Reconsidering an Iconic Civil War Photograph

Last week it was announced that one of the most iconic photographs from the Civil War era has been misidentified. I don’t mind admitting that I found this news to be a slightly jarring experience. The photograph of Confederate soldiers in Frederick, Maryland transports us back to September 1862, we believed, just days before the battle of Antietam. These Confederate soldiers survived the brutal fighting around Richmond and at Second Manassas before entering United States territory for a showdown with the Union army that might bring an end to the war and independence. 

Looking at this photograph we know what awaited these men. At least we thought we knew.

Paul Bolcik and Erik Davis have discovered that the photograph was, in fact, taken in July 1864 as part of an invading force under the command of Confederate General Jubal Early. Rather than marching west out of Frederick in 1862, these soldiers were headed east to threaten Washington, D.C.

So many of our photographs of Confederates from the Eastern Theater in 1864 are set in the earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia. We don’t have many visual reminders of a defiant and threatening Army of Northern Virginia. But these men appear to be well armed and clothed. No one appears to be marching without shoes and if you look closely these men appear to be marching with confidence.

This is not the army that Lost Cause writers portrayed in the post-Gettysburg phase of the war.

It would be easy to exaggerate the threat that Early’s invading force posed to the defenses of the nation’s capital. We know that it would ultimately prove unsuccessful, but our understanding of this photograph is a reminder that the war was far from over. Lincoln himself doubted that he would be re-elected. The trajectory of a war that now included emancipation on the table could still be lost.

An independent nation committed to the extension of slavery in the western hemisphere was still possible.

8 comments… add one
  • Andy Hall Jun 14, 2018

    There’s a vigorous discussion about this claim over at Civil War Talk.The consensus of the researchers there is that they are rather dubious of the new claim, especially the “no bayonets“ argument.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2018

      Thanks for providing the link. Someone else just mentioned this to me as well. I am certainly no expert, but Bob Zeller is one of the leading authorities on Civil War photography and for the moment I am going to rely on his judgment.

  • John Laking Jun 14, 2018

    Surely the thing to do is find which side of the street Rosens store was on ?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2018

      Thanks for the comment, John. I am going to leave it to others to debate whether this new interpretation is valid. As I stated in a previous comment, Bob Zeller is an authority on Civil War photography and appears to support it for now.

  • Bryce Hartranft Jun 14, 2018

    I am not a member of the Civil War Photography group so I cannot read the original article. i.e. I only have access to the Washington Post article.

    From the Washington Post article, it seems uncertain where the Rosenstock studio was and when. The only facts I can find are “After the war, Rosenstock’s was on East Patrick Street” and “a tiny ad that placed it on North Market Street in 1860.”

    These 2 facts alone do not seem definitive to me. A lot could change between 1860 and “after the war.” What if it started on North Market Street in 1860 but had moved to Patrick Street by 1862 and stayed there even after the war?

    Are there more definitive facts in the original article found in the “Battlefield Photographer” journal?

  • Craig Heberton Jun 15, 2018

    For the benefit of the commenters, I would like to make clear that there is no mention of bayonets in the article “Confederates in Frederick: New Insights on a Famous Photo” (April 2018) appearing in Battlefield Photographer. I urge everyone to read that article written by Bolcik, Davis, and myself. Also, to quote two sentences in the article: “It may never be known for sure whether the Confederate photo was taken in September 1862 or July 1864, the two times that Confederate infantry passed through Frederick. Our research suggests that enough evidence exists to question the September 1862 date.” It has to be understood that 1862 was “enshrined” as the correct date by the man who owned the photograph when its discovery was announced. Among other things, we demonstrate, that he incorrectly dated two other photographs taken in Frederick which he also possessed and previously were unknown. The article is 14 pages long. Because the Center for Civil War Photography is a not-for-profit, the magazine isn’t sold to the general public. It is provided for free to its members. I urge everyone to consider purchasing a membership in the CCWP, perhaps as a Father’s Day gift for themselves or someone else, if only to read the Battlefield Photographer magazines and the enjoy the other benefits offered to members.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 15, 2018

      Hi Craig. Thanks for taking the time to comment and for providing the link.

    • Msb Jun 15, 2018

      Thank you very much. This is fascinating.

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