A Treasury With Civil War Photos at Its Heart

Members of Company G, 1st Regiment Massachusetts Cavalry, at Edisto Island in South Carolina in 1862.
Members of Company G, 1st Regiment Massachusetts Cavalry, at Edisto Island in South Carolina in 1862.
By Linda Wheeler
Sunday, May 14, 2006

I had been told that only very special Civil War historians -- the ones with personal contacts -- were allowed to see the archival holdings of the Army's Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa. When talking about the institute, some of these historians spoke in a whisper, as though it were an elite private club, and said that just mentioning the treasure-trove of Civil War photographs there could mean a loss of privileges.

Then, in March, I met Steve Perry, executive director of the Army Heritage Center Foundation, at the awards dinner for the Lincoln Prize in New York. The foundation is the institute's fundraising arm. Perry assured me that I was welcome to visit, as was anyone else who wanted to see the collection.

Well, it turns out Perry was right. If the institute's reputation for exclusive access was once valid, it is no longer. The staff appeared dedicated to making sure that I, and a dozen other visitors, got to see what we came for. I stayed for the day and left reluctantly just before it closed, having filled a folder full of copies of files on a regiment I am researching.

Perry said the mission of the institute, part of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, is to collect, preserve and ensure access to personal materials and selected records pertaining to the history of the Army. There are 1.5 million photographs, 350,000 military history books and 30,000 veteran surveys, beginning with the Spanish-American War.

Although the military makes use of the institute, 70 to 80 percent of its users are historians, academics and members of the public, he said.

Perry said that filmmaker Ken Burns did extensive research at the institute for his documentary "The Civil War," as did PBS news anchor and author Jim Lehrer as he wrote his novel "No Certain Rest."

In August 2004, the institute opened a spacious library and reading room and space for a conservation lab, exhibit areas and storage. Perry said that the foundation raised the money for the building and that the goal now is to solicit funds for an education center and a museum.

What makes the trip to the institute most worthwhile for Civil War enthusiasts is a collection of 85,000 photographs of identified officers and soldiers, Union and Confederate. The institute says it is the largest such collection.

But there's more: diaries, letters home, memoirs and other artifacts such as uniforms and swords. The institute doesn't keep military records; those are at the National Archives. What it has are the personal papers and items of military personnel -- either donated or purchased -- and an extensive library of published materials.

Photo curator Randy Hackenburg said the basis of the collection of Civil War portraits was a donation in the mid-1970s of about 40,000 photographs from the Massachusetts branch of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. The MOLLUS collection, begun as the war ended, has images of officers, Hackenburg said. Each photo was identified; some of the men are in uniform.

"There were all kinds of images, portraits of generals and portraits of commissioned officers," he said. "There were not many pictures of privates and sergeants. It was then we decided to get a photo of every Civil War soldier."

He said he and a colleague, Michael J. Winey, brought in their own collections of photographs to copy for the files and then asked others to do the same. Most are of Union soldiers, but about 2,000 are of Confederates. He said they would like to add to the collection.

He said the images are cross-indexed so a soldier's image will appear under his name and again with his regiment.

Other items in the collection include the uniform jacket of Charles H. Masland, a soldier in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and the engraved ceremonial saber presented to Col. Robert H.G. Minty by the 4th Michigan Cavalry after he chose that unit to pursue and arrest Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

The institute is open from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays. The staff suggests visitors call ahead so requested materials can be assembled. The phone number is 717-245-3971; the Web site is http://www.carlisle.army.mil/usamhi .

Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-8934 orcwwheel@shentel.net.

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