Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Do you have a photo of my ancestor?

Often, I get emails of people wanting a photo of their Confederate ancestor, or one of the regiment that their ancestor fought in. And my answer, ninety-nine percent of the time is the same: unless the photograph came down through your family (unless you have it), the chances of your finding a photograph are next to impossible.

Over the past fifteen years, two of the seventeen books that I have written have been regimentals. There were a little over 2,000 men who served in each of these regiments. Counting pre-war, wartime, and post-war, I probably have photographs of perhaps 100 men out of each book. That is something like half a percent. Did the soldiers visit local photographers? Sure, if the photographers were around. Most of the photographers set up in studios in places in like Charlotte (although war-time images from Charlotte are rare), Raleigh, and Wilmington. Sometimes, you will see references to a soldier visiting a photographer, having his image struck, and telling the people back at home that he was going to send them the photo.

Of course, what are the odds that that the photograph has survived the past 150 years? Some were damaged in the journey home; others have been lost over the years. A high number are in collections with no provenance. They were sold by family members and we no longer know who these men are, and from whence they came. While I hate to just throw out numbers, I'm going to do it. There were 126,000 (or so) Confederate soldiers from North Carolina. There might be somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 war-time images out there.

And regimental photos. I don't believe I have ever seen a photograph (correct me if I am wrong) of an entire Confederate infantry regiment. I have seen, maybe, a dozen Confederate company photos, all early war. Probably the most famous would be the photograph of Alabama soldiers stationed in Pensacola, Florida (pictured below). There are a couple of early war Confederate company photos from North Carolina, but that is it. If any others exist, they are well hidden.

So, the chances of my having or knowing about a photograph of your Confederate ancestor in uniform, or a photograph of his regiment, are exceptionally slim. The best thing to do is to start asking around in your own family. And as a disclaimer, I don't have any photos of my own Confederate ancestors.


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