Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mystery Plantation

Alluva. Alliva. Altura.

These are a few of the variations I used to search for a Mississippi plantation referenced in a document contained in the pension file of Sgt. Silas Brown, who served in Company I of the Ninety-Sixth U.S. Colored Infantry. The penmanship of the individual who prepared the document (a clerk, as Johnson could not write) is not easily transcribed, and I struggled with this single pronoun.

The document did provide the location of the plantation: In Yazoo County, Miss., along the Yazoo River near Belle Prairie. I also learned that the plantation was owned by Dr. C.N. Brown and his wife, Lou.

Determined to find the name of the plantation, I called the president of the local historical society. She referred me to past president Sam Olden, grandson of a Confederate veteran captured at Vicksburg. Olden recommended me to John Ellzey of the B.S. Ricks Memorial Library in Yazoo City.

I called Ellzey, a soft-spoken man with a smooth regional accent, and told him what I had learned and what I hoped to find out. After a brief pause, he told me the details sounded familiar. Within a couple minutes, Ellzey supplied the name of the plantation: Alterra.

Ellzey followed up with a package of materials, including period maps showing the property and two death notices for Lou Brown.

Ellzey's knowledge of the area and the wealth of local information is critical to my efforts to tell the stories of soldiers who served in the war. He is one of the many unsung heroes I regularly encounter along the research trail who provide critical details that help bring life to these veterans.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New Review Appears in Latest CWN

The August issue of Civil War News — on of the few publications I read from cover to cover — includes a generous review of Faces of the Confederacy by Michael J. Winey, familiar to many historians as a curator (now retired) at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

My favorite part of Mike's review: "It is a book that you just want to read one more story before you put it down, and then you want to read one more."

I also like this quip: "Those of you who are Yankee lovers only probably won't want to dirty your hands holding this very Southern-oriented book! For myself, I was pleased with each and every image printed so I never needed to wash my hands."

Read the complete review.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

More on the Nimrod Burke Image

The image tentatively identified as Nimrod Burke has appeared on the cover of one book and a PBS program according to Tim Kernan, who currently owns the tintype. In both instances, it is listed as an unidentified soldier. The photo may have also appeared in other publications. How the identity of the image came to be lost and found again is a developing story. My working scenario, based upon interviews by telephone and email with Burke ancestor Henry Robert Burke, Peggie and Tim Kernan, members of the Washington County (Ohio) Historical Society and others:

A member of the Burke family who did not appreciate the sentimental and historical value of the photograph sold the original tintype as many as twenty-five years ago to an unknown person or persons. At the time of this transaction, the identity was lost. At some point the family received a photograph of the original tintype. This copy print was made with a non-digital camera not from the original, but from a reproduction printed in some publication, perhaps a book. The family has come to think of this copy print as the original photo of Nimrod Burke. This copy print has since been scanned and uploaded to Henry Robert Burke's web site.

The tintype was sold at some point to noted collector Herb Peck Jr., a Nashville, Tenn., photographer who worked in Vanderbilt University's Department of Fine Arts. This was one of Peck's first purchases in the early 1980s after his original collection was stolen. A year or two before his passing in 2004, he sold it to Tim Kernan.

This scenario is subject to revision as more information is obtained.

Also unresolved is a uniform issue: Burke is listed as having served as a sergeant during his enlistment. The soldier pictured here wears a corporal's chevrons. I'll be checking Burke's military service records at the National Archives to determine if he ranked as a corporal and sergeant.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Good News Times Three

In the space of a few hours yesterday, I received three very welcome pieces of news. In order of receipt:

1. The supply of Faces of the Confederacy has almost run out, and The Johns Hopkins University Press has decided to launch a second printing.
2. Nimrod Burke is found! The original tintype of this soldier who served with the Twenty-third U.S. Colored Infantry is in the hands of a private collector. Read related post.
3. I received a high-resolution scan of African American sailor Alfred Bailey, who served on several ships from 1864-1866, including the twin-turreted USS Monadnock and the sidewheel steamer USS Saginaw.

The week ends on a high note!

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

James Henry Ward and the 36th Ohio Infantry

James Henry Ward is one of a large number of African American men and women connected with the military in an unofficial capacity during the war. You will not find their names in any database, and yet they were a vital part of the Union armies. Many served as personal servants, cooks, teamsters, and other support roles.

Ward's role is unclear. He is not listed as an official member of the Thirty-sixth Ohio Infantry, although a period photograph of this African American identifies him as a member of Company A of the regiment. In the photograph, he wears a military jacket.

Ward may have been a personal servant to an officer in Company A. Two captains commanded the company, Hiram Fosdick Devol and James Gage Barker. A number of lieutenants are on the rolls, including Augustus T. Ward (the surname suggests a possible connection), Jonathan N Patton, James C. Selby, and Andrew J. Temple.

It is possible he was connected to the Ward family of Marietta, Ohio.

I'd like to know more about James Henry Ward and his role with the Thirty-sixth. Hope you can help.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

MIA: Nimrod Burke, 23rd USCT

Nimrod Burke stares into the camera, dressed in his army uniform complete with corporal's chevrons and holding a revolver. Burke, a soldier in the Twenty-third U.S. Colored Infantry (USCT), is the great-great grandfather of Henry Robert Burke, an author and historian in Marietta, Ohio.

Some years ago, Burke arranged to have a photograph made of the original image of his Civil War ancestor. A scan of this photograph is pictured here, and on a web page profile of the veteran. The original image, which appears to be a sixth plate tintype, was owned by Burke's cousin.

Today, the location of the original photograph is unknown.

One possible scenario is that the image was purchased by or given to well-known collector Jerry Duvall. On Duvall's passing, his collection was quickly dispersed. This photo may have been sold to a coin collector, at auction, or at the Ohio Civil War Show in Mansfield. I suspect the image is in the hands of a private collector who may or may not know the name of the soldier.

The leads I've pursued have dried up. If you know of the whereabouts of this original image, please let me know. I want to use this photograph in my forthcoming book, but am unable to do so without permission from the owner.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Frederick Douglass' Photograph Album

Today I had the opportunity to see Frederick Douglass' personal photograph album, part of the collection of Howard University's prints and photographs holdings at the Moorland Spingarn Research Center. The album holds four images per page (front and back) and contains a number of cartes de visite, including a portrait of Douglass' son Sgt. Maj. Lewis H. Douglass, who served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. His image and story will be included in my book. The album binding is loose, and a number of pages are empty. Nevertheless, it belonged to Frederick Douglass, and I felt privileged to see it up close, thanks to Joellen El Bashir, Curator of Manuscripts. She was extremely helpful and made my visit a success.

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Lt. Col. John E. Arthur

Steve Thomas is searching for wartime photographs of his great-great-great grandfather, Lt. Col. John E. Arthur of the Ninety-third Pennsylvania Infantry. Arthur, a Mexican War veteran (wounded at the Belen Gate in 1847), started the Civil War by recruiting Company B of the 93rd Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers in from Reading, PA. The company mustered into service in Lebanon, PA. If you have a wartime image of Lt. Col. Arthur, or any information you'd like to share, please contact Steve at Read more about Col. Arthur.

Hope you can help Steve!

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Success at Camp William Penn

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting key individuals involved in the effort to renovate the museum dedicated to Philadelphia's historic Camp William Penn, the first federal recruiting and training camp for black soldiers. Director Joyce Werkman and Jim Paradis, author of two books, Strike the Blow for Freedom: The 6th United States Colored Infantry in the Civil War and African Americans And The Gettysburg Campaign, generously shared their knowledge and experience during our meeting.

I came away with scans of two soldier images, a carte de visite of a chaplain and a tintype of a quartermaster sergeant. These are the nineteenth and twentieth images secured for the book.

I am very impressed with the dedication to making the renovated museum a reality. The depth of commitment to the project impressed me, and I urge anyone interested in preserving this unique museum and place to support the group behind the effort, the Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott (CROHL). The village of La Mott is one of the first communities in America to encourage integrated living. Six post-Civil War houses in the community are said to have been built from wood salvaged from nearby Camp William Penn. Still standing is the camp's gate and gatehouse.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

New Jersey Soldier

I started to research the life and military service of Pvt. Benjamin Benson, Company C, Twentieth U.S. Colored Infantry. Benson was born a free man in Bergen County, New Jersey, where he resided all his life — with the exception of his two years in the army. Benson's New Jersey connection was a pleasant surprise, for we both were born in the Garden State.

I look forward to learning more about Benson and the Twentieth, a regiment formed in early 1864 and deployed to Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee.

Benson's portrait photograph is one of two identified African American cartes de visite shared by Don Wisoski, author of The Opportunity Is At Hand: Oneida County, New York, Colored Soldiers in the Civil War. I've enjoyed getting to know Don. His cheery, upbeat attitude and passion for Civil War photography has made for several enjoyable conversations, and a new friendship.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Comrades in Arms

This is the title of my latest article in the July/August 2009 issue of Military Images Magazine. Also known as MI, the popular publication celebrates its thirtieth anniversary with this issue. Inside is a dozen images from my collection, all of groups of two or more soldiers. The brief introduction reads:

Considering the large number of surviving examples of Civil War period vernacular photography, relatively few are group portraits. This may leave an impression that singular individuals fought the war’s great battles, and this is true on a micro level, for the history of the Civil War is the stories of its soldiers. Yet we know from letters, journals, and other first-hand accounts that bands of brothers were linked by strong bonds and esprit de corps due to their pre-war connections, patriotism, sense of duty, and shared military experience. This gallery pays tribute to all Civil War comrades in arms and celebrates the photographers who recorded their likenesses.

The twelve featured images are also part of my Flickr Faces of War Collection.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Interview on ACW Essays & Research

Greg Rowe, the author of American Civil War Essays & Research, posted an interview with me based on a series of email questions I recently answered at his request. The result, The stories of Civil War soldiers as told by a visual journalist, is an excellent account of my author experience. I am especially pleased that he included a number of details, including my days as a baseball card collector.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

On Seeking Photographs and Soldier Research

Locating and securing the photographs needed for the USCT book is in full swing. I have dozens of queries out to public institutions, genealogical and historical societies, private collectors, families, scholars and museum professionals, and other interested persons. Maintaining the correspondence requires organizational skill, attention to detail, and constant updating and follow-up. Once an image is secured (I define secure as having a high-resolution digital scan in my possession), I need to follow through with getting necessary permissions and other legal work as required by the holder and my publisher.

To date, I've initiated more than fifty contacts, and have compiled a list in excess of a hundred other individuals and institutions to investigate. The list grows daily.

While this critical effort is underway, and as images are secured, I am beginning to research the lives and military service of each soldier by using various databases, visiting the National Archives, and requesting source materials from various institutions. This type of research requires the same high level of focus and intensity that I've applied to the hunt for photos.

Following these two paths, seeking photographs and soldier research, is a massive undertaking. To pursue them concurrently absorbs almost every waking moment. I find myself working through details large and small at all hours of the day and night. Many connections and new ideas pop into my head at random times, but most often while I ride my bicycle to work or am out for a run. Sustaining this level of effort requires much energy. I am sleeping soundly at night!

Successes to date boost my enthusiasm and fuel my drive to find these rare images and tell the stories of the men who laid their lives on the line for freedom and country.

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