When the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. recently asked for help in identifying nine images from its Civil War archives, the response was decidedly overwhelming. On the first day, so many e-mails came in to the collections department that the server shut down and the deluge has continued said spokesman Sam Craghead.
“We have had tons of activity,” Craghead said. “We never expected this.”
What is causing all this excitement are rather ordinary photographs of soldiers, young children and families. Their value and appeal comes from where they were found. All but one was picked up on a battlefield, either found on the ground or in a knapsack or tent. Souvenir hunting by soldiers on both sides was common, and no one hesitated to rob a dead man of what was needed or was interesting.
Craghead said the museum staff will sort through the e-mails and respond by asking the sender what proof they have of the identification. He said the museum is hoping to find convincing evidence such as a duplicate picture kept in a family album or one of the person at the same age appearing in a family portrait.
It will be a difficult task because the museum, in most cases, has very little information to accompany the images. Often all that is known about these pictures is where they were found but even that bit of information only added to the mystery of who is the little girl posing in her best dress for a studio photographer. She is so small she can sit upon the arm of an upholstered chair. Her mother has arranged her long hair into vertical curls, and she is wearing soft, leather shoes.
The picture was found on the Port Republic, Va. battlefield between the bodies of a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier. Her father could have been either of the men or possibly one of them picked it up from another battlefield.
All that is known about the appealing daguerreotype of a little boy whose picture was carried in a gold locket is that it was found on a battlefield in 1863 and given as a gift to Eliza Breckinridge of Roanoke, Va.
A young soldier with light-colored eyes who posed for a picture wearing his Confederate uniform with a rifle at his side left the ambrotype with Mrs. L.M.C. Lee of Corinth, Miss. on the eve of the Battle of Shiloh. He never reclaimed his portrait and was presumed to have been killed in the battle.
Photo archivist Ann Drury Wellford, who selected the images, said the museum has more than 6,000 portraits from the war period and all but about 70 have names with them.
“That is what makes us unique as a museum,” she said. “We do have the names, the identifications. What is unusual here are the ones with no names.”