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The Art of Photo Sleuthing

By Kurt Luther 

Photography was the dominant form of professional portraiture during the Civil War. Its ubiquity owed in part to its high fidelity and low cost. However, other forms of portraiture were also available, especially for soldiers of means. Artists were still commissioned to produce paintings and sculptures of soldiers, sometimes from life and other times, in memoriam. Newspapers and books printed woodcut engravings and lithographs, often based on reference photographs or artists’ sketches, as the technology for mass-publication of photos was still in development.

These artistic portraits—including paintings, sculptures, and engravings—offer a complementary resource to the photographs that are the traditional mainstay of photo sleuths. But how should we use them? In the Autumn 2019 edition of this column, I showed how artworks impede the Civil War Photo Sleuth website’s face recognition software because they are hand-rendered likenesses, rather than exact replicas. Despite their imperfections, artworks can offer valuable leads to the careful researcher. This column explores a case study that starts with one unidentified photographic portrait and expands to encompass multiple painted and engraved portraits.

Unidentified Union field officer. Carte de visite by C. C. Rowell of Newport, N.H. Kurt Luther Collection.
Unidentified Union field officer. Carte de visite by C. C. Rowell of Newport, N.H. Kurt Luther Collection.

About five years ago, I purchased a carte de visite depicting an unknown Union officer. Though unidentified, this photo stood out to me because of the soldier’s striking features and the excellent composition and contrast of the portrait itself. It depicts a seated man wearing a Union field officer’s frock coat with dual rows of staff buttons and oak leaf shoulder straps, suggesting a major, lieutenant colonel, or full surgeon. He gazes directly at the camera with light-colored (likely blue) eyes. His dark hair is carefully combed, and matched by a long beard and prominent, drooping mustache. Dark trousers, typical of surgeons and other staff officers, complete his appearance.

The photographer, identified on the backmark as C.C. Rowell of Newport, N.H., has expertly captured the soldier’s intense expression, the strong contrast created by the dark and light features of his uniform, and fine details like the floral pattern of the chair backing. Rowell operated his Newport studio from 1864 to 1866, a time period confirmed by a pair of one-cent tax stamps on the carte’s back.

The carte was sold unidentified, but it came with a modern pencil inscription: “Thomas Sanborn / Surgeon?” While a promising lead, I approached the information with caution. Most collectors find modern inscriptions untrustworthy, as I discussed in my previous column, and in this case, the question mark was literal as well as figurative. However, my research found that Sanborn was indeed a promising candidate. Born in 1811, he lived in Newport, the New Hampshire town where the photo was taken, from 1843 until his death in 1875. Sanborn was a physician who served as the 16th New Hampshire Infantry’s regimental surgeon, a role that fit the seated man’s uniform.

But other details didn’t fit so well. The 16th New Hampshire was a nine-month regiment, and Sanborn resigned for unknown reasons after seven months, in June 1863. Yet the tax stamp and Rowell’s history in Newport both suggest a date of 1864 or later. Furthermore, even with a full beard, the unknown soldier looks at least a decade younger than Sanborn’s age at enlistment (51).

Given these concerns, I hesitated to confirm Thomas Sanborn as the mystery officer’s name. An identified reference photo of Sanborn could confirm or refute the match, but unfortunately, none was forthcoming. Neither HDS nor the US Army’s MOLLUS-MASS collection had an image of Sanborn. More general searches of 16th New Hampshire groupings failed to turn up any promising results.

My next step was to reach out to the collecting community. I sent a scan of my carte to Dave Morin, an enthusiastic collector of New Hampshire soldier portraits, and asked if he recognized the soldier. To my surprise, Dave shared another carte of the same soldier! Dave’s view showed a variant pose with the man’s head slightly turned, but clearly from the same sitting.

While Dave’s photo lacked any inscription, he had tentatively identified the soldier as Maj. Josiah Stevens, Jr. of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry. He reached this conclusion by visual comparison to an engraved print of a wartime portrait of Josiah Stevens in the 2nd’s regimental history, published in 1896. This portrait’s identification was airtight, but I was less confident that it was a facial match to the mystery soldier. While both men wore full beards with drooping mustaches, Stevens lacked sideburns, had dark eyes, and a receding hairline. The Stevens carte was an engraving, limited in detail and subject to artistic license, so I wasn’t sure how seriously to weigh these minor differences.

Clockwise from top left: Maj. Josiah Stevens, Jr., pictured in A History of the Second Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, in the War of the Rebellion (Internet Archive); Painting of Stevens by an anonymous artist (Courtesy of Rich Woodfin); Carte de visite of Stevens by Kimball of Concord, N.H. (Courtesy of The Horse Soldier, Gettysburg, Pa.)

Clockwise from top left: Maj. Josiah Stevens, Jr., pictured in A History of the Second Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, in the War of the Rebellion (Internet Archive); Painting of Stevens by an anonymous artist (Courtesy of Rich Woodfin); Carte de visite of Stevens by Kimball of Concord, N.H. (Courtesy of The Horse Soldier, Gettysburg, Pa.)

Furthermore, some aspects of Stevens’ military record matched the unknown photo’s visual clues, but other aspects posed similar challenges as Sanborn’s. Born in 1823, Stevens was commissioned major of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry in May 1861, so both his rank and his age fit the photo. He resigned about a year later, in July 1862, a full two years before the photo’s estimated date of 1864 or later. That gap was even harder to explain than Sanborn’s.

Dr. Thomas Sanborn, pictured in History of the Sixteenth Regiment,  New Hampshire Volunteers (Internet Archive)
Dr. Thomas Sanborn, pictured in History of the Sixteenth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers (Internet Archive)

If I could locate a confirmed actual photo of Stevens, rather than an engraving, I could at least resolve the question of the facial match. Unfortunately, as with Sanborn, the usual suspects of HDS and MOLLUS-MASS came up empty. I broadened my search to genealogy sites, and, on Ancestry.com, I was lucky to find another portrait of Josiah Stevens shared by a descendent, Rich Woodfin. But instead of the high-fidelity reference photo I had wished for, it was an oil painting. The well-executed, full-color portrait showed a man in civilian attire who possessed the receding hairline and thin nose of the Stevens engraving, but also the light eyes, fuller beard, and even the sideburns of the mystery officer. Rather than clearing up the matter of Stevens’ facial characteristics, this painting muddied the waters.

For several years, I remained stuck. But recently, I caught a break when searching the online inventory of Gettysburg’s The Horse Soldier. A Josiah Stevens carte with a period ink inscription had sold in May 2020—and this one was, at last, a photograph. It was nearly identical to the regimental history engraving Dave had used to identify his mystery man, and probably served as the artist’s reference. The notable exception was that the engraving was mirrored. The rich detail of the Horse Soldier carte allowed me to confirm that Stevens was definitely not the mystery officer in Dave’s and my collections.

So who is he? I still have not found a reference photo of Thomas Sanborn, but in the unit’s regimental history, I discovered his engraved portrait. The book was published in 1897, nearly a quarter-century after Sanborn’s death, and the engraving depicts an older gentleman wearing a suit, likely postwar. Sanborn’s full beard, bushy eyebrows, and piercing gaze resemble the unknown officer, but as with the other artistic portraits I encountered in this case study, the engraving was more suggestive than definitive. Thus, the investigation to identify my mystery Union field officer continues. Hopefully, another piece of the puzzle will emerge—be it a photo, painting, or engraving—and with any luck, it won’t take five more years.

Kurt Luther is an associate professor of computer science and, by courtesy, history at Virginia Tech. He is the creator of Civil War Photo Sleuth, a free website that combines face recognition technology and community to identify Civil War portraits.

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