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.

11 comments… add one
  • Andy Hall Jun 14, 2018 @ 5:27

    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 @ 5:36

      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 @ 6:28

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

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2018 @ 6:42

      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 @ 7:05

    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 @ 2:51

    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 @ 3:07

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

    • Msb Jun 15, 2018 @ 8:38

      Thank you very much. This is fascinating.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 29, 2018 @ 12:33

    Because of my interest in 1864, particularly the Shenandoah Valley Campaign and the battles of Monocacy and Fort Stevens, I’d be delighted to know that this photograph is really from 1864 and not 1862, as it has been thought of for so long. But I think there is still a strong case for 1862. As a friend pointed out to me, several of the soldiers in the photo are wearing frock coats. This was the single breasted coat coat with 9-buttons. And by the way, frock coat was not a military term; rather it was a style of coat worn by civilian and military men. Also, the Confederacy intended for the frock coat to be the standard issue uniform of the Confederate soldier (like it was in the Union army). But a shortage of supplies prohibited that. As a result, Confederate soldiers settled for waist-length jackets. The point here is, by 1864, few Confederate soldiers had access to frock coats. It’s more likely they still had them in 1862. But whenever it was taken, it’s a fascinating photo.

  • Ryan A Jul 10, 2018 @ 13:43

    Additional thoughts – echoing Bryan’s comments, the frock coat would certainly have been more prevalent in 1862 than 1864, but that being said, we also see several frocks in the famous photo of rebels captured at Five Forks in April, 1865, along with plenty of the men still sporting knapsacks. This alone doesn’t exclude the possibility of frocks in 1864.

    What may make a difference however, is the fact that by mid 1864, it is pretty well documented that the ANV was uniformed heavily, perhaps nearly exclusively, in English imported blue-gray kersey, which was very dark in color and would have been quite visible in photographs – these are easily spotted in the pictures of dead Confederates at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. If this is an 1864 photo, it’s likely that a large portion of the men would be wearing Richmond Depot shell jackets in this dark colored kersey, as well as plenty of them sporting trousers made of the same material. A few of these guys seem to be wearing darker coats but not the proportions that would make sense given the time frame we’re talking about. It seems that these coats would have become the nearly universal issue by mid 1864, meaning any man not wearing a kersey coat at that time would have had to be wearing a very worn out older issue shell jacket, probably issued prior to Gettysburg.

    Again, nothing substantial to swing it either way but a very interesting possibility.

  • Paul Bolcik Jul 24, 2018 @ 20:53

    Indeed the photograph was affected July 9, 1864. It must be understood that the two photographic studios in Frederick Md. where owned by “Union men”. They where in all probability closed the entire week of Sept. 6, thru 12th 1862. Otherwise there would be hundreds of Confederate cdv’s, ambrotypes, and tintypes of Confederates with a Byerly backmark or a J.R. Markin backmark. Nothing like that exist’s! At no time during daylight hours in Sept. 1862 would there have been any Rebel infantry marching in formation
    facing the direction that the troops are facing, and in the spot the troops are standing and squating in. A dark spot on the cobblestones underneath the word “good” on Rosenstock’s sign, most likely indicates rain that fell on the night of July 8 -9th 1864. Rain fell on Sept. 1st 1862 , but then it was clear and warm sunny day’s until a little sprinkle fell about 10 am. on Sept 11, 1862 when D.H. Hill’s guys moved out of town (but they did not pass by the spot the photo was affected) . What you see in the photo is a traffic jam, and Gen. T. J. Jackson had Gen. A.P. Hill arrested on Sept. 4th 1862 because his troops where stuck in a similar traffic jam. Jackson would have blown a head gasket if his troops where stuck in a traffic jam on the morning of Sept. 10, 1862, and not west of town by the time Longstreet’s men entered town about 7 AM. The traffic jam took place about 9 AM. July 9th 1864 when Jubal Early’s col’s. where headed south. From the west about 8 AM. his wagon train entered Frederick, trapping Breckenridge’s guy’s behind and all wanting to move south. The Byerly’s where most likely in the studio then trying to remove the camera’s and other gear, less all of Frederick city is put to the torch and their lively hood goes up in flames. The photograph is an on the spot complete rush job, a total discard. After the fact, no one in town want’s to purchase an out of focus photo of the bank robbers. A one of a kind long forgotten discard.

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