By Rick Brown and Ronald S. Coddington
You never know what will turn up in an abandoned storage unit. In a June 2022 auction, Josh O’Keefe placed the winning bid on one such space located in a facility just a few miles north of downtown Atlanta, Ga. Soon after, Josh hopped in his truck with Dwayne, his helper, to clean out the unit. They packed the vehicle with the first load. As they finished up, Josh noticed a small box—the kind you’d keep envelopes in—marked “Mom’s things.” He asked Dwayne if they had room for one more item. Dwayne found a place for the box and both men climbed into the cab and drove off to Josh’s home.
Josh had an idea of what he’d find in the storage unit. He had researched the provenance of the contents and found the previous owner hailed from a wealthy family. There was, Josh calculated, a good chance that he’d easily recoup the $130 winning bid. But nothing prepared him for the find of a lifetime.
A few days later, Josh wandered down to his basement where the boxes were temporarily stored. He opened “Mom’s things” and found the face of a soldier staring at him. Overcome with excitement, he yelled for his wife, Zhenya, upstairs.
How long the soldier’s likeness, preserved in emulsion on glass, had sat in the cardboard container is anyone’s guess. But there he was, brandishing a double-barreled shotgun and sporting an 1849 Colt pocket revolver tucked into his belt. A rectangular placard sitting on the small table next to the soldier left no doubt of his loyalties: “Jeff. Davis and the South!”
Below the photo lay a funeral card for J.W. Dearman, and a stack of family genealogy papers. Poring over these documents, Josh established the soldier’s identity: James William Dearman of the 37th Mississippi Infantry.
Finds like this one are the dream of every military image collector.
Josh, who is not an image collector or a student of the Civil War, instinctively knew he had something special. Seeking to learn more about the image, he soon connected with the collecting community. Word of the find spread like wildfire in person, texts, and social media. Offers were made and politely declined—until late December 2022, when Tom Liljenquist purchased it for the Library of Congress.
End of story, right?
In one sense, yes. The image is forever out of the reach of private collectors, who would have acted as its caretaker until passing it to the next keeper of history.
In another sense, no. This image joins a small group of known “Jeff. Davis and the South!” photographs. The information it holds is a new datapoint to be studied and evaluated, and it is publicly available online at the Library of Congress.
The first and only in-depth analysis of these images occurred 32 years ago. Lawrence T. Jones III, collector and author of The Confederate Calendar, explored the subject in the November-December 1991 issue of Military Images. Larry documented seven known images, including two identified Mississippians. He concluded the images were possibly produced in the vicinity of Corinth, Miss., a militarily strategic town of about a thousand souls and a junction of two rail lines. In 1861, thousands of fresh-faced Confederate army volunteers moved into the area. Larry detailed the placard and other elements in the portraits. He concluded his commentary on a hopeful note: “As the number of collectors of Civil War photography continues to increase, there is the distinct possibility that other Jeff. Davis and the South! images will surface.”
Larry’s prediction proved true. Years passed. Images surfaced.
By 2018, Alan Thrower, a respected re-enactor and maker of leather cartridge boxes, cap pouches and belts based on original patterns, had established a Pinterest page to collect “Jeff. Davis and the South!” Before his death in September 2018, Alan pinned 22 images.
Motivated by Josh’s storage unit dream find, and inspired by Larry’s analysis and Alan’s compilation, we decided to take a fresh look at these images with the benefit of a larger sample set and modern technology.
We reviewed Alan’s “Jeff. Davis and the South!” pins and eliminated one as a possible modern image of a re-enactor, making a total of 21 photographs. To this we added six more for a grand total of 27. Alan also included two portraits of soldiers posed with another placard labeled “Victory or Death!” We located three more, making a grand total of five.
Four of the “Jeff. Davis” images are postwar copies heavily retouched with ink, charcoal or gouache. Two more postwar images, a circa 1910s “Jeff. Davis and the South!” and a circa 1870s carte de visite of “Victory or Death!” are cropped to eliminate the original frame. The changes limited our ability to analyze them.
We relied on digital images. The quality varied greatly, ranging from archival scans in private collections and the Library of Congress to poor quality, low-resolution pictures from unknown and untraceable sources. One badly-pixelated image had minimal value.
A comparison of the actual images was not possible. The primary reason is that the owners of the original images are unknown. (This is an example of why it is important when publishing to attribute the source collection.) As a result, we were not able to evaluate mats, preservers, cases, cover glass, emulsion, and other characteristics. We did, however, have access to the ambrotype of Joseph C. White of the 12th Mississippi Infantry in Rick Brown’s collection. We have also inspected some of these images in the past, and our memories of these experiences benefitted us as we embarked on this survey. Here’s what we learned.
1. The “Jeff. Davis!” and “Victory or Death!” portraits were produced by the same photographer in Corinth between May 1861 and May 1862.
We created a spreadsheet of known images and found nine with reliable identifications. They served in six Mississippi infantry regiments, the 1st, 12th, 15th, 16th, 23rd and 37th, and the 21st Tennessee Infantry. Then we accessed military records for each soldier and plotted key dates on a concurrent timeline. Every soldier had an enlistment date, but not a muster-in date. So, we established a range based on enlistment dates.
The earliest enlistment, Joseph C. White of the 12th Mississippi, occurred May 5, 1861. The latest enlistment, May 8, 1862, belongs to two privates in the 15th Infantry, Henry Augustus Moore and William Henry Harrison Rogers. The May 8 date is noteworthy as Union forces advanced toward Corinth on April 29, beginning a siege. By May 3, the federals closed to within a few miles of the Confederate defenses. On May 9, a day after Moore and Rogers enlisted, a Confederate attack slowed the enemy movement. However, superior Union numbers and resources ended with a Confederate withdrawal on May 29.
2. The placard is carved and attached to a wood stand that is slightly bent to compensate for the downward angle of the camera.
The quarter plate tintype in the Dan Schwab Collection is unique in several ways. The infantryman is standing. He wears a knapsack. The photographer’s head clamp has replaced the table as a stand for the placard.
The extreme clarity of focus on the placard is also notable. This is partially due to the proximity of the subject’s head to the sign: It is much closer compared to other examples, and in the sweet spot of the lens. It reveals in stunning detail that the letters were carved into the rectangular-shaped piece of wood. Key to this observation are shadows cast on the letters from the primary light source, which are particularly noticeable on “Jeff.” The placard is attached to another piece of wood that is slightly wider. The whole is held together by five nails or tacks, the heads of which are plainly visible.
The carving of the placard may explain why its maker did not correct the reversed N. If it had been painted, it would have been easier to fix, or paint a new one.
The individual who carved the placard also created the “Victory or Death!” sign.
Our comparison of the two placards reveals that the type style is almost identical, especially the letters E, H, and T, and the exclamation point. Supporting this observation are the table coverings, that can be seen in all 5 known “Victory or Death!” and one “Jeff. Davis and The South!”
3. The phrases were popular early war rallying cries.
During the early months of the war, “Jeff. Davis and the South!” emerged as a popular political slogan in the fledgling Confederate nation. One example appeared in newspapers covering the President’s return from his visit to the troops at the tail end of the Battle of Manassas in July 1861:
“The President, in a delicate manner, alluded to his own appearance upon the field, in order to pay a tribute to the devotion of the soldiers to the Confederacy. Men, he said, who lay upon their backs, wounded, bleeding and exhausted, when they saw him pass, though they could do nothing else, waved their hats as they lay, and cheered for Jeff. Davis and the South. Where the ranks had been broken and the men were somewhat scattered, when they saw the President of the South in their midst, shouted that they would follow him to the death, and rallied once more for the last and successful onslaught.”
“Victory or Death!” by contrast is purely martial and signals a commitment to total war. The phrase has its origins in ancient times, was referenced during the American Revolution, and appears in France’s “The Marseilles Hymn.” After the Civil War began, “The Southern Marseilles,” based on the French version, copied the refrain: “March on! March on! All hearts resolved on victory or death!”
4. The weapons are unique to each sitter—but not all sitters posed with them.
An array of weapons brought by the soldiers to the Corinth camps are visible in the portraits. They are not photographer-owned props. Edged weapons include Bowie knives, a Sheffield knife, a bayonet, and short swords. Small arms include Colt Pocket and Navy revolvers, a Derringer, and other models. Long arms include a carbine, muskets and shotguns. Six soldiers (four “Jeff. Davis!” and two “Victory or Death!) are unarmed, one of whom holds a violin. One man appears to be a civilian. No portraits of women or children have yet surfaced utilizing either placard.
5. The photographer locked his subjects in place to minimize movement and insure sharpness of focus.
All photographers faced a challenge when capturing a soldier in a martial pose on camera: How to keep the individual and all the weapons and other items still during the exposure time without making the subject appear awkward and unnatural. The slightest movement could result in blurring that made the finished photograph less attractive.
This photographer locked down the subjects and their gear with a tightly-controlled arrangement of man and material. The surviving portraits are successful for consistently high focal quality while maintaining a natural look by mid-19th century standards. This holds especially true when focusing on the sitter’s midsection which is often out of focus due to the sitter breathing during the duration of the exposure.
One portrait that perhaps best illustrates the photographer’s penchant for locking down the pose is a soldier holding a small book, possibly a pocket Bible. He holds the book open to a specific page, which may be a meaningful chapter or verse. One corner of the book has been inserted into his jacket, secured by a button. His entire forearm rests on top of the table, securing the placard stand and adding more support to the book.
Notice the table appears to be higher to allow his forearm to lay flat. In fact, the photographer used a different chair with a lower seat, thereby lowering the sitter. It also revealed the bottom of the backdrop—the only image in which this is visible. This portrait is the only instance of a different chair in use.
The other hand, pressed against his thigh, grips a revolver. Its barrel rests against the fingers of his book-holding hand. Passing beneath the book and revolver is a canteen secured against his other thigh. His legs are crossed to add further stability to his upper body.
6. The head, weapons and placard are generally on the same visual plane.
One of the benefits of locking down is a reduction of the depth of field. The blade of a Bowie knife or barrel of a musket is on the same plane as the soldier’s face and the placard. This lessens the risk of soft focus.
7. Light is evenly diffused and well balanced.
The face of each soldier is evenly lit from a medium light source above and to the front and angled slightly to the sitter’s right side. The photographer likely accomplished this with a studio skylight, and possibly a diffusing cloth. Today’s professional photographers refer to this portrait style as “loop lighting” for the oval shadow that appears below the subject’s nose. The portraits are consistent with the description by Marcus A. Root in his 1864 handbook for photographers, The Camera and the Pencil: “Masses of diffused, soft light, balanced by masses of expanded, mild shadow; the space betwixt the two filled by carefully graduated middle tints; while here and there, a keen, bright spot of light is set off by equivalent spots of deep shadow.”
8. A single table was used, with different coverings.
Several floral or leaf-patterned cloths covered the table, obscuring its shape. Analysis of the various angles at which the table appears suggests it is a round drop-leaf or gate-leg style. The discovery of matching table coverings in the “Jeff. Davis!” and “Victory or Death!” images is a key piece of evidence that enabled us to connect the two placards.
9. The books served a functional purpose.
In five of the “Jeff. Davis” portraits, one or two books are present. At first glance, one might conclude the photographer used them to stabilize the placard. If this was the case, however, books would have appeared in every portrait. We believe the photographer used them to make adjustments for different arm lengths and body shapes. This technique allowed the photographer to lock down the desired pose. It was also easier and quicker to set up than having different-sized or an adjustable chairs or tables.
By contrast, all five of the “Victory or Death!” portraits feature two books on the table. They support the placard instead of the subject. The photographer precariously positioned the books over the edge of the table to keep the placard in focal range. This forced the sitter to rest an elbow or forearm on the books. As a result, soldiers of shorter stature lean towards the table while taller soldiers lean away from it.
In one portrait, a tall potted plant appears instead of books. It is the only example we have seen with this item included.
10. Ninth plate ambrotypes dominate.
Jeff. Davis and the South
Victory or Death!
11. The placards only appear in portraits of individuals.
The 32 images featuring the placards are all individuals. No photograph has yet surfaced of a group posed with the placard. We know from the Schwab image of the standing soldier that the photographer had access to a second head clamp, which functions as a placard stand. Therefore, we infer the photographer was equipped for a group pose.
One explanation is that the photographer could not find a way to display the placard in the frame with groups. But this seems improbable as the examples we studied indicate the photographer was a master at setting a scene. Another possibility is that the photographer made an artistic decision that the placards were only to be used for single poses. A third explanation is that group images with the placard are out there waiting to be found. We believe the third option is the most likely because of the existence of the second head stand.
12. Tinting is standard, and similar to other galleries.
The individual who applied color tints did so in a fashion similar to other galleries of the period: Subtle touches of red to cheeks and hands. Light washes of green, yellow, and reds on tablecloths and books. Brown added to gun stocks. Minimal gilding to buttons, edged weapons, pocket watch chains and other brass items.
In two portraits, the shirts of the soldiers are tinted. Though the coverage area is larger, the application of color is minimal, which is consistent with other images in the survey.
13. The photographer or gallery who took them remains a mystery.
Though no link to a specific photographer has been found, we constructed a profile based upon the content and craftsmanship of the known portraits. We believe the photographer:
- Trained as a daguerreotypist and possessed a deep technical knowledge and understanding of light, chemicals, and the creative use of space.
- Excelled in the craft thanks in part to a meticulous nature and impulse for artistic control.
- Held strong pro-Southern views and fervently supported secession and defense of the Confederate States of America.
- Worked in Corinth or surrounding Tishomingo County. (In 1870, the state carved out Alcorn and Prentiss counties from Tishomingo. Corinth is now part of Alcorn County.)
14. Several area photographers, working alone or in business partnerships, may be the individual or individuals behind the placard portraits.
Shull’s Picture Gallery
Only one known photography studio served Corinth before the war: Shull’s Picture Gallery. According to National Park Ranger Tom Parson of the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, a period sketch locates the gallery on the corner of Filmore and Main streets (today the intersection of Filmore and Waldron). Parson adds that a text description notes the studio had a skylight, which supports our observation about lighting. He concludes, “Little is known of the gallery or if it remained in business when the war began.”
The 1850 U.S. Census lists two Shull households: Farm families headed by Phillip Shull (1796-1871) and his son, Thomas Perry Shull (1820-1882). Though not listed in the 1860 Census, genealogy records indicate they resided in Tishomingo County in 1861, as evidenced by the birth record of a son to Thomas on February 25. Whether they remained or left the county after the Confederate army evacuated is unknown.
Is it possible that one or both of these farmers funded a local photographer who named the gallery for them? In support of this theory is their surname and location. On the flip side, census records indicate the value of their estates in 1850 was on the lower end of the scale—$300-$350. Neither man he held enslaved persons in 1850 and 1860, which suggests they were small-scale farmers working the land on their own or with paid laborers.
Photographers in Tishomingo County
Five men are listed as daguerreian artists in the 1860 U.S. Census:
- Daniel K. Boswell: South Carolina-born Boswell first appears as a professional photographer in Louisville, Ky., in 1845-1846. In 1850, he practiced his craft in Holly Springs, Miss. By 1860, 50-year-old Boswell had moved to Corinth, where he lived with his wife, Mary, and newborn son James. Along the way, he left a trail of improprieties, including an accusation of making obscene pictures and forgery. In February 1862, U.S. Representative Aaron Harding, a Kentucky Democrat, sent a letter to President Abraham Lincoln recommending Boswell for brigadier general charged with recruiting Union volunteers in Northern Mississippi. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton killed the request. By the end of 1862 Boswell fled to the North, claiming Jefferson Davis had run him out of Mississippi. His Unionist activities ran counter to the photographer of Confederate soldiers with patriotic placards. Yet his pattern of troubles makes one wonder if his connection to the Union was just another con. Boswell moved to Indiana after the war and died in 1871 after he fell from a steamboat into the Missouri River outside St. Louis and drowned. He was about 61.
- William J. Burton: Born in England about 1815, 45-year-old Burton and his family resided in Iuka. No other references to his career as a photographer or life were found.
- John Fortner: A 20-year-old born in Alabama, he lived with the John Thompson family in Carrollville, about 30 miles south of Corinth. The Thompsons held considerable wealth in 1860: $20,000, including seven enslaved persons. Fortner’s paper trail ends here.
- James C. Harrison: An Alabama native, 28-year-old Harrison lived with farmers James and Mary A. Watson in the community of Cartersville, located about 25 southeast of Corinth. We were unable to trace him after the war began.
- William H. Rowsey Jr.: Born in Tennessee or Mississippi, Rowsey, 27, resided with a family headed by Benjamin Wilman, a 65-year-old farmer with an estate valued at $14,000, including six enslaved persons. The post office was located in the community of Carolina. On May 11, 1862, Rowsey enlisted in the ranks of Company H of the 12th Battalion Mississippi Cavalry. The last time Rowsey appeared on a muster record was June 1864. By this time the battalion had expanded to a full regiment and became the 12th Mississippi Cavalry. In January 1865, it was re-designated the 10th Mississippi Cavalry. After the war, Rowsey made his home in Corinth and returned to the photography business. He died in Corinth in 1909. His Greek Revival style home, built in 1870, still stands.
Based on our investigation, chances are the soldiers sat for their portraits in Shull’s Picture Gallery. Though we have not discovered the photographer or photographers employed in this gallery, we believe William H. Rowsey Jr. is the best candidate for the mystery photographer. His location in Tishomingo County before the war, the patriotic impulses that led him to volunteer in the cavalry, his enlistment date, and return to Corinth to become a career photographer fit nicely into the larger timeline of events.
15. Other photographers working in the South incorporated placards into portraits.
This example pictures an unidentified enlisted man wearing a frock coat with trim similar to Mississippi uniforms, with a variation of the “Victory or Death!” placard. The technical and artistic characteristics suggest the work of another photographer. Did this photographer borrow the idea from the Corinth photographer, or was the Corinth photographer inspired by this photographer? Or was this the same photographer working at a different location?
Larry Jones accurately predicted in his 1991 commentary that more images were likely to surface. We believe there are still more to be discovered. The mystery photographer surely captured the likenesses of more than a couple dozen men in a town inhabited by about a thousand permanent residents and many thousands of Confederate army volunteers.
We hope this study will encourage you to be on the lookout for images with the placards. Moreover, that our analysis of the photographer’s style and methods will trigger more discussion and arm you with knowledge to locate images without the placards by the same photographer. And maybe, just maybe, the photographer’s identity will be revealed.
Special thanks to Tom Parson, author, historian and National Park Service ranger with the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, and Jeff T. Giambrone, a Historic Resources Specialist at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and author of many books and articles about Mississippi and the Civil War. Both generously shared their research and knowledge about photography and photographers in the Corinth area.
References: Jones, Lawrence T. III, “Jeff. Davis and the South: Commentary on an unknown Mississippi photographer,” Military Images, November-December 1991; Thrower, “Jeff Davis and The South,” pinterest.com/conun/jeff-davis-and-the-south; Field, Ron, “Thrower, Alan,” Military Collector & Historian, Summer 2019; Roberts and Moneyhon, Portraits of Conflict: A photographic history of Mississippi in the Civil War; The Tarborough Southerner, Tarboro, N.C., Aug. 3, 1861; The Weekly Advertiser, Montgomery, Ala., Dec. 19, 1860; Root, The Camera and the Pencil; Craig’s Daguerreian Registry; Langdon’s List of 19th & Early 20th Century Photographers; Parson, “Jeff Davis and the South”; Wisconsin Daily Journal, Sept. 27, 1871; Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5; Matthew A. Miller Sketchbook of 1860 Corinth, Corinth Public Library.
Rick Brown is Executive Editor of MI.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.
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