The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her image had been buried near a Civil War battlefield for 100 years. Then I found her.

A metallic negative of a well-dressed 19th-century woman, left, was excavated by the author while relic hunting in Centreville, Va., in 1992. It was recently converted to a positive image, right. (Kevin Ambrose)

My metal detector gave a loud signal as I swept its coil over the freshly cleared earth. I had just dug up several Civil War bullets a few feet away, but this signal sounded different. It was louder, and registered much higher on my detector’s meter than the bullets. Perhaps, I thought, I was about to dig up a Civil War belt buckle? Finding a Civil War buckle is always at the top of my wish list when relic hunting.

The year was 1992 and I was scanning a construction site in Centreville, which was a busy crossroads during the Civil War. The Battles of First and Second Bull Run, and the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford were fought nearby.

I was part of small group of “diggers” that chased the bulldozers around Northern Virginia, trying to salvage Civil War artifacts at construction sites before the topsoil was stripped away and the relics lost forever, buried under roads and housing developments. During the 1990s, the woods and fields around Centreville were getting developed at an extremely fast rate.

I knelt down and began to slowly dig a hole where my metal detector had produced the signal, taking care not to damage the artifact. At about five inches below the surface of the ground, I saw a thin, rectangular plate appear. My heart started beating faster. It was about the same size and shape as a Civil War buckle. Could it be?

I pulled the plate out of the ground and gently wiped away the dirt. Instead of seeing letters, numbers or a state seal, which is common on Civil War buckles, the face and shoulders of a woman appeared. What I found was not buckle, it was a photograph of a woman — the negative image of a woman in a dress — etched into a thick, metallic plate.

I gazed at the women in the negative, trying to flip it into a positive image in my mind. In that dress, she looked ready to attend a Civil War ball. Unfortunately, her name was not engraved on the back of the negative plate.

The image provided a few clues, however. The woman’s gown, off-the-shoulders, was favored by Southern belles and wealthy women at that time. Her jewelry also reflected the period. Ladies wore cameos, mourning jewelry and large lockets containing photos and hair of loved ones. And her hair, parted down the middle, was a common style for all women during the middle 19th century. One of the big reasons for parting hair down the middle was to make it easier to check for head lice, which plagued many. But as for her identity, it was a mystery.

Thirty-two frightening snapshots of a hanging. And no one knew who the victims were – until now.

I walked over to a friend who had joined me for the hunt and showed him my find. We both had never seen anything like it. Then I declared, “I’m going to take this down to Ritz Camera and get it developed.”

But taking a century-old, four-inch metallic negative to Ritz Camera to make a photo copy was just a joke. It would never work.

In the years that followed, I found many more Civil War relics in the Centreville area, and I even found the remains of a Civil War soldier near a McDonalds on Route 28 just south of town. But I never found another metallic negative. The image of the woman became a curiosity piece that I displayed with my other Civil War relics.

Fast forward to last month. I decided to take the negative out of my relic case and post a photo of it on Facebook. It had been many years since I showed the negative to anyone, and I thought it was worth sharing with my friends.

As I photographed the negative, I suddenly realized that I knew how to develop it. I’d once joked about developing it at Ritz Camera, but I could do it now. I had the technology. I owned Adobe Photoshop! In the years since I dug up the negative, I had become quite proficient with Photoshop, having been an employee of Adobe for the past 10 years.

The day white Virginia stopped admiring Gen. Robert E. Lee and started worshiping him

I quickly loaded the photo of the negative onto my computer, and I used Photoshop’s lasso tool to select the negative. Then I selected Photoshop’s ‘Invert’ option and, boom, instantly the negative became a positive. After years of looking at the negative in my relic display case, I could finally see the woman in the photo. And I could even detect a faint smile on her face.

For a final touch, I converted the image to black and white to make it look more authentic to the 19th century.

Excited, I emailed the negative and positive images to Tom Liljenquist, who is an expert in Civil War photography, and who has donated a very large collection of Civil War photographs to the Library of Congress. I asked him for his opinion:

Liljenquist said the negative appears to be a copy of a Civil War portrait photograph, called ambrotypes and tintypes, and he said the woman in the image lived during the mid-19th century, judging by her hair style and jewelry. He also said that the piece is unique, and he’d never seen anything like it.

I consulted with Ronald S. Coddington, editor and publisher of Military Images, who informed me the negative was a halftone copy of a 19th century photograph, for printing books or publications, possibly made during the 1870s or 1880s. It was made for a printing press.

How cool that I’d found something so rare.

I thought back to that day in 1992, when I’d been disappointed to dig a negative out of the ground and not a Civil War buckle. But today, I am very happy with the discovery, and I find myself wondering: Who was that lady in the photo, and what happened to her over 100 years ago? Especially now that I can finally see her face.

Read more Retropolis:

Thirty-two frightening snapshots of a hanging. And no one knew who the victims were – until now.

‘Assassins!’: A Confederate spy was accused of helping kill Abraham Lincoln. Then he vanished.

‘Unflinching’: The day John Brown was hanged for his raid on Harpers Ferry

The truth about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: He wasn’t very good at his job