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Civil War photos: Help sought to solve old mystery

Monday - 6/11/2012, 4:41pm  ET

AP: 95eac653-1f80-4db8-aebf-e266ecf579ef
Ann Drury Wellford, manager of Photographic Services for The Museum of the Confederacy, a Civil War battlefield photos at the museum in Richmond, Va., Friday, May 25, 2012. Private Thomas W. Timberlake of Co. G, 2nd Virginia Infantry found this child’s portrait on the battlefield of Port Republic, Virginia, between the bodies of a Confederate soldier and a Federal soldier. Eight photographs are publicly releasing the images in the admittedly remote chance a descendant might recognize a facial resemblance or make a connection the battlefields where they were found. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
  • Gallery: (3 images)

STEVE SZKOTAK
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The names of the two little girls are an enduring mystery, their images found among crumpled bodies on Civil War battlefields. Each is posed primly on chairs, ringlets cascading past the rouged cheeks of one, the other dressed in a frilly hoop dress.

But no one knows the identities of the girls in the photographs, or the stories they might tell.

The photograph of one girl was found between the bodies of two soldiers _ one Union, one Confederate, at Port Republic, Va., 150 years ago this June. The other was retrieved from a slain Union soldier's haversack in 1865 on a Virginia farm field days before a half-decade of blood-letting would end with a surrender signed not far away at Appomattox.

Though photography was in its infancy when the war broke out, its use was widespread. Many soldiers carried photographs of loved ones into battle and for the first time, photographic images of war were available _ and the Museum of the Confederacy has its own vast collection of images today, many of them identified.

But now museum officials are releasing the unidentified images of the two girls, along with six other enigmatic photographs, on the admittedly remote chance someone might recognize a familial resemblance or make a connection to a battlefield where they were found.

There is no writing on the backs of these photographs. No notes tucked inside their wallet-sized frames. For a museum that prides itself on knowing the provenance of its holdings, the photographs offer few clues.

"We don't know who they are and the people who picked them up did not know who they were," said Ann Drury Wellford, curator of 6,000 Civil War images at the Richmond museum that has the largest collection of artifacts of the Confederate states, civilian and military. "They evoke an utter and complete sentimentality."

Museum officials can only speculate on the children and adults, including soldiers, shown in the photographs. But whether they were sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, or siblings the prospect of identifying each grows dimmer with the passage of time.

Typically they were found by another soldier and handed down through generations. Ultimately an attic would be cleared or a trunk would be emptied and the photo would be given to the museum. Some have been in the museum's possession for 60 years or more.

Even in its infancy, photography was booming during the Civil War. Photographers were assigned to Northern divisions and traveling photographers were the early version of photo booths as they visited encamped troops between battles and photographed them.

Photography was evolving from daguerreotype to ambrotypes and other mediums in which images were produced through a wet emulsion on glass and were more accessible to a wider audience.

"It had more versatility than it had ever had," according to Jeffrey Ruggles, a historian of photography. "It was the early blossoming of photography. The war just happened to hit at a time when people were very interested in seeing these pictures."

Bob Zeller, president of The Center for Civil War Photography, said soldiers carrying photographs of wives, children and other loved ones off to battle was common. Finding a photo on the battlefield without a clear connection to a dead soldier was uncommon and highly evocative.

"Much of it is the unknown factor that the image carries," he said. "It's something that everyone cherishes, a photograph of their loved ones, but there it is out on this battlefield with these seemingly nameless, faceless corpses."

Zeller, the author of several books on Civil War photography, including "The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography," described such photos as the link for many Civil War combatants to "a reality that, for many of them, had just disappeared."

Sometimes, the story behind an unidentified photo is eventually told. Zeller relates the story of a Union soldier who died at Gettysburg, clutching a photograph of his family. Widespread efforts in the North to identify the family ultimately proved successful in tracing his family to upstate New York.

As for the girl's photos, there is no hint of who these subjects are and the connection to the combatants who once cherished them is lost.

Unlike modern soldiers, few Civil War troops had the modern-day version of dog tags and few carried identification. The Civil War also did not have the kinds of mortuary units that now strive to collect all the possessions of the war dead and return them to their families.

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