Battlefield Guide Services

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Supplemental Material re: blog post of May 25, 2016. Image details, and Lt. Ames' fate.

     An observation made during an all over review of yesterday's primary image, reveals what is apparently the coat and sword belt of Battery G's captain, Nelson Ames, hanging from the branches of the tree above the seated group. It is easy to distinguish the scabbard of the saber (perhaps an 1840 model?), as well as the holster for a revolver and the hanger straps. The coat has captains shoulder bars. Captain Nelson Ames was the cousin of Lieutenant Albert N. Ames, author of the letter quoted here in the May 25th post. Nelson is referred to as " The Capt." in Albert's letter, and can be seen with his back essentially to the camera, blurred from movement during the image exposure.
     Not an earth shattering detail, but interesting to note, and otherwise missed.

 The detail.
The full image.

     Albert was mortally wounded by a sharpshooter near Petersburg on September 26, 1864, at Fort Morton, about a third of a mile east of the site of the Crater. He was less than a month shy of his 26th birthday.
     Below is the New York, Civil War Muster Roll Abstract for Lt. Albert N. Ames

1st Lieutenant Albert N. Ames
Identified by his own description, noted in his May 29, 1864 letter home.

"I sat in a Rebel chair also, with a towel over my lap, a tin plate on the towel, 
in my shirt sleeves and my cap off..."

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Question of Date: North Anna Photographs Re-examined, 152 years later...

     It has been said that several images taken by photographer Timothy O'Sullivan along the North Anna River were made on May 25, 1864. The first we see here, looking to the southwest, across a reversed section of Henagan's Redoubt, has been dated to the 25th since the publication of William A. Frassanito's, Grant and Lee, The Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865, published in 1983.
     In 1998, a regimental history for the 7th New York Heavy Artillery was published in a limited first edition of 1,000 copies, entitled, Carnival of Blood, by Robert Keating. Discussing the activities of the regiment on May 25, Keating quotes a letter written by a 1st Lieutenant from the 1st New York Light Artillery, Battery G, Albert Ames. The Ames letter was written to his family on May 29, and in great detail describes the making of the photograph. The full image is seen below, followed by the quoted section of the letter.

" will see the officers of our Battery at dinner. The Capt. sits in a Rebel chair taken from a house demolished, and I sat in a Rebel chair also, with a towel over my lap, a tin plate on the towel, in my shirt sleeves and my cap off...the men, part of them laying around under the shade made by pieces of tents and on feather beds, some on a mattress, some had old dresses for pillows taken from the ruins of the house...." 
     As you can see, every detail is as Ames describes it, written within less than a week of the image being taken. Bear in mind, photographer O'Sullivan was not creating prints of his images out in the field, so it's not as if Ames was looking at the finished product. He was graphically recounting the particulars of the moment. The original letter is in the New York State Library in a collection of Ames' papers, donated by a family member. A link to that inventory can be found here.

     An additional image, seen below, taken within the same time frame as the previous, was earlier presented in one of my blog posts from 2012, and can be found at this link.

     On March 21st, 2012, a follower of this blog named Andy, commented regarding the earlier posting, that due to the Ames quote, the soldiers seen in the photograph would be members of 2nd Corps regiments, something that is contrary to the fact that the 2nd Corps had been relocated to the south side of the river not long after 5:30 PM on the previous day, May 24. However...
     Not having seen the entire contents of the Ames letter yet myself, it is uncertain if it was Ames providing an incorrect date (but clearly not the wrong details) of O'Sullivan's image taking, or did Robert Keating make an assumption on the date of the photographs from having familiarity with William Frassanito's work on the subject? Could this image have actually been taken on May 24? This would imply an interruption in O'Sullivan's creation of the series of photos taken around the Chesterfield Bridge area, something not totally inconceivable. Thus, assertions that soldiers seen in both images here are members of 9th Corps units is suspect since they would not have occupied this position until late on the 24th and into the 25th. 
     Additionally, the Library of Congress holds in its collection a print from O'Sullivan's stereo negative with other images identified as the Chesterfield Bridge area, bearing a May 24 date, written on its mount. These are post-war printings, glued on pages similar to those in the MOLLUS collection with a printing date of 1884.That image is seen below.

     Lastly, for added interest sake, friend and fellow blogger John Banks kindly assembled a slider version of my then and now pairing from the 2012 posting. Grab the toggle at center with your cursor and move it back and forth.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Human Wreckage of the Wilderness - Dr. Bontecou's Documentation

     One hundred and fifty-two years ago today, the armies of north and south clashed in a forbidding landscape, partly along the Orange Plank Road, in western Spotsylvania County, Virginia. The two day engagement left nearly four thousand killed and close to another twenty-five thousand wounded, captured or missing. A large number of the dead were left where they fell, some receiving hardly a thin earthen shroud to cover them. Two years later, their then skeletonized remains dotted the shot-torn woods, some alone, others gathered into groups. The remains of the Union dead had been collected and interred by a burial crew dispatched by the Federal government the previous summer. The southern dead were largely left in situ.

     In April of 1866, Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou visited the battlefields around Fredericksburg. Bontecou was a talented surgeon with the Union Army, and by war's end was the head of Harewood Hospital outside of Washington, D.C.. As part of documenting soldiers under his care, Bontecou began to photograph their condition, and healing wounds. These images became part of the Armed Forces Museum of Pathology, known today as the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

     While passing through the Wilderness region, Bontecou was accompanied by a photographic entourage, headed by William Bell, the chief photographer for the Surgeon General's Office. Much of what they recorded showed remains of earthworks and shattered trees. Some however showed the bleaching bones of the dead. Out of all of them, one image in particular shows considerable detail of three skulls, partly surfaced to the elements, along the Orange Plank Road,

     Along with the photographic record, Bontecou collected numerous pathological specimens, human crania that bore the effects of the projectiles that killed them, often times still found rattling inside, and retained to be wired to the side of the specimen. They are maintained in the museum collection to this day. Due to the details visible in the above photograph, I was able to determine that the center skull was one of the ones retained for the collection. There has been unfortunate postmortem loss of teeth, along with apparent misplacement of the mandible, but the visible trauma to the right rear and a pronounced fracture across the forehead make this a clear match that would stand up in a court of law.

July 6, 2010, finding the matching specimen at the NMHM, Walter Reed Hospital.
Detail from the April 1866 photograph taken on the Orange Plank Road.
The same skull as it resides in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
AFIP 1001057

The garish wound that ended this man's life.