Sunday, November 08, 2009

On a Rant About Time Off and Pay

Like many Americans throughout history, the Civil War soldier had his frustrations with government. Leroy D. House was no exception. A clockmaker from Bristol, Conn., House served as a captain in the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry. On duty guarding Confederate prisoners at Rock Island, Ill., during the holidays, he made the best of life far away from the front lines in sub-zero temperatures — but couldn't resist venting in this excerpt from a letter penned on Dec. 24, 1864, to friends at home in Connecticut:
"Congress has adjourned over the holidays, and the members have gone home to receive their Christmas & New Years Presents. They ought to give the army power to adjourn over the Holidays and let the soldier go home. But we do not expect the same privileges as citizens. A member of Congress when he thinks his pay is insufficient can vote himself more, while the soldiers must wait with patience for Congress to do him justice. We expect an increase of pay before Congress adjourns in the spring. We view it as an act of justice, but if the powers that be do not see fit to do it, we shall not find fault with Uncle Sam, but try to bring our expenses within our means. Nearly all Civil officers of the government as well as all clerks and Provost Marshals have had their pay raised since the commencement of the present war, while the officers in active service receive no more to day than he did four years ago when all of the necessaries of life cost but little more than one third the present price."
This letter is part of the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reaction to the Assassination of President Lincoln

Second Lieutenant Warren Goodale (1825-1897) of the 114th U.S. Colored Infantry describes in a letter to his family his reaction and feelings on learning of the death of Abraham Lincoln.
Monday afternoon [April 17, 1865] we were shocked and amazed at a rumor that spread thro’ the camp yesterday that our good President Secretary Seward and son had been assassinated at Washington. I never saw such feeling as was shown by our officers. All tried to believe it untrue and were disposed to treat it as a camp story. And still, all the afternoon & till late in the evening it was almost the only topic.

It aroused all the hate & passion the officers could hold & express. To think that such heads of the nation should be struck down thro’ the rebels, whom they of all others were treating with so much kindness, and were the first for forgiving. To show the feeling, one Colonel swore that if any of his men were ever after guilty of taking and bringing in a rebel prisoner he would shoot them both.

I believe all this kindness to the rebels to be a great mistake and wrong. I did not come away from you to fight the wicked men so gently. Why, as we marched thro’ Petersburg the other day, we saw a great many rebel officers, who have been taken prisoners, and paroled walking about with their side arms swords and pistols on, gentlemen of leisure, while we only a few miles from the city, have had an order today that we cannot get permission to visit it, must not enter any house here, without first telling our name rank & regiment, and the men cannot leave the camp. The next night after we passed thro’ Petersburg, a plot was found out to burn the Danville depot.

Toward night we heard that Genl Grant was missing!! If this be so, I would keep all his promises to Lee & his Officers, but would have the Govt follow Jeff Davis, Breckenridge, Trenholm & Benjamin, Johnson, Dick Taylor Maury and 20 others to the ends of the earth, bring them back and hang every one of them, and let them set on their gallows. All these besides the assassins. Such punishment may seem cruel but in the end it would be kindness for it would deter other bad cruel men from treason, rebellion, and murder.
This excerpt is part of a letter in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Goodale, of Marlboro, Massachusetts, served as a private in the Eleventh Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery, before joining the 114th in March 1865.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Art of J.P. Ball

One of the speakers at the Daguerreian Society symposium, Theresa Leininger-Miller, presented a paper on James Presley Ball (1825-1904), a noted Cincinnati photographer of African American descent. At the end of the program, she made a plea for images by Ball. I took the opportunity to send her the carte de visite pictured here, along with this comment:

Ball's work is, in many respects, similar to many photographers of the time — with two exceptions: He clearly understood light, and used it to great advantage to create subtle contrast. Also, his portraits suggest an eye for composition. In the carte de visite of the unidentified infantryman, for example, the musket resting against the column creates a diagonal element that compliments the ever-so-slightly angled railing, curved drapery and chair, and creates balance between the strong vertical lines indicated by the column and figure. If you imagine the scene without the chair, and with the soldier grasping his musket (an approach most photographers might have taken), the image becomes less interesting. The lighting, from the subject's left, creates a fine contrast on his face. The light has also caused a glint on the bayonet and upper half of the musket, emphasizing the subject's military connection. In combination with the simple uniform coat, unadorned by decoration (save his corporal's stripes) or accoutrement, the image informs us in a nuanced way that this is an amateur soldier — a volunteer — rather than a professional soldier.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Daguerreian Society Symposium

This is my first year attending the annual Daguerreian Society symposium, and I've enjoyed it immensely. Held at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., it has provided me with an opportunity to catch up with old friends, make new acquaintances, and put faces with names previously familiar to me only by email and eBay.

Of particular interest was author Joe Bauman's account of the eight Daguerreotypes of Revolutionary War veterans he has collected, and the research he has done about their military service. Bauman and I share the same excitement for the powerful combination of photographic portrait and life story.

I also enjoyed the group Daguerreotype, taken from a second story window in the NPG courtyard. The light was not bright, and so the camera operator called for a two-minute exposure. This gave me a real sense of what it is like to have to remain absolutely still for what seemed like an eternity. He made three plates, and I'm interested to see the results.

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