150 Years Ago: An Irish Photographer Captures the Overland Campaign

As I head to Virginia to visit some of the sites relating to the start of the 1864 Overland Campaign, I have been looking again at the contemporary photographs captured during that momentous summer. Irishmen were not just present among the fighting men of the two opposing forces, they were also there to document the Union push to neutralize Robert E. Lee’s army. One of the best known was photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, an individual who has been the topic of a previous post and is also featured in my book. Some of O’Sullivan’s images from around May 1864 are among the most famous of any taken at this time; they include his exposures of Confederate dead at the Widow Alsop’s Farm in Spotsylvania, and his remarkable images of Ulysses S. Grant and his officers in the midst of the campaign at Massaponax Church. Here are some of the images credited to Timothy O’Sullivan and taken during that month available through the wonderful online collections of the Library of Congress.

Vicinity of Brandy Station, Virginia. Large Wagon Park, May 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/Library of Congress)

Build up. Vicinity of Brandy Station, Virginia. Large Wagon Park, May 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Ruins of bridge at Germannia Ford, where the troops under General Grant crossed, May 4, 1864  (Timothy O'Sullivan, Library of Congress)

The campaign begins. Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Ruins of bridge at Germanna Ford, where the troops under General Grant crossed, May 4, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Artillery crossing pontoon bridges, May 4, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

The campaign begins. Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Artillery crossing pontoon bridges, May 4, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Grant's troops crossing Germanna Ford, May 4, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

The campaign begins. Germanna Ford, Rapidan River, Virginia. Grant’s troops crossing Germanna Ford, May 4, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Burial of soldier my Mrs. Alsop's house, near which Ewell's Corps attacked the Federal right on May 19, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Aftermath of battle. Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Burial of soldier by Mrs. Alsop’s house, near which Ewell’s Corps attacked the Federal right on May 19, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

One of Ewell's confederate Corps as he lay on the field, after the battle of the May 19, 1864, Spotsylvania (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Aftermath of battle. One of Ewell’s Confederate Corps as he lay on the field, after the battle of May 19, 1864, Spotsylvania (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, vicinity. View from Beverly House looking towards Spotsylvania Court House, May 19, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

The campaign continues. Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, vicinity. View from Beverly House looking towards Spotsylvania Court House, May 19, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burial of Federal Dead, May 19/20, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

The mortally wounded. Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burial of Federal Dead, May 19/20, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Dead of Ewell's Confederate Corps, laid out for burial near Mrs. Alsop's House, Spotsylvania, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/Library of Congress)

Aftermath of battle. Dead of Ewell’s Confederate Corps, laid out for burial near Mrs. Alsop’s House, Spotsylvania, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Body of a Confederate soldier near Mrs. Alsop's house, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Aftermath of battle. Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Body of a Confederate soldier near Mrs. Alsop’s house, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Bodies of Confederate soldiers near Mrs. Alsop's house, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Aftermath of battle. Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Bodies of Confederate soldiers near Mrs. Alsop’s house, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Body of another Confederate soldier near Mrs. Alsop's house, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Aftermath of battle. Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Body of another Confederate soldier near Mrs. Alsop’s house, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Spotsylvania Court House, vicinity. Beverly House, headquarters of General Gouverneur Warren, 5th Corps, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

High Command. Spotsylvania Court House, vicinity. Beverly House, headquarters of General Gouverneur Warren, 5th Corps, May 20, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Massaponax Church, Virginia. View of the church, temporary headquarters of General Ulysses S. Grant, surrounded by soldiers, May 21, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

High Command. Massaponax Church, Virginia. View of the church, temporary headquarters of General Ulysses S. Grant, surrounded by soldiers, May 21, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Massaponax Church, Virginia. 'Council of War', General Ulysses S. Grant examines a map held by General George Gordon Meade, May 21, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

High Command. Massaponax Church, Virginia. ‘Council of War’, General Ulysses S. Grant examines a map held by General George Gordon Meade, May 21, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Massaponax Church, Virginia. 'Council of War' General Ulysses S. Grant (left end of bench nearest tree) writing a dispatch, May 21, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

High Command. Massaponax Church, Virginia. ‘Council of War’, General Ulysses S. Grant (left end of bench nearest tree) writing a dispatch, May 21, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Ann River, Virginia. Quarles Mill on North Anna where a portion of the 5th Corps under General Warren crossed, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. North Anna River, Virginia. Quarles Mill on North Anna where a portion of the 5th Corps under General Warren crossed, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. Pontoon bridges constructed by the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers. Where a portion of the 2nd Corps under General Hancock crossed, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. North Anna River, Virginia. Pontoon bridges constructed by the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers. Where a portion of the 2nd Corps under General Hancock crossed, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. Pontoon bridges across the North Anna, below railroad bridge, where a portion of the 2nd Corps under General Hancock crossed, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. North Anna River, Virginia. Pontoon bridges across the North Anna, below railroad bridge, where a portion of the 2nd Corps under General Hancock crossed, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Bethel Church, Virginia. View of the church, temporary headquarters of General Ambrose E. Burnside, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

High Command. Bethel Church, Virginia. View of the church, temporary headquarters of General Ambrose E. Burnside, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Ann River, Virginia. Interior view of a Confederate redoubt commanding Chesterfield Bridge. Captured by the 2nd Corps under General Hancock, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Enemy Fortifications. North Anna River, Virginia. Interior view of a Confederate redoubt commanding Chesterfield Bridge. Captured by the 2nd Corps under General Hancock, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. Chesterfield Bridge with Confederate redoubt in the distance, carried by the 2nd Corps under General Hancock, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. North Anna River, Virginia. Chesterfield Bridge with Confederate redoubt in the distance, carried by the 2nd Corps under General Hancock, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Chesterfield Bridge, North Anna River, Virginia, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. Chesterfield Bridge, North Anna River, Virginia, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Jericho Mills, Virginia. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under General Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23d. View from north bank, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. Jericho Mills, Virginia. Canvas pontoon bridge across the North Anna, constructed by the 50th New York Engineers; the 5th Corps under General Gouverneur K. Warren crossed here on the 23rd. View from north bank, May 23, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Jericho Mills, Virginia. Looking up the North Anna river from the south bank, with a canvas pontoon bridge and pontoon train on the opposite bank, May 24, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. Jericho Mills, Virginia. Looking up the North Anna river from the south bank, with a canvas pontoon bridge and pontoon train on the opposite bank, May 24, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Jericho Mills, Virginia. 5th Corps ammunition train crossing North Anna River, on canvas pontoon bridge constructed by 50th New York Volunteer Engineers (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. Jericho Mills, Virginia. 5th Corps ammunition train crossing North Anna River, on canvas pontoon bridge constructed by 50th New York Volunteer Engineers May 24, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Jericho Mills, Virginia. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge, May 24, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

A Vital Support. Jericho Mills, Virginia. Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna, with a general headquarters wagon train crossing the pontoon bridge, May 24, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. Federal troops occupying a line of breastworks on the north bank, May 25, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Dug In. North Anna River, Virginia. Federal troops occupying a line of breastworks on the north bank, May 25, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. Destroyed bridge of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, May 25, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Hindering the Advance. North Anna River, Virginia. Destroyed bridge of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, May 25, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. Cavalry crossing Chesterfield Bridge, May 25, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. North Anna River, Virginia. Cavalry crossing Chesterfield Bridge, May 25, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Soldiers bathing, North Anna River, Virginia. Ruins of railroad bridge in background, May 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Taking a Break. Soldiers bathing, North Anna River, Virginia. Ruins of railroad bridge in background, May 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. Grant's engineers building a bridge, May 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Vital Support. North Anna River, Virginia. Grant’s engineers building a bridge, May 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

North Anna River, Virginia. View of log bridge at Quarles Mill from south side. Camp of general headquarters in the distance, May 26, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

High Command. North Anna River, Virginia. View of log bridge at Quarles Mill from south side. Camp of general headquarters in the distance, May 26, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Hanovertown Ferry, Virginia. Canvas pontoon bridges at Hanovertown Ferry, constructed by the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers, May 28, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. Hanovertown Ferry, Virginia. Canvas pontoon bridges at Hanovertown Ferry, constructed by the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers, May 28, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Hanovertown Ferry, Virginia. Pontoon bridges across the Pamunkey, with wagons, May 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Fording the Rivers. Hanovertown Ferry, Virginia. Pontoon bridges across the Pamunkey, with wagons, May 28, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Mrs. Nelson's Crossing, Virginia. Ruins of the Richmond and York River Railroad bridge across the Pamunkey, above White House (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Impediment to the Advance. Mrs. Nelson’s Crossing, Virginia. Ruins of the Richmond and York River Railroad bridge across the Pamunkey, above White House, May 28, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Port Royal, Virginia. The Rappahannock River front during the evacuation, May 30, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Change of Base. Port Royal, Virginia. The Rappahannock River front during the evacuation, May 30, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

port Royal, Virginia. Transports being loaded from a pontoon bridge during the evacuation, May 30, 1864 (Timothy O'Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

Change of Base. Port Royal, Virginia. Transports being loaded from a pontoon bridge during the evacuation, May 30, 1864 (Timothy O’Sullivan/ Library of Congress)

References & Further Reading

Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog: Civil War

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Civil War Trust: The Overland Campaign of 1864

 

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Categories: Battle of North Anna, Battle of Spotsylvania, Battle of The Wilderness, Cork, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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12 Comments on “150 Years Ago: An Irish Photographer Captures the Overland Campaign”

  1. May 2, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

    Reblogged this on hocuspocus13.

  2. May 2, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

    top picture of all the wagons is amazing ,you’d wonder how they managed this logistically ,keep up the great work

  3. Crissouli
    May 2, 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    Incredible photos. Sadly, to see so many individual deceased really emphasises the futility of war. So many wasted dreams, so many loved ones ‘discarded’ … for what? Did their individual deaths prove anything… Thanks for portraying this, Damian.

    • May 20, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      I often wonder who the men were in these images and what the cost to their families was of their deaths- we will never know. It is the stories that we don’t know behind the images that helps to make them so powerful, I think.

  4. May 3, 2014 at 1:24 am #

    Great stuff! Thanks!

  5. May 6, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

    These photos underscore the deadly nature of this war. So many young men. Thanks for the pictoral reminder.

    • May 20, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

      They certainly do- I had the privilege to walk some of the ground were some of the most famous photos of dead from the war were taken- it highlights just how dreadful a conflict the Civil War was.

  6. rbrad55
    May 14, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

    This is a great site! I intend on visiting the overland battlefield for a then and now comparison.

    • May 20, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

      Many thanks, glad you enjoy it! Having just returned from some of the Overland battlefield sites I can highly recommend them- be sure to try and take in some of the NPS Ranger programs while you are there, they are well worth it.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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