This stereo photograph of three unidentified Federal soldiers and a young African American is, in my opinion, one of the more poignant images of the Civil War. There is so much to ponder here, both in terms of historical detail and symbolic heft. Timothy O’Sullivan, the Irishman credited with having photographed this scene and so many other iconic Civil War images, was discussed in more detail by Damian in a previous blog article on this site. O’Sullivan captured this particular moment in late August 1862, near Manassas Junction, Virginia. This is a place that bore great significance for the soldiers passing through it, as the focal point of Union forces’ disastrous defeat there over a year prior. But, as is clear in this image, it held more immediate signs of devastation. Between August 26th and 27th, 1862, hungry and ragged Confederate troops under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson seized the critical railroad junction and Union supply depot here, took everything they could devour or haul away, and set fire to the rest. The ruined rolling stock is this image bears witness to the success of Jackson’s operation.
It is unclear who these people are or to what unit the soldiers belonged. All four of them look like mere boys pausing in the eye of a great storm. It is likely that the three infantrymen here belonged to George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, fresh from the heavy campaigning of the Peninsula Campaign, and immediately prior to the Second Battle of Bull Run. Their exhaustion and dire need of supplies is evident. The marches of this campaign were arduous, and the Virginia heat unrelenting. “We threw all off and we have nothing but what was on our backs,” Irish immigrant Patrick Deveney of the 69th Pennsylvania wrote to his wife following the Peninsula. Robert G. Carter, who arrived as a recruit to the veteran 22nd Massachusetts in September 1862, left a vivid account of the state of his regiment and many of its fellow 5th Corps units as he then found them:
At the Battle of Gaines Mills they had ‘piled their knapsacks,’ had been nearly surrounded by ‘Stonewall’ Jackson; had fought an unequal contest with great gallantry; had ‘skipped out’ and lost everything, and were now without even shelter tents, blankets, overcoats, etc.; many were barefooted, and their clothes were ragged and torn. Some wore straw hats of every shape and color, others a black or white slouch, while many sported a vizorless cap of that unique pattern so well remembered by all old soldiers, almost impossible to describe, which had increased the brown on their faces to a rich mahogany. …Some of these poor chaps have had nothing to cover their poor bodies these cold September nights but a thin blouse and tattered breeches; their shirts gone, and their shoes and stockings; they lost everything at Gaines Mills. (1)
This soldier has set himself down on a rail, clutching his English-made Enfield rifle musket in his left hand. In many ways, he’s the picture book image of a generic Federal infantryman. In addition to a basic forage cap, he wears what looks to be a standard dark blue fatigue blouse, sky blue issue trousers tucked into his socks, and well-worn leather Army brogans. The reflectiveness of the outer layer of the blanket roll on his shoulder is indicative of a gum blanket, a prized possession among Civil War soldiers. These blankets were lined with India rubber or gutta percha to provide waterproofing and could be useful as blankets, ground cloths, or rain ponchos. In this case, used as the outer layer of his blanket roll, it could help keep dry any items rolled or stuffed within, in lieu of a knapsack. While this soldier’s eyes are concealed under the visor of his heavily worn cap, his tanned, frowning face looks to be that of a teen. One can only speculate what was running through his mind. He could be reflecting on the frustrations of the day or wondering when and where his next meal will come. Considering the many battles he might have already suffered through, to be back here of all places, at Manassas Junction, practically square one, and to find it in ruins at that, and with it all the food and other supplies it contained–this must have been devastating to the morale of many Federal soldiers. To compound things, he and his comrades also know full well that another battle soon awaits them, and they may very well understand that many more must follow for those that survive. Or, exhausted as he must surely be, the boy might simply be letting his mind wander wherever it may as he gets a simple moment of rest. (2)
An original Federal fatigue blouse, or sack coat, of dark blue wool flannel, similar to what the first soldier is wearing, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. This particular example was manufactured by John T. Martin in New York City. Martin’s company was contracted by the Army to produce over one million such coats. Many military garments were produced by Irish immigrant workers, including the family members of Federal soldiers, who labored for low wages in grueling sweatshop conditions to supplement their families’ incomes while their husbands, sons, and fathers were at war. (3)
The second soldier has donned a light-colored civilian slouch hat, a tad small for his head, but sufficient to provide his forehead some sliver of shade from the summer sun. The collar of his frock coat is turned up to shield his neck from the same. He wears what appears to be an infantryman’s frock coat and carries his blanket roll secured by straps over his shoulder. But perhaps what stands out most about this soldier is that he is barefoot. Rough 19th century roadways notoriously tore up the soles of Army brogans, and soldiers of both sides frequently had to go without until they could draw a new pair. J.W. Gaskill, who served in the 104th Ohio Infantry, recorded burning through seven pairs of shoes over the course of a single year. Imagining that level of wear and tear on the scale of an army of tens of thousands gives a picture of the logistical challenge posed by footwear alone at this stage of the war. The abandonment of Federal supplies during the Peninsula Campaign, coupled with more recent incidents, like the destruction of the depot at Manassas Junction shown here, contributed to many Federal soldiers being left in a state of destitution similar to what Deveney and Carter described. Captain William O’Grady of the 88th New York Infantry, likewise recounted that many members of the famed Irish Brigade were shoeless during their famous charge at Antietam. While many Civil War soldiers spent their childhoods callusing their bare feet while running around farm fields, city streets, or even the rocky shores of Ireland, little could have prepared them for long, unshod marches along macadamized Southern roads. (4)
The third soldier is clad in a forage cap and dark blue pants. Though the War Department changed the standard color for Army trousers from dark to light blue in late 1861, many dark blue pairs remained in circulation through 1862 and even on to the end of the war. He carries neither a blanket nor a knapsack, and may simply have lacked both at this point. He and the other standing soldier have both turned their heads away from the camera. Their focus seems to be on a young Black man in meager civilian clothes who stands behind the wreckage with a pack slung over his shoulder. Like the soldiers, he, too, appears to be a traveller, but his story is even more of a mystery to us. (5)
It is possible this figure is a camp follower, perhaps employed as a servant or cook with the Federal forces. Or he may be a refugee just passing through. Either way, there’s a strong chance he is a recently enslaved person who has shaken off the chains of bondage and finds some level of hope in the ragged young soldiers before him. While Black men were not yet permitted to enlist in the Union Army, the Emancipation Proclamation is but a few months away, paving the way for African American service. Did this boy eventually end up a soldier in the United State Colored Troops? It is fascinating to me that, while he is farther away than the photograph’s other subjects, he is nonetheless the only person with his face turned forward toward the camera. He confronts the camera the most directly, yet seems relatably curious about the scene before him. The photograph also gives him a sense of movement lacking in the other subjects. More than anyone, he conveys a sense of just “passing through.” He looks–and moves–physically forward as he may likewise move forward to a future in which he is reunited with long lost family members, a future nation devoid of slavery, a future in which a nation “conceived in liberty” can indeed be his nation too. But that is all conjecture. Like the four soldiers before him, his eyes, and his identity, are concealed to us.
Elusive to us as the names and fates of these four people are, Timothy O’Sullivan has given us access to an intimate moment here, and a rare opportunity to see Federal soldiers in the field in the midst of some of the hardest campaigning any troops would experience during the war. We do not see them here lined up in neat parade order with clean shoes and polished brass buttons, or with officers mounted on horseback nearby with sabers drawn to lead them to glory. We see them, instead, as they so often were, ragged and dirty and barefooted and exhausted. This is how the Civil War was mostly fought–by humans at the edge of existence, immigrants and refugees, farm boys and urban laborers, enwrapped in weathered sweatshop clothing, clinging to life, griping, weary, hopeful and pessimistic, marching one agonizing step at a time, doing battle one individually-loaded minie ball at a time. Boys like these–all four of them–would ultimately carry this war to victory for the Union and usher in a new hope for the formerly enslaved. We see them here amid twisted and scorched wreckage with a long, long road yet to travel.
(1) Patrick Deveney, letter to wife, 10 July 1862, via Spared & Shared (https://sparedandshared19.wordpress.com/2019/08/18/1862-patrick-deveney-to-wife/), Robert G. Carter, Four Brothers in Blue.
(2) Lawrence E. Babits, “Rubber Poncho and Blankets from the Union Transport Maple Leaf,” Liberty Rifles (https://www.libertyrifles.org/research/uniforms-equipment/rubber-blankets)
(3) Patrick Brown, For Fatigue Purposes: The Army Sack Coat of 1857-1872.
(4) J.W. Gaskill, Footprints Through Dixie, Damian Shiels, “Dependent Father,” Irish in the American Civil War (https://irishamericancivilwar.com/2013/12/13/dependent-father-how-one-irish-brigade-soldiers-service-helped-an-elderly-man-in-rural-tipperary/).
(1=5) Paul A. Boccadoro, “Photographic Compilation of Federal Enlisted Men Wearing Dark Blue Trousers in 1862 and Beyond,” Liberty Rifles (https://www.libertyrifles.org/research/uniforms-equipment/dark-blue-trousers).