By Kurt Luther
Since this column first appeared two years ago, we have often emphasized the collaborative, participatory and community-oriented character of photo sleuthing. At the end of each column, we invite readers to submit their photo sleuthing stories and mysteries, with the potential of having them published in Military Images. Readers have generously responded by sending troves of interesting anecdotes and images.
And now, we have our first “guest sleuth” column, where we showcase the exciting work performed by a reader in the broader community.
Laura Elliott of Rainbow City, Ala., submitted a wonderful story about her recent success in identifying a Confederate ambrotype in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs at the Library of Congress. In fact, this story involves two ambrotypes from the Liljenquist Collection, purchased together from a Florida dealer, and donated to the Library of Congress in 2012.
The first ambrotype, “Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform and his wife, Sarah A. Dasher,” shows a seated view of a husband and wife. The man wears an early-war Confederate uniform, including a light-colored coat with gilded military-style buttons and standing collar, light-colored pants, and a civilian-style dark waistcoat, collared shirt and cravat. No rank insignia are visible on his coat. With a pensive expression, beard and receding hairline, he appears a few decades older than the typical private soldier.
The woman, also likely middle-aged, bears an equally serious, almost probing gaze. Her hair is parted down the center, forming subtle sausage curls on each side of her head. She sits attired in a dark-colored dress; her folded hands in her lap partially cover some kind of gilded chain. A wedding band is also visible on one ring finger. A second ambrotype, “Sarah A. Dasher,” provides another view of this seated woman, wearing the same dress and intense look, but alone.
Elliott was drawn to these images for several reasons, including the age of the couple, and, especially, the “older than typical” face of the soldier. She had been writing a regimental history of the 16th Georgia Infantry, and the coat of the unidentified soldier reminded her of similar uniforms she had encountered in her research.
Library of Congress staff titled the digitized photos based on a partial identification scrawled on the back of the first ambrotype: “Mrs. Sarah A. Dasher, [illegible], Ga.” Elliott recognized a rich opportunity for some photo sleuthing. With a full name and a state, she realized that she could investigate census records for possible matches. A handful of Sarah Dashers were born prior to 1840, but Elliott methodically ruled most of them out. Some lived their whole lives in Northern states. Others died before the Civil War.
Finally, Elliott had only one person left on her list: Sarah Ann Catherine Dasher. During the 1860 census, Dasher was about 40 years old and living in Lowndes County, Ga.,—a strong match for the mystery woman’s age and the inscribed location. Elliott recalled, “I was thrilled! Of course, my immediate thought was that she just might be the wife of one of ‘my’ 16th Georgia boys.”
Her follow-up research found that Dasher had indeed married a Georgia soldier, but not a member of the 16th Infantry. Her husband was James Adril Wisenbaker, a farmer and native Georgian. With 11 children, a family farm and a 30-year marriage, the couple had plenty to protect. In 1861, Wisenbaker enlisted as a private in Company I, the “Lowndes Volunteers,” of the 12th Georgia Infantry. He was about 50 years old.
Despite his age, Wisenbaker witnessed as much of the Civil War as perhaps any soldier, North or South. The 12th Georgia, part of Jackson’s Valley Campaign and the Army of Northern Virginia, participated in almost every major battle of the eastern theater, from Antietam to Gettysburg to The Wilderness. At the Battle of McDowell in Highland County, Va., alone, the 12th suffered more than 140 killed and wounded on May 8, 1862. Wisenbaker survived a wound at Cedar Creek, Va., in October 1864, and eventually earned his corporal stripes, according to one account. When he was paroled in Lynchburg after Lee’s surrender, only 60 men remained in his regiment.
Wisenbaker headed home after the war, but he was not long for this world. He died in 1868, and was buried in the family cemetery in Lowndes County. His wife lived two more decades, and was laid to rest beside him in 1888.
The details of James and Sarah’s lives aligned well with the ambrotype’s few hints. Their relatively unusual ages—about 50 and 40, respectively—seemed to fit the portrait. The man’s uniform coat resembled what a Georgia private like James might have worn at the start of the conflict. Without additional reference images or more definitive clues, it’s impossible to say for sure that this particular “Mrs. Sarah A. Dasher” of Georgia is the one depicted. But Elliott made a compelling case. The Library of Congress apparently thinks so too, as the staff recently updated their database entry to include her identification.
This acknowledgement pleased Elliott, but ultimately she is most excited about the future impact on other researchers, especially those who might have a personal connection to the photo’s subjects. “To me, the best part is that James Adril Wisenbaker is ‘unknown’ no more,” she observed. “Knowing that a descendant is able to locate an image of their ancestor and actually look into their face is very rewarding.”
Elliott’s words capture the generous and generative spirit of photo sleuthing. Each name publicly linked to a face, every theory and scrap of information shared with the community, contributes to the foundation upon which future photo mysteries will be solved. The example of Sarah and James Wisenbaker highlight how a sleuth’s fresh eyes can illuminate a 150-year-old mystery in one of the most famous collections of Civil War portraits.
We’re grateful to Elliott for sharing her story, and look forward to spotlighting other reader submissions in upcoming issues.
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 via email. 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.