To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1911, the ten-volume Photographic History of the Civil War was published. One of the photographs showed a group of Union reserves on picket-duty in c.1863, relaxing by reading, chatting and playing cards. It is surely one of the most evocative images of troops in the field taken during the American Civil War. In 1910, 47 years after it was taken, one old veteran saw it for the first time and it brought him face to face with the ghosts of his past. (1)

As the publication of the Photographic History neared, William W. Silkworth was living in Long Branch, New Jersey. The veteran took an opportunity to view some of the photographs to be reproduced in the books, and was stunned to find one that showed his old unit- Company B of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion. Most poignant of all was the relationship he had with one of the men captured by the photographer. Seated in the middle of the composition was his younger brother George, with whom he had enlisted on 23rd August 1862. Not long after the photograph was taken, George became one of thousands of young men to lose his life at Petersburg. William described his realisation as follows:

In looking the pictures over, you cannot appreciate or understand fully my amazement and joy in discovering that one was my old Company B, 170th Regt. N.Y. Vol. Why, I could scarcely believe my own eyes, so wonderful was it, that after forty-seven years, this picture should come to me. But there they were, some of them looking right at me, who had been dead for forty-six years- and there was no getting away from the picture.

Today I am a boy again, living once more with the boys, the old army life. There were about twenty-five of us, school friends, who enlisted together, at Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  

There right in the front of the picture sits my brother playing cards (You will note that he is left-handed. We laid him away in front of Petersburg). With him is John Vandewater, Geo. Thomas and Wash. Keating. There is Charlie Thomas and all the rest as large as life. With the exception of two, I have not seen any of the boys for thirty years.

Some younger eyes then mine, say that they can see a figure in the background with a flag. If so, it must be me for I was Color Sergeant.'(2)

The Photograph of Company B, 170th New York with the card-players in the foreground- George Silkworth, John Vandewater, George Thomas and Wash Keating (Photographic History of the Civil War/National Archives)

The Photograph of Company B, 170th New York with the card-players in the foreground- George Silkworth, John Vandewater, George Thomas and Wash Keating. Click to enlarge. (Photographic History of the Civil War/National Archives)

For William the photograph was far more than just an image of a few nameless soldiers on picket duty; to him it represented memories of his brother and his friends from what must have seemed a lifetime ago. When he enlisted at Brooklyn in 1862 William had been 19, his younger brother George only 18. George was killed in the attempt to take Petersburg on 16th June, 1864- William was himself severely wounded only six days later, on 22nd June. It took him many months to recover- he was discharged for disability from Mower Hospital in Philadelphia on 8th June, 1865. (3)

What of George’s companions in the photograph? John Vandewater had been 22 when he enlisted in Brooklyn on the 3rd September 1862. John had become a corporal by the time he was killed in action at Hanover Junction, Virginia on 24th May, 1864. George Thomas was only 17 when he signed up on 13th August 1862, also in Brooklyn. He was wounded on the same day that his friend George Silkworth was killed but later returned to his company, eventually mustering out as a First Sergeant. The attack on Petersburg on 16th June was a dark day for the little card-playing party. It’s final member, Wash Keating, was also wounded during that fight. Having enlisted in Brooklyn on 22nd August aged 18, he was discharged on 29th June, 1865. (4)

Apart from the card-players, William Silkworth also mentioned Charlie Thomas, a man he clearly remembered well. Charlie had enlisted aged 18 on 20th August 1862. As with all the others he did so at Brooklyn. Charlie appears to have had a colourful career in the regiment, rising to the rank of corporal before being returned to the ranks, and afterwards gaining promotion to sergeant. He was reported missing in action following the disastrous battle of Ream’s Station on 25th August, 1864. Charlie did not make it through his time as a prisoner of war- he died of intermittent fever on 7th December, 1864, at Salisbury, North Carolina. (5)

As for William, he survived his younger brother by over 60 years, eventually passing away on 24th August, 1928 in Long Branch, New Jersey. Of the two card players who survived the war, George Thomas died on 4th September 1920, still making his home in Brooklyn. Wash Keating passed away in New York on 13th January, 1925. (6)

Those of us who look at the grainy black and white images of the American Civil War today often forget that many held an important place in the hearts of veterans in the years following the conflict. We often fall into the trap of reducing such photographs to the role of visual references, using them solely for purposes such as recreating landscapes or examining uniforms and equipment. By viewing them purely in the context of the period between 1861 and 1865 we fail to recognise their value and relevance to veterans who often lived well into the 20th century. It is hard to imagine the immediacy with which William Silkworth viewed this particular photograph in 1910. He must have struggled to contain his emotions as he looked into the faces of these young men, including his own brother- comrades whose lives had been destroyed by the war. Many thousands of veterans must have had similar poignant experiences as they increasingly encountered such images in print in the decades after 1865. Remembering that the men and women in these photographs remained real for their friends and families so long after the guns fell silent brings with it a new appreciation of the value of American Civil War images.

(1) Miller and Lanier (eds.) 1911: 288-289; (2) Baltimore American; (3) A-G Report 1902; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Civil War and Later Veteran Pension Index

References & Further Reading

Baltimore American: 26th April 1911. Finds Brother After 47 Years: New Jersey Businessman Sees Long Lost Photograph Taken During the Civil War

Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index Cards

New York A.G. 1902. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901

Miller, Francis Trevelyan and Lanier, Robert S. (eds.). 1911. The Photographic History of the Civil War: Volume Ten: Armies and Leaders.  288-289

Center for Civil War Photography