‘Today I am a Boy Again’: A Civil War Veteran Faces an Image of His Past

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


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Categories: 170th New York, Corcoran's Irish Legion, Memory, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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27 Comments on “‘Today I am a Boy Again’: A Civil War Veteran Faces an Image of His Past”

  1. May 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    And so many were ‘always a boy’ as they never lived to adulthood. A nice post reminding us that these were real people, real sons, real brothers.

  2. Joseph Maghe
    May 21, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    Thanks, Damian, for bringing this story to your blog. It has been a source of great human interest for all who read it. I especially enjoy seeing pictures of the Legion posted.

    • May 22, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      Thanks Joe- it is a really emotive story. The Legion are fast becoming one of my favourite topics, they are really deserving of more attention!

  3. Brendan
    May 21, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    Great insight into a great photograph. It is so rare to actually have an identification of soldiers in a photograph like this by a veteran himself. I wonder if the figure in the background supposedly “with a flag” is referring to the man in the center background. I think this man is actually holding his rifle in the “support – arms” position, but he shifted while the image was being taken, causing the rifle to appear broader, like a flag. You can see it in greater detail here:
    Infantry Resting From Drills

    We discussed this image a little on Flickr, and I think I was able to pinpoint just which ones were John Vandewater and George Silkworth:
    Company B, 170th Regiment, New York Volunteers at rest, 1864, Petersburg

    • May 22, 2012 at 9:03 am #

      Hi Brendan,

      It is really amazing, it is certainly my favourite photograph from the Civil War, purely because you can put a name to some of the faces and we know what happened to some of them. Thanks also for the flickr link- your argument re who’s who makes sense to me, adds another layer of detail to the story!

      Kind Regards,


  4. Brendan
    May 22, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

    I’ve long been trying to determine what my great-great-grandfather was up to during the war years. A man with the same name, age, and residence served in this very company. I looked into it further only to find that the man in Company B was recorded as born in NY, whereas my ancestor was born in Ireland.

    Anyway, the other National Archives photographs of the 170th are also well worth a look:
    A Company of the 170th New York Infantry
    Company 170th N.Y. Infantry
    Officers of 164th and 170th N.Y. Inf
    Lieutenant Colonel Michael C. Murphy and Officers of 170th New York Infantry

    • May 23, 2012 at 9:35 am #

      They are a fantastic set Brendan, I would love to find out more about the circumstances in which they were all taken. What was your great-great- grandfather’s name?

    • Michael Mac Namara
      September 4, 2012 at 10:22 am #

      There may be a mistake in the records. My greatgrandfather is always referred to as having been born in Cork. He was from near Tullamore. It may have been that he sailed from Cork or even that there was recruitment at the port. Garrett Barry was killed at Atlanta and his military record shows his birth as being in PA. I have recently got some info where he may have been a Listowel native. In your case it looks too much of a coincidence.

      Mick MacNamara

      • Brendan
        September 4, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

        Hi Mick,

        Thanks for the info. A difficulty I keep encountering is that there were many William Hamiltons in New York City at this time, and the ages of Irish immigrants in the 19th century often seem to vary dramatically from one record to the next. I figured the age listed in my William’s obit, tombstone, and death cert, is the most reliable (which would out his birth ~1827), but I’ve his year of birth in the records I’ve found (particularly the censuses) range from 1814-1836.

        There may still be a way to ultimately confirm/refute whether the 170th’s William is the same man. There is a court martial record on file for this William in the National Archives, concerning his trial for desertion. I just have to be willing and able to cough up the necessary dough.

        Another potential match for William Hamilton served in the 25th New York (“Kerrigan Rangers”), but I haven’t the slightest idea where to find any further info at this point. There is no pension record on file matching this man.

        But I digress. I think you are right–I should not rule out the 170th, and it is definitely worth further pursuit.


  5. Brendan
    May 22, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    This made me want to revisit the National Archives’ gallery online. As luck would have it, I think I stumbled across an unidentified photo of this company on parade. A few of these men are unmistakeable–the sergeant with the sideburns especially jumped out at me:
    Company of Infantry on parade

    Do you all see it too or am I nuts?

    • May 23, 2012 at 9:35 am #

      Had a look you might be right, I am going to compare them in more detail!

      • Brendan
        May 23, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

        The clincher for me was the guy all the way on the far left of the “at rest” photograph. Very distinctive face & facial hair, but more importantly, he’s also wearing an unusual pair or gauntlets on his hands. Look 6th from the right in the “on parade” photo–there he is, gloves and all.

        I could swear I’ve seen these photos dated around early spring, 1864. This makes the most sense to me, considering the parade photo shows winter quarters in the background and the 170th did garrison duty in or around Washington, DC from about July 1863-May 1864. Then there’s this:
        Burnt bridge at Pope's Head, Va
        The officer and the enlisted man in the slouch hat match the 170th soldiers in this image:
        A Company of the 170th New York Infantry
        The former image is captioned “Burnt bridge at Pope’s Head, Va.” That’s near Fairfax Station, VA, outside DC. Any idea when they would have been there (assuming all these photos were taken during the same period)?

        My gg-grandfather was William Hamilton, born about 1827 in Ireland (still trying to find out where). He was a carman, living with his wife and 3 kids around Hell’s Kitchen and what is today the West Village around the time of the Civil War.

        One thing to keep in mind looking at these photographs is that these men were about to go through a hell from which many of them did not return. The New York State Military museum’s blurb says “Its total enrollment was 1,002, of whom 10 officers and 119 men—or 12.8 per cent.—were killed and mortally wounded; 2 officers and 96 men, died of disease and other causes; total deaths, 227. The total number killed and wounded was 481.”

  6. dccaughey
    May 22, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

    Damian, great post, I really enjoyed reading this one.

  7. July 22, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    Wonderful story. Some of the expressions on the men are so natural, not the lined up in ranks photos you sometimes see.

    • July 22, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

      Hi Ken,

      It is an amazing story and a great photograph- the more you look at it the more you see. It is quite something to know the names and fates of some of the men in it.

      Kind Regards,


  8. Michael Mac Namara
    September 1, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    I was amazed to find a print of Company M 1 Mo Lt Artillery during the Meridian campaign from Vicksburg . My greatgrandfather Peter Cavanagh is a Sergeant in that picture. Is it possible to find where the original photographs are archived? Some Civil War pictures are of such good quality that I may be able to identify him. can anyome help?
    Michael Mac Namara, Limerick, Ireland

    • September 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      Hi Michael,

      Many thanks for getting in touch. Where did you get the image? If you email me a copy I could see if it is one I recognise. Many of the images are held by the Library of Congress, but by no means all, but it should be possible to find out more. I note you are in Limerick- did your great grandfather return to Ireland after the war?

      Kind Regards,


      • Michael Mac Namara
        September 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

        Hello Damian,
        Yes, Peter Cavanagh returned to Ireland in 1867, from Vancouver WA. Sadly, he only lived to 1871of TB, almost certainly a war victim; he was hospitalized in 63 with fever on a hospital ship out of Vicksburg.. He married in September 1867. He returned to Cappincur, just outside Tullamore.
        He served throughout the war, starting on 10 May 61 at Camp Jackson St Louis and his last engagement was at Nashville in December 64. He joined up at Newport KY in Sept 1860 and came down to St Louis with General Thomas Sweeny and a about 30 others in March 61. Sweeny was a senior Fenian who led an attack into Canada and Peter was close to him for a lot of the war. The fact that he came back in 67 spurred my interest a lot but I’m afraid I have not been able to find any Fenian connection.
        Thank you for the information on the photograph and I’ll try that.

  9. Michael Mac Namara
    September 1, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    I forgot to say that the picture of Company M was in the Photographic History of the Civil War

    • September 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      Hi Michael,

      I think that might be possible to trace- have you checked out the Center for Civil War Photography (http://www.civilwarphotography.org/) they might be able to help. It is probable at least that there will be a good copy available when it was published in that, although I imagine it may be harder to determine which one of the men he was, but it is certainly worth a go!

      Kind Regards,


      • Michael Mac Namara
        September 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

        This is where I found it. I got a good enough copy from a university library in Hartford CT.

        Miller, F. T. (ED.), 1912, The Photographic History of the Civil War, 2, 340, The Review of Reviews Company, New York.

        I can’t attach it to this reply. I’m mickmacnamara@yahoo.com. I’ll send it to you.

        Thank you very much

      • September 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

        Hi Michael,

        Thanks for that I will send you a direct message!

        Kind Regards,


  10. September 15, 2012 at 2:25 am #

    What a wonderfully evocative post. I sometimes find myself peering at photos taken during the Civil War, wondering how many of the men pictured survived? And of those that did, how many were able to return from the war and live their lives with any semblance of normalcy after what they’d been experienced. Your post shows the apparent randomness with which men died, were wounded or lived for another 60 years.

    • September 16, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

      Thanks for the comment- I agree, it is hard not to look at those images without wondering what became of these men. For those that survived they often had decades of life left, dealing with the consequences of what happened to them between 1861-65.

      Kind Regards,


  11. November 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    They were just children with such bright futures, you are right it is easy to reduce the image to just a reference forgetting that they all had mothers and fathers, families and friends who mourned them.


  1. Discerning History » Union Soldier Recognizes a Picture of His Regiment - March 22, 2013

    […] to the Irish in the American Civil War Blog for originally posting about this […]

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