2 January 2015

Young Faces of the American Civil War

Somehow we expect their faces to be different, not so staggeringly modern looking.  Place them in contemporary clothing and all of these young men would not look out of place in a mall or a high school yearbook. Yet these extraordinary ambrotype and tintype photographs were taken during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Almost 150 years separates their lives from our own yet their youthful faces retain a powerful resonance and an immediacy which brings that dreadful conflict in to our imagination.

Who were these young men? What sort of lives did they live during and (one hopes) after the Civil War? The names of many of the young men pictured here are unknown, their fates a mystery. Yet despite the century and a half gap between their careful posing for the camera, some can still be identified. Astonishingly, names can still be discovered, as well as insight in to their character and personality.

This is Sgt Barnes. Bryan Watson of Wyoming had bought three photographs of Civil War soldiers from an estate in Florida. The above was identified with a tag as William Sharpe Barnes, 19 years old.

The officer above (a captain) was one of the other pictures. Mr Watson guessed that his identity would never be discovered until one day he visited Flickr to peruse ambrotypes (a hand colored photograph) belonging to the large and rare collection of the Liljenquist family of Virginia which they recently donated to the Library of Congress. As he went through the pictures he came across this handsome young Captain from the North Carolina Infantry. It just had to be the same man.

Through some great detective work, Mr Watson deduced that this had to be none other than Captain Jesse Sharpe Barnes, the older brother of Sgt Barnes. Unfortunately, Captain Barnes was killed at the Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond, Va., in the late spring of 1862. You can read the rest of this fascinating story here, as Mr Watson unearthed more intriguing information about Captain Barnes and his family.

The above goes to show that the seemingly impossible can happen thanks to what could be described as a series of fortunate events.  The Library of Congress on Flickr would love to hear from you if you recognize any of the photographs here – and in their photostream.

Among the rarest images are African Americans in uniform.  By the end of the Civil War they made up ten percent of the Union Army. They were known as United States Colored Troops (USCT) and were first recruited in 1863. They would later receive the nickname Buffalo Soldiers when they fought in the Indian Wars later in the century.

Some have already been identified.  Above is William W. Smith of Company G and Company K, 4th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in uniform and his tricorn hat.

Pictured here is William T. Biedler, a desperately young looking sixteen years of age, already a captain in Company C, Mosby's Virginia Cavalry Regiment - with his musket.

As well as infantrymen there are also photographs of sailors.

Many of these soldiers seem little more than boys. Once can only imagine their fervor to fight for their respective side - and perhaps the blind eye cast by the recruiting officer responsible for allowing them to join up.

These photographs are of immense historical importance – they hold a fascination that leads people on a voyage of discovery. Have a read of Brandon Liljenquist’s articulate essay about why the family collected these portraits if you need any more convincing.

All pictures courtesy of the US Library of Congress. Below is a slideshow of this superlative collection.