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Merrill Carbine Leads to a Soldier’s Identification

By Kurt Luther

In this edition of Photo Sleuth, we present another of our most compelling reader-submitted stories. This submission comes from Frederick Gaede. An author of countless articles for North South Trader magazine, Gaede is no stranger to research on Civil War collectibles. But when a friend asked for help identifying a carte de visite, he made his first foray into photo sleuthing, and his background in relics and artifacts proved invaluable. His story introduces new techniques, namely weapon analysis and signature comparison that not only solved this mystery, but will also be useful additions to any photo sleuth’s toolbox.

Pvt. James M. Wetherbee, 83rd Illinois Infantry. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Private Collection.
Pvt. James M. Wetherbee, 83rd Illinois Infantry. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Private Collection.

Gaede came across the carte de visite in question after a friend hit a roadblock in his own research. The image, which lacked any photographer’s markings, apparently showed a young Union cavalryman clad in a dark jacket, light-colored pants, and a leather belt bearing the oval “US” buckle. He stood double-armed with a carbine gripped in one hand and a pistol shoved into his belt. Below the portrait, a period ink inscription read, “J M Wetherbee,” and below, “this is for Rexa Wetherbee.”

At first glance, Gaede thought the task would be straightforward. “When an inscribed CDV comes to your attention, one would think it should be easy to figure out the story behind the image,” he recalled. “It turned out to be a more complex challenge than I first anticipated.”

Gaede’s friend had used the inscription, along with the soldier’s general appearance as a federal cavalryman, to tentatively identify him as Joseph Wetherbee, who served in Company M, 1st New Hampshire Cavalry, from February 1864 to July 1865. He had ordered the corresponding pension records from the National Archives. But these papers revealed some discrepancies, namely, Joseph Wetherbee had his right index finger shot off in 1861 while on guard duty, while this mystery man appears to possess all of his digits. So Gaede decided to broaden his search.

“J M Wetherbee” was not as distinctive a name as it might seem. His search for “Wetherbee” and the variant “Wetherby” on both sides of the conflict in the American Civil War Research Database (HDS) yielded nearly 30 candidates. How could he narrow them down?

Gaede noticed that the soldier bore some highly unusual accouterments. Most significantly, he recognized the long gun as a Merrill carbine. Designed by James H. Merrill of Baltimore, it was a breech-loading, single-shot weapon mainly associated with Union cavalry regiments. About 15,000 Merrill carbines were manufactured between 1863 and the end of the war, in several variant models. Gaede identified the soldier’s model as a Type One from its signature patchbox and other differentiating features.

Along with the carbine, Gaede noted that the mystery soldier also wore an unusual cartridge box, sling and cap pouch. The cartridge box looked to be an experimental model patented by George Jassath in 1861 and linked to the Merrill carbine. If so, this would be an important find—the only wartime photo of Jassath’s cartridge box known to date. The sling was of an unknown manufacture, and the cap pouch was also non-regulation. Finally, a Starr revolver, primarily issued to Union cavalrymen, was tucked into his belt, its holster visible on his opposite side.

Gaede realized that the Merrill carbine held the key to unlocking this soldier’s identity. If he could learn which units had been issued this weapon, he could cross-reference them with those in which “J M Wetherbee” had served.

Most publications list about 15 cavalry regiments known to use the Merrill carbine, including the 1st New York Mounted Rifles, the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry and the 7th Indiana Cavalry. However, none of these units had a Wetherbee on its rolls.

“The process made me appreciate how such quests can turn out with no positive result, even after possibly searching for years.”

Gaede delved deeper. Buried in his personal reference library, he found American Manufacturers of Combustible Ammunition: James H. Merrill, E.R. Sturtevant, H.W. Mason, written by Terry A. White and published in 2002. The reference book contained a more comprehensive list of 50 regiments, North and South, known to use the Merrill carbine.

Studying the rosters for each of these units, Gaede hit pay dirt with the 83rd Illinois Infantry. Pvt. James Merritt Wetherbee, a 31-year-old farmer, enlisted in Company D in August 1862, when the 83rd was formed. James served his entire term of enlistment, mustering out in the summer of 1865.

But this tentative identification raised a puzzling question. What was an infantryman doing with a carbine? Gaede’s research uncovered a fascinating explanation, which he relays here: “The 83rd was heavily engaged on February 3, 1863 at Fort Donelson, where it repulsed an attack by 8,000 Confederate troops under Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest. During the engagement, known as the Battle of Dover, the regimental loss was 13 killed and 51 wounded. Soon thereafter, certainly by July, a number of the regiment were detached and ‘transferred to mounted Infantry to hunt guerrillas in 1863.’ It was reported in the Nashville Daily Union (January 1865) that Sergeant Brady of Wetherbee’s company and several other members of the 83rd captured Jake Sly and several companions who were ‘noted guerrillas.’”

The potential for the mystery man to be an identified mounted infantryman with documented guerilla captures was certainly attractive. Moreover, the details started lining up. This J. M. Wetherbee served throughout the year of 1863, and he was a member of the same company as the group’s leader, Sgt. John Brady. Yet, wary of confirmation bias, Gaede investigated the other clues in the carte.

One stone still unturned was the reference to “Rexa Wetherbee” in the inscription. Gaede used Ancestry.com, Find A Grave, and other genealogical websites to look for any of James’ relatives with this name. James’ complicated family history, including three marriages, made the task more challenging. But Gaede soon found a connection. James and his first wife, Louisa, had six children before she died in 1866. Their eldest, a daughter born in 1854, was christened Ellen Rexaville Wetherbee. At the time the mystery photo was taken, she would have been about 10 years old.

With mounting evidence supporting his theory, Gaede ordered the pension records for James Merritt Wetherbee from the National Archives. Along with rich biographical details, these records included four examples of James’ signature that dated from 1890 to 1915. Although all were postwar, these signatures showed strong consistency over two and a half decades, with distinctive flourishes for the “M” and “W.” Gaede compared these to the “J M Wetherbee” signature on the carte, and the similarities were indisputable. He finally felt certain that he had found his man.

As a satisfying coda, Gaede and I encountered a postwar family photo of James on Ancestry.com while doing follow-up research for this column. (See the image on the Facebook page Civil War Photo Sleuth.) The resemblance between the serious young soldier and the proud grandfather, surrounded by family, was uncanny. Although James had acquired spectacles and a patrician beard in his later years, the identical hairline, slightly crooked nose, and downturned lips were unmistakable.

James Merritt Wetherbee was one of the lucky ones. He survived his nearly three years of soldiering relatively unscathed, raised at least 10 children, and worked as a dealer in implements and grain for the rest of his life. After the war, James lived mostly in Iowa, but also in South Dakota and Washington state. He was in the latter state when he died in 1920, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Palouse, Wash.

Reflecting on his first experience photo sleuthing, Gaede said, “I was delighted to have been asked to help investigate the only known image that includes a Merrill cartridge box. To positively link it to such an unusual unit, mounted infantry—mustered in as infantry and then mounted to find guerillas—was quite an unexpected turn in the story and search process.”

He also felt relief along with his exhilaration at making a successful identification. “The process made me appreciate how such quests can turn out with no positive result, even after possibly searching for years,” he said. In his case, thanks to diligent effort and creative thinking, Gaede successfully hunted down the story behind this guerilla hunter.

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 and, by courtesy, history at Virginia Tech. He writes and speaks about ways that technology can support historical research, education and preservation.

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