Faces of the Civil War, staring out across the decades

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Virginia collector has donated to the Library of Congress the largest trove of Civil War-era photographs depicting average soldiers that the institution has received in at least 50 years, officials said last week.

The stunning photographs - small, elegant ambrotypes and tintypes - show hundreds of the young men who fought and died in the war, often portrayed in the innocence and idealism before the experience of battle.

The pictures, almost 700 in all, make up the bulk of the collection of Tom Liljenquist, 58, of McLean, who operates a chain of Washington area jewelry stores and with his sons has been buying Civil War photographs for 15 years.

The images show the striking youth of the soldiers of the 1860s. Many seem barely out of boyhood and too young for the trials ahead of them. Yet, as Liljenquist remarked last week, they became saviors of the nation.

The donation comes on the eve of the war's sesquicentennial next year, and the library plans a major exhibition of the photos in April, on the 150th anniversary of start of the war.

But most of the images have been digitized and are available online.

"This is an amazing gift of Civil War material," said Carol M. Johnson, curator of photography in the library's prints and photographs division. "A landmark gift."

Liljenquist, whose name is pronounced "Lily-en-quist," said his family donated the images to make them available to posterity, free of restrictions. And when "they digitize the photos," he said, "that photograph will look exactly that way 20,000 years from now."

Most of the pictures are of Union soldiers. But there are also several dozen Confederates. There are no generals or politicians, and most of the Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs portrayed are unidentified.

There are also rare photos of African American soldiers, as well as women and children.

One moving photograph shows a young boy wearing a checkered shirt and sitting in a wooden chair, his thumb hooked in the pocket of a jacket that has rows of bright buttons.

He's a fair-skinned child, and there was a lock of blond hair tucked behind the keepsake, dated from the 1850s. Also hidden behind the photo was a folded note, with a haunting message from the past.

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