Official Dark Boots

How the awesome power of highly caffeinated coffee may continue to shape Union soldiers’ Afterlives.

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A Union soldier with his hardtack, salted pork, gun, and coffee pot, known as a “mucket.” Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

On a chilly, drizzly day in March 2018, my lifelong boon companion Julie and her daughter, my honorary niece, joined me for a day trip to Gettysburg. My niece had never visited the town or battlefield before. In addition to seeing the historical sites, she was keen to undertake some EVP/ITC recording with her “Weird Aunt,” as I’m known to her circle. That day, we combined the driving tour and the ghost hunting, practicing what I call a “drive-by”—rolling the vehicle to a stop, lowering the window, turning on an iPad ghost box app and digital recorder, and inviting anyone present to speak.

(Electronic voice phenomenon, or EVPs, are recorded human voices that appear with no explanation across the spectrum of audiovisual technologies. The messages are often evidential, personal, and thought-provoking. Instrumental Transcommunication, or ITC, uses various forms of electronic devices, such as the so-called ghost box, to generate white noise or randomly generated phonemes from which it is theorized that spirits can shape speech.)

After purchasing an excellent driving tour CD with the marvelous Stephen Lang narrating, we set off, shortly reaching McPherson’s Ridge and the railway cut near the McPherson farmhouse, which saw heavy engagement during the first day of fighting. Before the battle, the area was excavated, but no rail tracks had been laid. This made a perfect spot for entrenchment by both sides as the battle lines shifted throughout the day.

What we captured there included the following:

Male voice one: What’s the coffee?

Male voice two: Official dark boots.

The audio file below repeats the sequence four times—twice at normal speed, once slowed, and once slowed with noise filtration.

Wait…. What?

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An unidentified ambrotype of three soldiers with a mucket, tin coffee cup, and hardtack. Collection unknown. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

At the time we recorded this exchange, I was unaware of the primacy of highly caffeinated coffee in the day-to-day lives of military men trying to get through the next chilly morning, the next hard march along muddy and rutted roads, or the next siphoning up of courage for a battle they might not survive.

“Coffee was often the last comfort troops enjoyed before entering battle, and the first sign of safety for those who survived,” John Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, wrote in a July 2014 New York Times article. Union quartermasters issued each solder 36 lbs. of coffee beans per year, which the men roasted and ground themselves. Some of them used a Sharps coffee grinder carbine to do the latter, wherein the normal cartridge box built into the shoulder stock was replaced by a grinder with a detachable handle.

“Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a ‘delicious cup of black,’ or fumed about ‘wishy-washy coffee,'” noted Grinspan. “For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as [one] diarist noted, ‘little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.’ Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans.”

To underscore exactly how much coffee meant to the average Union soldier, Grinspan tallied up how often the word coffee appeared in diaries and letters. The total was much higher than for words such as “war,” “mother,” and others that should have weighed on the mind of a soldier.

Confederates, on the other hand, used their ink and paper to complain that their coffee wasn’t worth a hill of Yankee beans (because it wasn’t coffee, but a grain- and vegetable-based, noncaffeinated horror show), and how annoyed they were that the enemy had the consolation of the good stuff.

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“Campaign Sketches: The Coffee Call.” Lithograph by Winslow Homer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

In 1888, Union veteran John D. Billings wrote in his book Hard Tack and Coffee about the lives of Civil War soldiers, “What a Godsend it seemed to us at times! How often after being completely jaded by a night march—and this was an experience common to thousands—have I … made and drunk my pint or so of coffee and felt as fresh and invigorated as if just arisen from a night’s sound sleep!” Other soldiers referred to the dark brew as their “nerve tonic,” and when rations ran short, fumed that “no one can soldier without coffee.”

From the sound of things, they still can’t.

My friend, my niece, and I wonder whether we recorded two Union soldiers in conversation, one referring to the coffee aptly and humorously as “Official Dark Boots” in the same way we name our coffee blends—for example, “Wake the F$%# Up,” “Feels Like Flying,” or “Fog Chaser.” The beans, received from the quartermaster, were indeed official and boiling the grounds in a mucket would result in a black brew that provided them a figurative kick in the pants and give them the will to march. Ω

In Honor of Juneteenth, Three Images from my Collection

I own just a few early photographs of African-Americans, for they are scarce and much sought after. I present them with love.

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A gelatin silver bromide print of a beautiful African-American woman wearing full mourning. Despite her loss, she was clearly a survivor. Circa 1900.
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Of this enchanting young Creole woman, I know only that she was from New Orleans, Louisiana, and her name was probably Jois. This was likely a wedding photo. Ambrotype, circa 1855.
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Mrs. Della Powell, Post-Mortem Albumen Print, 1894, photographed by William Carroll, Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. Formerly in the collection of Ben Zigler and now in mine, this rare post-mortem image of an African-American woman, who may have begun her life as a slave, was published in the 2004 book “Mourning Jewelry and Art” by Maureen DeLorme. I’ll be writing more about Della soon. Stay tuned.

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Those I Know Not

A selection of vintage images from my collection featuring sitters whose identities, sadly, are unknown.

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An English matriarch sits resplendent for this tinted 1/6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1849. It is likely by Beard’s Photographic Institute, London and Liverpool, which was run by Richard Beard (22 December 1801–7 June 1885). Beard enthusiastically protected his business through photographic patents and helped establish professional photography in the United Kingdom. He opened his London and Liverpool studios in 1841. Clouds were frequently painted in as a backdrop by his studio staff.
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A woman wearing spring fashions uses a finger to mark her place in a book in this 1/6th-plate American daguerreotype, circa 1852. Perhaps she wanted to imply that she had been reading outdoors.
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I title this American, circa-1858, 1/6th-plate ambrotype “A Man, His Hair, and His Wife.” The husband has a feminine beauty, especially with the delicate tinting of his cheeks. His wife, brooding, intense, and potentially vengeful, may be wearing a large mourning brooch.
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This early English, 1/4th-plate ambrotype features a Victorian teen who could be a character in a Dickens’ novel. She points to an illustration in a book, but I cannot decipher the title or the meaning of her gesture. The image was taken in about 1852.
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As photography matured, it became possible to make copies of early, singular photographic images. In the 1890s, this cabinet card was created of a daguerreotype taken in about 1855.

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All images copyright the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

You’re A Grand Old Flag

Early images of the Stars and Stripes from the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

By Beverly Wilgus

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The earliest flag image in our collection is this ambrotype of a young Civil War soldier standing before a painted military backdrop of tents and an American flag. By necessity, it dates from the years of the conflict, between 1861 and 1864. He wears an enlisted man’s trousers, a blue-tinted cape coat, and a regulation enlisted man’s dress Hardee hat bearing the insignia “H” and “81” inside a brass infantry bugle. Five states had an 81st Infantry: Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. This fierce and determined Union soldier joined up from one of them. 
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This albumen stereoview card is from the 1871 “Kitty At Play” series by John P. Soule of Boston.
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Two girls stand before a large American Flag with a circular pattern of stars in this 19th Century albumen cabinet card. The girl on the left wears a flag dress and touches another flag held by her companion. There is no photographer’s imprint or location on the card. I speculate, but cannot be certain, that this dates from the Centennial celebration of 1876.
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The negative of this 1880s-era cabinet card by Swords Brothers of York, Pennsylvania, is marked “Baby Sutton.” The adorable little girl wears a dress that appears made from actual American flags. She may be a member of a theatrical family, but I have so far uncovered no performers of that name from this period.
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This tintype may portray an elderly couple and their middle-aged daughter at Baerena Park, which operated on an island in the Hudson River, 12 miles south of Albany. The number of stars suggest the image was made circa 1912. Tintypes were made at public entertainment and tourism venues of this type many decades after being supplanted by other photographic technologies.
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This undated tintype captures a little blond girl and an American flag draped over the back of a bench. It is most likely from an amusement park photo arcade during the 1910s.
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This real photo postcard of E. L. Orr shows the young man in uniform standing in front of a large American Flag. The postcard was mailed in November 1918 after the end of World War I. Orr writes on the reverse that he intends to stay in the army until spring to help in the demobilization.
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Rosemary Yacmett, the daughter of the Ohio photographer Fred Yacmett, is pictured in this real photo postcard in front of a large flag. Public records show that Rosemary was born in 1911, so it seems likely that this image celebrates the end of World War I in 1918.

A Soldier’s Comfort?

“Many cultures accept the faulty nature of memory. They know even the photograph only gets it halfway right. They believe there is only one way to bring the dead back to life, story.”― Jon Chopan

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Unidentified subject, sixth-plate ambrotype. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This beautiful young woman was photographed somewhere in the antebellum United States in about 1852—a date I assign for two reasons. First, the fashions she wore, which include a distinctive corset type, ribbon choker, and an open-front bodice—all styles that were enormously popular in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Second, ambrotypes, which are produced by a wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, became commercially available in 1852, so the image cannot date any earlier.

The subject was surely not more than about 18 years old when photographed and she appears to wear a wedding ring, making it possible that this is a bridal image. At some point, a large curl of her thick brown hair, still as glossy as the day it was cut, was tucked behind the ambrotype packet between slips of newspaper. The text of the newsprint is largely advertising for several companies in northern states, but there is also a mention of the Union occupation of Memphis, Tennessee, which began in June 1862. Together, these facts make it likely the young woman belonged to a northern family.

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The ambrotype packet and case contents.

Could this image and lock of hair have been carried by a Civil War soldier during his military tenure? Might he have opened the case often to recall his wife as she had been decade earlier in the first heat of their attraction? This is a romantic flight of fancy, but not without tiny wings: Soldiers on both sides of the divide carried photographic images of loved ones and these pictures were frequently found with, on, or near their battlefield corpses.

In 2012, the Associated Press (AP) reported on several such images held in the collection the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. At the time, the museum released the photo below on the “admittedly remote chance someone might recognize a familial resemblance or make a connection to a battlefield where they were found,” the AP noted. The article stated of the cased image, “Private Thomas W. Timberlake of Co. G, 2nd Virginia Infantry found this child’s portrait on the battlefield of Port Republic, Virginia, between the bodies of a Confederate soldier and a Federal soldier.”

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Did this little girl’s father wear blue or grey? Photo by Steve Helber/AP.

Perhaps the most famous of familial photos found amongst the Civil War dead was the “orphans of the battlefield.” After the massive military engagement at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the first week of July 1863, a local girl recovered an ambrotype of three children that was purportedly clasped by a dead Union soldier. The Philadelphia Inquirer of 19 October, 1863, both set the scene and described the image in detail: “Wounded, he had laid himself down to die. In his hands…was an ambrotype containing the portraits of three small children…two boys and a girl…nine, seven and five years of age, the boys being respectively the oldest and youngest of the three. The youngest boy is sitting in a high chair, and on each side of him are his brother and sister. The eldest boy’s jacket is made from the same material as his sister’s dress … [It is] desired that all papers in the country will draw attention [so] the family…may come into possession of it.”

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Philinda Humiston

The image was reproduced around the nation and carte de visite copies of the ambrotype were sold en masse to help speed the identification and for the benefit of the dead soldier’s family. It was just a matter of time before a friend showed Philinda Ensworth Humiston of Portville, New York, the October issue of the American Presbyterian. “Philinda, stunned and heartsick, read the description of the picture and realized it matched exactly the features of the ambrotype she had sent to [her husband] Amos,” wrote Mark H. Dunkelman in Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston.

On 19 November, the very day President Lincoln gave his renowned address at the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, the Presbyterian announced that the orphans of the battlefield had names: Franklin Goodwin, Alice Eliza, and Fredrick Roy Humiston. The dead soldier was their 33-year-old father, former sailor and harness maker Amos Humiston, a sergeant in the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry. His decomposed body was later located where it was shallowly buried on a local farm. The remains were carefully coffined and transported to the new cemetery where he was laid in Grave 14 of New York’s Section B.

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Carte de visite copies of the ambrotype and a portrait of Amos Humiston.

Dunkelman wrote in his biography of Amos Humiston that 2 January, 1864, the Reverend Isaac G. Ogden of the Portville Presbyterian Church “handed the bloodstained ambrotype to Philinda. Ogden noted, ‘her hands shook like an aspen leaf, but by a strong effort she retained her composure.’” The widow was also given all proceeds from the carte de visite sales. When, in October 1866, the orphans and widows’ National Homestead opened in Gettysburg, Philinda and her children lived there for three years until she married farmer Asa Baines and removed to Shirley, Massachusetts.

During the remainder of the war and in its aftermath, the story of Amos Humiston and the ambrotype he held during his final moments was never forgotten. Songs and poetry were writ, including one poem by a Scotsman of Dumfries, Steve Rady, that includes the lines: “A soldier lies in battle, face buried in the mud, a picture of his children there painted with his blood; Fighting for his freedom, he fought until his death; He kissed his children’s picture as the took his dying breath.” Rady read his poem aloud in Gettysburg on 5 July, 1993, at the unveiling of a monument to Humiston. Ω

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Sheet music for a patriotic lament about the Humiston ambrotype. Courtesy Library of Congress.

On This Day for Mothers

“Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us. We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives. We sift through the evidence of their love, reassure ourselves of their affection and its biological genesis. We can steal and lie and leave and they will love us.”—Megan Mayhew Bergman

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From left, my grandmother, Lillian Marie Fox; my great-grandmother, Rebecca Murdock Fox; and my great aunt, Rebecca Fox, posed for this tintype in about 1901. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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This tintype’s sitters were a beautiful turn-of-the-century mother and daughter who appear to be African-American. Courtesy Jack and Beverley Wilgus Collection.
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An American mother sat outside with her children for this ambrotype taken on a clear day in about 1880. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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An adoring, late-Victorian mother and delighted child were the subjects of this albumen print on cardboard. Photo Courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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An unknown lady tenderly holds her baby in this circa-1875 carte de visite by Hills & Saunders, Oxford, England. Courtesy James Morley Collection.

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I wish all mothers a happy day of love and peace. For all you have done and will do, you are saluted.

Men of Mystery

A selection of unidentified daguerreotype and ambrotype portraits.

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A very early daguerreotype of a personable young man that dates to about 1843. Courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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The rugged and remarkable older gentleman who sat for this ambrotype in about 1852 probably first opened his eyes to the world in the 1780s or 1790s. Courtesy Price and Zimmer Collection.
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A painterly 1/6th-plate daguerreotype of a breathtaking young man. His fashions date this portrait to about 1850. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
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An unusual profile daguerreotype taken in about 1850. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
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A 1/4th-plate ambrotype of an unknown man intently focused on a point in the distance. Taken circa 1860. From the James Morley Collection.
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A man and his dog, whose front paws were held to keep them from moving during the long exposure. This 1/6th-plate ambrotype, probably from the late 1850s, is courtesy of the Caroline Leech Collection.

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