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Va. collector donates Civil War photographs to Library of Congress

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 2:10 PM

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 the past 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 country.

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 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, and women and children.

One moving photograph shows a little boy wearing a checkered shirt, sitting in a wooden chair, with 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 blonde 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.

"My beloved son Carl," it read. "Taken from me on April 1, 1865 at age 18." He'd been killed in the fighting at Dinwiddie Courthouse, days before the Civil War ended, the writer said: "Flights of angels sing thee to they rest."

The identity of the boy is not known. Nor is that of his bereaved parent, though he or she knew Shakespeare, as the closing quote is from Hamlet. It's not even known on which side the soldier fought.

But such anonymity confers a certain mystery and allows the viewer to imagine each subject's life, Liljenquist said at the library last week.

A story in a stare

A picture of a sad-eyed little girl wearing mourning ribbons on her dress, as she holds a photo of her dead soldier father in her lap seems a saga. She is wearing a necklace, and sits with clasped hands as she stares wearily into the camera over the distance of a century and a half.

The striking ambrotype of the African American Union soldier posing with his wife and two daughters cost Liljenquist $19,200, but it reminded his sons of a family now in the White House. Did that soldier, they wondered, ever fathom such an event?

"I think it's one of the most important photographs taken during the American Civil War," the collector said. "It's the only one that we know of of a black soldier and his family."

There are numerous photos of soldiers who look like boys - in hats too large, collars too big.

There is confidence, determination and beauty in their faces. They don't seem to be faces yet etched by the sights of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, or Spotsylvania.

One serene young Union soldier with the visage of a teenager holds his musket with the large hands of a man. His name is not known. Did he live, marry, have children and grandchildren? What parents, wife, descendants perhaps gazed at his likeness, with pride or heartbreak?

Some facts are known about some of the subjects.

The fresh-faced Cpl. Alvin B. Williams, of the 11th New Hampshire regiment, is pictured standing with his musket, in full uniform with his cap brim turned up - the picture of a jaunty Union infantryman.

Eighteen when he enlisted in 1862, he was killed at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864.

Another Union soldier, Freeman Mason, of the 17th Vermont regiment, was photographed holding a picture showing his brother, Michael, who was killed at the Battle of Savage's Station in 1862. Freeman Mason, himself,died in 1865.

One photograph shows a young Union soldier sitting beside a woman, who may be his wife or sister. Their names are not known. But the soldier's hat indicates he was with the battle-hardened 86th New York infantry regiment, which lost scores of men at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania.

Another shot identifies its youthful subject as Confederate private W.T. Harbison, of the 11th North Carolina regiment. He has light-colored eyes, and short hair and looks like a high school senior. His regiment is said to have lost half its 600 men at Gettysburg.

A sense of kinship

Liljenquist, whose name is pronounced "Lily-en-quist," said he became fascinated with the photographs after he bought one in a shop in Ellicott City. "I was just impressed by the sincerity of the soldier's look," he said. "I felt like I had really picked up a piece of history. . .I felt a real kinship."

Reared in northern Virginia and the president of Liljenquist & Beckstead Jewelers, he said he grew up steeped in the region's Civil War history.

He said he, and later his sons, Jason, 19, Brandon, 17, and Christian, 13, assembled the collection methodically.

They went to memorabilia shows as far away as Tennessee, networked with dealers, and made purchases on eBay. Some pictures cost a hundred dollars; others thousands.

They wanted images that resonated with them, pictures that for one reason or another made them say, "Wow," he said. "We looked for compelling faces, that seemed to be saying something across time to us."

The photos, many which fit in the palm of a hand, are on glass - an ambrotype; or metal - a tintype.

Most were probably taken by local photographers before a soldier was sent to the front, or by itinerant photographers who set up a mobile studio at a regimental encampment, said Johnson, the library curator.

In the past 50 years the library, which has many photos of famous Civil War figures, had acquired only about three dozen photographs of average soldiers, she said.

"This fills that gap completely," she said.

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