, D.C. Author’s collection.

It was a carte de visite of my great-grandfather as a soldier, taken by Bell & Brother Photographers at 480 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Most likely, it was made between May 25 and June 12, 1865, while the 154th New York was camped outside of Washington after the Grand Review of the victorious Union armies. At the time, Cpl. John Langhans of Company H was in the process of completing what he called “a great circle in the United States.” He had enlisted on Sept. 9, 1864, in the Cattaraugus County town of East Otto. He joined the regiment at Atlanta, and made the famous march under Gen. Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas. Later, while resting outside the nation’s capital, he had ample time to visit the city and have his likeness taken.

He posed wearing an unbuttoned New York State style jacket, regulation sky-blue pants, a bow tie and watch chain, and what appears to be an oil-cloth-covered forage cap. A barely perceptible Y-shaped object on his shirtfront presents a mystery, as does the white item clutched in his left hand.

For many years, I treasured the carte de visite as the only known wartime image of my great-grandfather. I’ve been pleased to publish it in my books The Hardtack Regiment and Marching with Sherman and on the main page of my website, and I was delighted to find it in Joseph Glatthaar’s excellent book about Sherman’s army, The March to the Sea and Beyond.

The big surprise occurred on the evening of Feb. 10, 2016. My friend Kyle Stetz of Charlottesville, Va., contacted me and said he was “99.9 percent sure” that a tintype of my great-grandfather was up for bids on eBay. One look at the image confirmed Kyle’s instinct. Furthermore, the sixth-plate tintype was obviously taken on the same occasion as the carte de visite! Taking into consideration the tintype’s mirror image, everything about John is precisely the same in both photographs. The background is likewise identical, showing the same column and tasseled curtain. A fragment of a label pasted on the tintype’s back reads, “& Bro . . . enn. A”—which fits with Bell & Brother.

“Grandpa” Langhans, as John Langhans of the 154th New York Infantry would later become known to his family, with his friend “Bandaged Thumb,” in May or June 1865. Sixth-plate tintype by Bell & Brother of Washington, D.C. Author’s collection.
“Grandpa” Langhans, as John Langhans of the 154th New York Infantry would later become known to his family, with his friend “Bandaged Thumb,” in May or June 1865. Sixth-plate tintype by Bell & Brother of Washington, D.C. Author’s collection.

The tintype also presented a mystery: John was posed with his hand on the shoulder of an unidentified friend.     

Who was he?

I waited on tenterhooks the week before the auction closed on Feb. 17. When time expired, I had the high bid at the astonishingly low amount of $45. I had put in a last-minute maximum bid much higher, to ensure that I secured the tintype. But it proved unnecessary. My relief ebbed over the next few days as the tintype left the seller, a coin and stamp dealer in Rochester, N.Y., and detoured to West Palm Beach and Opa-Locka, Fla., before reaching my home in Rhode Island. After a nerve-wracking week and a half, it at last came to my hand.

I told my wife, Annette, that every 154th New York veteran in heaven must have arranged the circumstances that brought this singular image to my collection. I can’t thank Kyle enough for coming across it, recognizing my great-grandfather, and immediately letting me know about it. I feel truly blessed to have this heretofore-unknown image of my ancestor reach me in such a serendipitous fashion.

But it came with a catch. As soon as I saw the tintype, I knew that the mystery of John’s companion would haunt me. Who was this pal?

It’s very much a long shot, but I hope to determine the identity of Bandaged Thumb, as I’ve come to call him. Unfortunately, the seller had nothing to offer about where the tintype came from, which could have been a valuable lead. The best recollection was that it had arrived in the shop in “a box full of stuff.”

For possible clues to Bandaged Thumb’s identity, I turned to John’s wartime letters to a brother. He wrote a couple of them while encamped with the 154th New York near Washington in the spring of 1865. He didn’t mention being photographed during that time. But he did mention the presence of two friends. One was his regimental comrade Pvt. William “Willie” Perkins of Company B, who had enlisted with John at East Otto. But a check of the pension records eliminated Willie Perkins as the friend in the tintype. Both Willie and John stood 5 feet 8 inches tall. Bandaged Thumb measured several inches shorter than John.

In his letter of May 28, 1865, John wrote, “Al. Mason was here to day.” That reference was most likely to Pvt. Albert W. Mason of Company A, 188th New York, who enlisted in the Cattaraugus County town of Mansfield on Sept. 5, 1864. I’m unaware of any images of Mason. So this offered one possibility. Naturally, it’s just as likely that some other friend accompanied John to Bell & Brother’s studio.

Kyle and I have wondered whether Bandaged Thumb is actually a soldier. His dress certainly bears a civilian look, disregarding the hastily added gilt buttons and the kepi, which could have been a photographer’s prop. I think that Bandaged Thumb, whether soldier or civilian, possibly is a friend of John’s from Cattaraugus County. But even that is conjecture.

Perhaps one day, a descendant or collector will recognize Bandaged Thumb. It is possible that, like my great-grandfather, Bandaged Thumb also had cartes de visite made that day at Bell & Brother.

Will an identified carte de visite turn up someday and solve the mystery? Any help the sharp-eyed MI readers can provide will be most welcome.

Mark H. Dunkelman has written and lectured extensively on the 154th. He is the author of The Hardtack Regiment: An Illustrated History of the 154th Regiment, New York State Infantry Volunteers and other books. Mark lives in Providence, R.I.

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