“Platitudes for the fallen officer were given in great numbers and the correspondent concluded with a highly personal plea: ‘Poor Joe! May the turf lie lightly on his manly breast.’”
“In the spring of 1864, the pages of Schuylkill County’s most important newspaper was filled with information of exciting events from America’s increasingly bloody civil war. But amid the news of battlefield drama also came the sorrowful news of local soldiers cut to pieces during hellish combat in the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside.”
My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved into one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home.
Recently, and quite serendipitously, I visited Mount Olivet Cemetery—the preeminent burial grounds of Frederick County, Maryland. Francis Scott Key, who in 1812 wrote the poem that became the National Anthem, reposes there. Also interred at Mount Olivet are prosperous Victorians and Edwardians, Colonial and Federal-era area residents moved from their original gravesites in small family plots and cemeteries around the county, and Civil War soldiers who fought for the Confederacy but breathed their last as Union captives.
It was Confederate Memorial Day, a solemn remembrance of which I was unaware when a friend and I decided to visit the cemetery. We found Mount Olivet’s Confederate graves bedecked with flags. Reenactors laid wreaths after a small, bagpipe-led parade.
My attention was drawn by the unusual name carved on one tombstone: Raisin Pitts, a Confederate private who died 26 September, 1862, now buried in a Yankee town in a Union state, far from home. My curiosity propelled by his unusual—and unlikely—name, I decided to search for more about Private Pitts.
I have apparently not been alone in my quest. Several weeks later, during a visit to the Pry House, where some 800 wounded soldiers were treated during and after the bloody Battle of Antietam, I mentioned to staff member Katie Reichard that I was writing about an oddly named soldier buried at Mount Olivet. She immediately asked, “Is it Raisin Pitts?” Several years ago, another historian held a program about Pitts at Pry House, she said. Reichard added that he had reached my same conclusions about one soldier proposed to be Raisin Pitts but had not mooted an alternate identification.
According to his stone, Raisin Pitts belonged to the 6th Alabama Infantry, 2nd Brigade, under command of Colonel John J. Seibels. It was established in May 1861, containing 1,400 men divided into 12 companies. The recruits were drawn from Autauga, Henry, Jackson, Lowndes, Macon, Montgomery, Russell, and Wilson counties. Company B, headed by Captain J. M. Kennedy, was known as the “Loachapoka Rifles,” as the company was accepted in Confederate service at Loachapoka, Lee County, Alabama, for a one-year term of service.
Shotgun’s Home of Civil War provides a concise summary of the action the 6th Alabama saw up to the date of Pitts’ death: “Its first service was at Corinth. It was soon ordered to Virginia, and during the winter of 1862, was stationed far in front of the army, at Manassas Junction. Its first serious battle was at Seven Pines, May 31 to June 1, 1862, where the regiment was greatly distinguished, losing 102 officers and men killed and wounded, including Lieut.-Col. James J. Willingham, Maj. S. Perry Nesmith, and Capts. Thomas Bell, Matthew Pox, W. C. Hunt, Augustus S. Flournoy and John B. McCarty. The Sixth served in nearly all the battles of the Army of Northern Virginia, including Mechanicsville, June 26, 1862; Cold Harbor or Gaines’ Mill, June 27th and 28th: Malvern Hill, July 1st to 5th; Boonsboro, September [14th]; Sharpsburg, September 17th.”
Returning to Private Pitts, I wondered whether “Raisin” was a nickname or whether “Raisin Pitts” was an entirely false moniker, provided to his Union captors as he lay wounded? Whilst possible, the latter is unlikely, as there is no evidence of captured soldiers hiding their identities except in extremely select cases. Providing a false name could mean that loved ones would never know the soldier’s fate—something that was understandably important to the majority of them.
What is demonstrably true, however, is that Raisin Pitts was neither of two men previously proposed (and conflated) by other researchers: Erastus J. Pitts and Erastus T. Pitts.
The Erastus J. Pitts who served with the 6th Alabama, Company B, is without doubt Erastus Jesse Pitts, born 10 January, 1836, in Macon, Bibb County, Georgia, to farmer Jesse Pitts (1812-1855) and his wife Martha Bryan (1815-1854).
After his parents’ deaths in the 1850s, Pitts relocated to Alabama and enlisted in the 6th, Company A, on 11 May, 1861, in Abbeville, Jefferson County. Later, he transferred to Company B. His unit participated in the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and in its aftermath, Pitts was only tentatively accounted for.
Extant Confederate records note that during October, November, and December, Pitts was “sick at some unknown hospital since 25 September.” Other records show that on 18 October, he was admitted to hospital at Camp Winder, one of the largest Confederate medical facilities, located in Richmond, Virginia—quite a distance from Sharpsburg. Records show he remained at Winder until 15 December, when he was transferred to a hospital in Danville, Virginia. He remained there until 30 January, 1863, then returned to active duty. The only clue about what led to this four-month hospital stay is the word “debilitas” written by the category “complaint.” The term was used by the era’s medical practitioners to denote overall weakness and feebleness and is more of a descriptive than a diagnosis.
After rejoining his unit, Pitts left further documentation of his service: He was paid and reimbursed for clothing on 3 November, 1863, and again one year later, in November 1864. He appeared on a muster roll of September 1864 and on a payroll of 1865. Erastus J. Pitts eventually ended his long Confederate military service interned at Point Lookout on the farthest tip of Southern Maryland. He was taken prisoner at Petersburg, Virginia, and arrived at the peninsular Union prison on 11 April, 1865. Several months later, he swore an oath of loyalty to the renewed United States, was released, and returned to Alabama—years after Raisin Pitts was laid to rest in Mount Olivet.
On 21 September, 1867, Pitts married Samantha J. Haughton in Henry County, Alabama, and took up, or returned to, a livelihood of farming. In May 1894, through the U.S. Government’s Homestead Act, Pitts was deeded 160 acres in Houston County, Alabama. The 1900 Census places him, still farming, in Brantins, Geneva County, Alabama. Before the 1910 Census, Pitts had removed to Holmes County, Florida. He died there on 10 January, 1909, and was buried at Sandy Point Cemetery, Ponce de Leon.
The second individual associated with Raisin Pitts is Erastus T. Pitts, the son of Robert G. Pitts (1822-1850) and Adeline Nell Deshazor (1822-1890). He was born 10 July, 1848, in Shelby County, Alabama. His father died unexpectedly when he and his brother were toddlers, and the extant tangle of estate paperwork indicates his widow Adeline was left in a precarious financial state. She married again soon after, but the social status of the Pitts boys appears to have been permanently impacted. Erastus T. Pitts went on to farm in Shelby County with his first wife Emiline E. White (1840-1872), whom he wed 27 December, 1868. After her early death, he married Louisa Laura Crowson (1851-1925), who bore him eight children. Later in life, he took up carpentry and died intestate in Birmingham on 24 April, 1927. He is buried in Union Baptist Cemetery, Lipscomb, Jefferson County.
Erastus T. Pitts, who was a young teen when the 6th Alabama Infantry formed and who was technically underage during the duration of the war, left behind no record of Confederate military service.
Having determined who Raisin Pitts was not, the focus now shifts to whom he might be. “Civil War headstones, especially those with errors, reflect the limitations of record-keeping of the era,” the National Park Service points out at the Andersonville (Georgia) Prison Historical Site. Andersonville’s historians freely admit that their database and military tombstones are rife with errors, and it is certain that the Union also made plentiful mistakes in the rolls and on the burial markers of their prisoners. If Raisin Pitts, with his Southern drawl, was asked his name as he lay wounded, in agony, or slipping in and out of consciousness, it may be that the Union questioner merely misheard and misrecorded the proffered response. It is also possible that a later transcription error is to blame. The result of either mistake is carved in stone at Mount Olivet today.
A search through 6th Alabama Infantry service records for soldiers with the last name Pitts led me to this man: Drayton Pitts, who enlisted as a private for a 12-month term in Company J of the 6th Alabama Infantry on 15 May, 1861, at Montgomery, Alabama.
Drayton Pitts was born to Amassa Pitts (1788-1857) and Catherine Pitts (1802-1857, daughter of Caleb Pitts and Frances Cole) in about 1833. According to the 1850 Census, his family worked a farm in with real estate valued at $4,000 in Newberry County, South Carolina. Amassa Pitts had been previously married, so Drayton’s siblings included half-brothers Michael, Giles, and Joseph, as well as full siblings Abner, Permelia, Ira, Hillery, Sandford, Rueben, Rachael, Susan Jane, Pamela, and Frances Ann.
Like Erastus J. Pitts, Drayton Pitts appears to have migrated to Alabama after the death of both his parents. By the day of the 1860 Census, he was in Russell County, Alabama, and was enumerated as “Dratin” Pitts on land farmed by the Law family.
A letter appeared in the 20 July, 1861 edition of the Opelika, Alabama, newspaper Southern Republic composed 5 July from Sangster’s Crossroads, Virginia, by a soldier of the 6th Alabama, who signed himself “J. M. P.” The soldier wrote, “On Friday morning, June 28th, a scouting party of eleven men from each of our four companies…were detailed under the command of Capt. [Walter H.] Weems to proceed in the direction of a place called Accotinck and find out the strength of the enemy there.” The men afterward continued on toward Union-held Alexandria.
The extended reconnaissance included hunkering down in the woods for a night and being brought a stout breakfast there by local sympathizers, hearing from a “friend” that “a tory named Gilliham had gone into Alexandria…to inform [the Union] of our whereabouts,” and eventually coming within sight of Union armaments at Alexandria while marching quietly “in our stocking feet, with boots and shoes in our haversacks.” The group was eventually spotted and the reconnaissance ended in a skirmish that included hand-to-hand fighting during which J. M. P. saw Captain Weems shoot several Union attackers.
Against the odds, the group made it back to the Confederate camp, where “all had given us up for lost, as General Ewelle had sent the Battalion a dispatch that we had been captured.” Only one of the Confederates had been lost. “His name was Hayes and he was from Richmond, Va. Our boys recovered his body, but could not carry it with them. We [later] learned that the ladies of Alexandria had it interred in a splendid metal casket…. Your humble correspondent was also reported dead, but I knew it was a lie as soon as I read it,” J. M. P. joked.
Among the men with Weems and J. M. P. on this mission was Drayton Pitts. The published detailed letter provides a singular window into his life as a soldier and may explain his eventual promotion to 2nd Lieutenant: He was a man willing to take risks.
During a reorganization at Orange Courthouse in March 1862, Pitts was reassigned to Company F. Afterward, he moved with the 6th Alabama Infantry in the same pattern of battles as did Erastus J. Pitts, surviving Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, and Malvern Hill. Then came South Mountain.
South Moutain, part of the Blue Ridge, is a meandering behemoth, rocky and beautiful. The battle that roiled upon and around it on 14 September, 1862, was fought over control of three gaps in the mountain—Crampton’s, Turner’s, and Fox’s—that provided passage east and west. It was a resounding Union victory that set the stage for the Battle of Antietam only a few days later.
Before the battle, Henry Tisdale of the 35th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, penned his feelings, which could have easily been those of Confederate Drayton Pitts: “Prospects of our getting into action before night multiply causing a sort of feverish excitement to come over me. Help me my heavenly Father to do my duty in thy fear and for glory for Christ’s sake, Amen.”
Tisdale was shot in the leg that day and lost a quantity of blood. Whilst retreating toward the medics, he recalled that “a wounded rebel who was sitting against a tree called me and asked me if I did not have something to eat. Exhibiting a loaf and going to him I opened my knife to cut off a slice when he placed his hands before his face exclaiming ‘Don’t kill me’ and begging me to put up the knife and not to hurt him. Assuring him I had no intention of hurting him I spoke with him a little. Found he had a family in Georgia, that he was badly wounded and was anxious to have me remain with him and help him off. But found I was growing weaker from loss of blood and that the surging to and fro the troops about us made it a dangerous place so limping and crawling was obliged to leave him and move for the rear.”
That day, the Confederates forces, which numbered approximately 1,800, suffered 325 killed, 1,560 wounded, and 800 missing. One of these casualties was Drayton Pitts. The October returns for Company F reported that Pitts was “Absent. Wounded in battle Sept. 14 ’62 and captured by the enemy.” His company was at that point unaware Pitts was dead. By November, it understood his fate. The return stated that Pitts “died in October of wounds suffered at Boonsboro.”
After the Battle of South Mountain, whilst their wounded soldiers “still lay sprawled unseen among the craggy terrain, the Confederates began their retreat from the slope,” wrote Kathleen A. Ernst in her seminal work, Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign. Drayton Pitts may have been one of those left behind on the field.
What happened to Union soldier Henry Tisdale after he was shot may mimic some of what wounded Drayton Pitts experienced. Tisdale was first treated in the garden of a nearby home then moved back to one of the many temporary military hospitals quickly assembled in places such as Middletown. Eventually, he would be sent to Frederick. Indeed, the aftermath of 14 to 17 September would see approximately 8,000 wounded from both sides trundled into the overwhelmed city on a steady flow of horse-drawn Union ambulances.
Lavinia Hooper, a girl of nine when the casualties began arriving in her town, later wrote, “I can recall standing on Market Street, which was a dirt road then, and how we used to watch the wagons bringing the wounded into Frederick for us to look after. There was so much blood dripping out the backs of the wagons and falling on the dirt road, that eventually the mud became red as the wagon wheels plowed through the streets.”
At first, Union doctors must have thought Drayton Pitts could survive. It seems unlikely that under the new triage system developed by Union Medical Director Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Pitts would have been sent on the long, bumpy ride—perhaps first into Middletown and later Frederick—taking the place of a soldier with better chances. Once arrived, Pitts would have been admitted to a building commandeered as a hospital—possibly the Birely Tannery—and treated as competently as possible in the midst of the madness that only escalated as the days passed.
If the tombstone in Mount Olivet is at all correct, Pitts failed to improve, then began a steady decline that ended on 26 September. He may have succumbed to infection, gangrene, dehydration from diarrhea, or perhaps his wounds were never survivable. Whatever caused Drayton Pitts to pass from life, my hope is that he went quietly, with a kindhearted stranger by his side.
Drayton Pitts’ family may not have known of his death for some months, but his siblings were definitely aware by July 1863, when a sale of their late brother’s personal property raised $399.25 in Confederate money. (The goods included a grey mare, a black-headed cow, a red cow, a red heifer, a white heifer, and a feather bed and coverings. Drayton’s younger brother and executor Rueben Pitts bought the bed for $32.) In early November, the dead man was commemorated by his elder brother Abner, whose wife Mary Goodwin Pitts gave birth to a son they named Drayton Abner (1863-1943).
For reasons unclear, settling Drayton Pitts’ estate took years. Finally, on 21 December, 1869, Rueben filed documents with the probate court attesting that all surviving family members received their share and that those to whom his late brother owed money were paid. This is the final mirror glimpse of Drayton’s short life.
I believe that the evidence supports a conclusion that Raisin Pitts, who has lain in Mount Olivet for more than 150 years, was Second Lieutenant Drayton Pitts of Company F, 6th Alabama Infantry. But whether or not my conclusion stands the test of further research, it is clear that whoever the brave Alabaman was, his true identity deserves to be established and memorialized beneath a new headstone. Ω
Whenever the modern world seems unprincipled and bleak, take comfort. It ran amok in the old days, too, as these Victorian news clippings attest.
“Looks Like Attempted Revenge”
“Hazelton, Pa., Dec. 4.—An attempt was made last night to blow up the residence of A. P. Platt, one of Sheriff Martin’s deputies. This morning, two sticks of dynamite, one of which was broken, were found on the steps of Mr. Platt’s residence. The explosive was carried to police headquarters and it was found that the piece which had been broken must have been thrown against the porch by someone. Had the dynamite exploded, the house would have been wrecked and Mr. Platt and family probably killed. There is no clue to the guilty parties.
“Mr. Platt is the manager of the A. Pardee & Company store in Hazelton, and is a prominent Hazletonian. He has offered a reward of $100 for the apprehension of the parties who placed the dynamite on the doorstep.”
“A Narrow Escape”
“Chicago, Oct. 2.—A number of very narrow escapes from death by fire occurred at No. 90 East Chicago avenue early this morning. The building is a two-story frame owned by John Johnson and occupied in the basement by Miss Julia Hogan as a restaurant; first floor as a saloon kept by Roose & Steuberg, and the second floor by John Johnson and family. Officer Moore saw the flames leaping from of the rear of the building, turned in the alarm and then ran to the scene to arouse the inmates. He rushed to Johnson’s rooms and seized two of the children, who were in a back room, and were nearly suffocated. In coming downstairs, he fell and injured his left hand and arm, but the children were not injured. Mrs. Johnson caught up the baby and escaped in her night dress, followed by her sister and husband. In Miss Hogan’s restaurant, in the basement, were sleeping Julia Hogan and Mary Esperson, Helen Larsel and Louise Norin. The last named, the cook, was aroused by the heat and smoke, which came from the kitchen. She called the proprietress, and they tried to gather some valuables, but the flames spread so rapidly that a retreat was necessary. Miss Hogan was compelled to run through the flames, and her arms were severely burned in attempting to save a dress, in the pocket of which was $56. The damage to the building was slight.”
“Body Snatching in Richmond”
“Richmond, Va., Oct. 30—Chris. Baker and Wm. Burnett, colored men and professional resurrectionists, were arrested this morning while moving the body [of] a dead pauper through the streets on a wheelbarrow. The body had been stolen from the morgue at the city alm-house. David Parker, the keeper of the morgue, was arrested on a charge of complicity, but has been bailed. Barker and Burnett were sent to jail.”
“A Tale of Bigamy, Murder, Lynch Law, and Female Devotion”
“A man calling himself Captain Hutton settled a year ago in Sarcoxie, Missouri, courted and married a Miss Fullerton, daughter of a respectable widow lady of that village. He had with him a sickly looking boy called Tommy, for whom he manifested great attachment. They lived in the village—Hutton, his young wife, and Tommy, until about a month ago, when at the request of Hutton, Mrs. Fullerton and Tommy started on a trip to Ohio with him on business.
“Arriving at Sedalia, Hutton procured a power of attorney, with which he returned alone to Sarcoxie, and by virtue of the writing took possession of Mrs. Fullerton’s property, and commenced to selling the same. Suspicion was excited. His answers to questions about Mrs. Fullerton’s whereabouts were unsatisfactory. He was arrested after an exciting chase, and through letters found on his person, attention was directed to a certain house in St. Louis. There the officers found Tommy in the person of a young woman, who confessed that she was Hutton’s wife and that she had consented to his fraudulent marriage of Miss Furguson [sic]. She had been drugged during the journey, and Miss Ferguson [sic] had disappeared, and, she had no doubt was murdered.
“In compliance with Hutton’s demand, she had personated [sic] Mrs. F. at Sedalia, in signing a false power of attorney, under which he returned and took possession of her property. He had then sent her to St. Louis where she was employed as a maid of all work in the house where she was arrested. A mob took Hutton from jail and hung him. He has passed by different names—‘Dan Springer,’ ‘Joseph Lee,’ ‘A. G. Hutton,’ and many others. The frail woman whose devotion to him led her to the committal of such revolting crimes is in jail in at Carthage. She says her maiden name was Mary Williams. She was born in Scioto County, Ohio; went to Oxford to school; became infatuated with [Hutton], ran away with him, and they were married in Ironton, in 1866. Afterward she went with him to Kansas, often dressing in male attire at his request, and in that garb was present when he married Miss Fullerton.”
“Judge Thayer Again Sick”
“Warren, O., Sept. 23—The Webster murder trial is again fated with ill-luck. Judge Thayer, at the close of court Tuesday was taken with another fainting fit, and afterwards announced he would be unable to go farther with the case. Judge Nichols, of Columbiana, was telegraphed for, but he has announced his inability to come. The future course which will be pursed is not at this time known. The suspense and outlook is most discouraging to those interested.”
[Judge Thayer was eventually replaced by Court of Common Pleas Judge William Day of Canton, Ohio, in the trial of Lewis Webster, who was accused of killing elderly farmer Perry Harrington. This was Webster’s second retrial on the murder charge; he had been found guilty and sentenced to hang in both previous trials. According to Mrs. Harrington, Webster, wearing a mask, had burst into the couple’s farmhouse, demanded money, and then shot her in the side and arm when, after his mask slipped, she cried out that she knew who he was. Mrs. Harrington ran out of the house to a neighbor’s and upon return, found her husband dead, a bullet hole in his forehead. Astonishingly, Webster was acquitted at the third trial and went on to marry his then-fiancée and live in the town where his claims of innocence where finally vindicated.]
“A Fatal Result”
“A fatal result from a common practice of school children is noticed in the papers. A little girl was going down the stairs some days ago, at a public school in New York, when she and some of her companions, taking hold of the banisters, proceeded to slide down. She struck her spine upon the point of a stick used to reach down bonnets and cloaks from the hooks. She was taken home, and died after lingering two days in intense agony.”
“John Snyder Ends His Life in Bantley & Fronheiser’s Store.”
“He Lost His Wife and Children in the Flood and Became Temporarily Insane—Four Shots Fired, Only One of Which Takes Effect.”
“John Snyder, aged about thirty-five years, son of Joseph Snyder, Sr., of Conemaug [sic] borough, suicided at noon Saturday, in the hardware store of Bantley & Fronheiser on Clifton Street. He went into the store and purchased a 38-caliber revolver from one of the clerks, who loaded it for him. There were quite a number of people in the store at the time, and after a short conversation with Mr. Ed. Fronheiser and Mr. J. L. Foust, the clerk who sold him the revolver, he turned as if to leave the store, and no further attention was paid to him. In a moment after he left the counter a shot was heard, and everyone turning around saw Snyder with the smoking revolver in his hand. He instantly fired three more shots, the last one taking effect in the right temple.
“The people gathered around the prostrate form but life was already extinct.
“Mr. Snyder lost his wife and four children in the flood [This refers to the Johnstown Flood, 31 May 1889, in which the insufficiently built South Fork Dam collapsed after days of heavy rainfaill, sending a literal tidalwave down the valley into the town, killing an estimated 2,209 people.], and did not recover from the excitement sustained by his great loss.
“He obtained work after the flood at Moxham, and attended to his duties for several weeks, but ultimately left and went to Ohio. He returned about a week ago, but still mourned for his wife and children. No cause is assigned for the rash act, other than temporary insanity.
“The body was removed to the home of his parents in Conemaugh borough, and Coronor Evans was notified. The coroner, however, decided an inquest unnecessary, as the case was one of plain suicide.
“The funeral took place yesterday afternoon at 2 o’clock from the Old American House at Conemaugh, where his parents live, and was private.
“The deceased was a wire drawer by trade, and worked in the Gautier works. He was a member of the Conemaugh borough Fire Company. He was much Esteemed by all who knew him, and great regret is expressed that he should so suddenly end his life.”
“Contraband Given Wages ”
“General Wool [John Ellis Wool (20 Feb., 1784-10 Nov., 1869)] has issued an order giving the ‘contraband’ employed in Fortress Monroe wages at the rate of $8 per month for the men, and $4 per month for the females.”
[The term “contraband” was applied to escaped African-American slaves who, after fleeing their owners, affiliated themselves with the Union Army. In this same year, the Contraband Act of 1861 stated that any Confederate military property, including slaves, would be confiscated. The 1862 Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves made sure that no escapee who made it to contraband camps would ever be returned to their masters.] Ω
“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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
“Because I feel that in the heavens above
The angels, whispering one to another,
Can find among their burning tears of love,
None so devotional as that of ‘Mother,’
Therefore, by that dear name I have long called you,
You who are more than mother unto me.” — Edgar Allan Poe
A quick note: I will be having surgery on Tuesday, 4 April, and will be taking at least a four- or five-day hiatus to recover. I will return as soon as possible. Promise.
How Instantaneous Views changed photography and let us travel to a fixed point in time.
This is genuine time travel: You are looking at a sky in a southern clime taken on the early afternoon of 12 July, 1865. A handwritten paper glued to the reverse provides the exact date. When this fraction of a day was preserved, the Civil War was over but for a few months; this part of the sky was again above the United States, not the Confederacy.
There was a house amongst the trees—its triangular roof and chimney visible mid-left. The sky was bright blue and the clouds were gentle fluffs that, nonetheless, hinted rain. By them the great hot orb of the sun was obscured enough to safely see and photograph. The revolutionary iodized collodion process used by the photographer allowed images to be taken in as little as a few seconds, depending on the light, and this picture probably would have required the briefest of exposures.
According to an article by Colin Harding at the Science and Media Museum’s blog, “The earliest photographic processes normally required exposures of many seconds, or even minutes, rendering the photography of movement impossible. However, with the right combination of lighting, subject, lens and plate size, exposures of a fraction of a second, whilst still very difficult to achieve, were possible. The taking of such photographs became known as ‘instantaneous photography’. Whilst the term was in common usage during the 19th century, there was surprisingly little discussion or agreement as to precisely what it meant. In practice, it was applied to any photograph which contained an element of movement or which was taken with an exposure of less than one second.”
Because of the need for exposures of draconian length with the earliest forms of photography, objects in motion had never been successfully captured, and this made Instantaneous Views wildly popular. As the British Journal of Photography enthused in October 1862, “Omnibuses, carts, cabs, wagons, and foot-passengers in shoals in active movement, are all ‘arrested’… In the immediate foreground is a man, without his coat, wheeling a barrow, his left leg poised in mid-air, in the act of stepping…. One individual in a black suit, with his hands in his pockets, and looking on excellent terms with himself, is sauntering towards the spectator. The whole scene is full of life, and the photography leaves nothing to be desired.”
What was true of crowded city streets was also true of nature. Stereo images such as the one below allowed the world to be recorded in its majesty, both in 2-D and arrested motion. To viewers who had never seen an actual ocean—and there were many of them—an image like this one would have been awe-inspiring. Ω
All images from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.
I’m also pleased to announce that I will be bringing you photographs from the Jesse Cress Collection—many of which are daguerreotypes elderly men and women who were born in the mid- to late 1700s. Here is one to whet your appetites.