Deciphering a Photo, Civil War Style

Deciphering a Photo, Civil War Style

Nancy Gibson's story will sound similar to many readers. She found this photo in her great-grandmother's album. Initially, she had no idea who the man might be, but now she thinks it might be her great-grandfather, born in 1822. This is a fabulous photo! It's a man dressed in uniform...

GibsonCivil War Photo.jpg

Nancy Gibson’s story will sound similar to many readers. She found this photo in her great-grandmother’s album. Initially, she had no idea who the man might be, but now she thinks it might be her great-grandfather, born in 1822.

This is a fabulous photo! It’s a man dressed in uniform posing with his weapons—sword at his side and pistol on the table. At his feet (to the right) you can see the brace that holds him in place:

GibsonCivil War Photobrace.jpg

He wears an officer’s or enlisted man’s nine-button frock coat. These coats were worn by company-grade officers and enlisted men. In this case, I think he’s an officer. The sash could be for dress-up for the photo, or it could signify that he’s the officer of the day. The symbol on his hat signifies the type of unit:

GibsonCivil War Photo headress.jpg

I’ve called in a military expert to help with that. I’ll add the information here as soon as I have it. The type of cap is a kepi. It was worn by thousands of soldiers during the Civil War. A great source for information on uniforms is William K. Emerson’s Encyclopedia of United States Army Insignia and Uniforms (University of Oklahoma Press, $135.00).

GibsonCivil War Photoeditback.jpg

On the back of the picture is the photographer’s name and a revenue stamp (above). Unfortunately the photographer’s imprint is lightly stamped and too faint to see here, but it reads “J.D. Wardwell, Photographer, Fort Ethan Allen, Virginia.”

The US Treasury Department collected revenue from photographs from Aug. 1, 1864 to Aug. 1, 1866. Photographers were required to put their initials and the date on the stamp, but few fully complied. Wardwell wrote his initials on this two cent stamp. It signifies that Gibson’s ancestor paid 25 cents or less for this image.

As for Wardwell … He was taking pictures at a temporary earthwork fortification built in Alexandria County, Va. You can learn more about it on Wikipedia. Today it is a state park. It’s likely Wardwell was one of those photographers who spent his days photographing soldiers so they could send images home to loved ones.

There are a lot of story angles in this picture. The man and his days in the service during the Civil War, the photographer, or the fort.

It’s possible that this man is Gibson’s great-grandfather. A good way to check would be to determine which units served at the fort during the latter part of the War. She also could check Civil War papers at the National Archives or the Civil War service records or pension records online at

You can see more Civil War photos in the Family Tree Magazine 2011 Civil War Desk Calendar. If you need help researching your Civil War ancestors, check out the July 2007 Family Tree Magazine (available as a digital download from Family Tree Shop).

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  1. This is a Union or US Army uniform. The man is an officer as NCOs wore chevrons on their arms. Note the rectangular badge on the shoulder. Only officers wore these. Cannot tell what rank as the photo is fuzzy, but might be a first or second Lt. It is also later in the war when such rank insignia were more uniform than earlier in the war when State units differed from regular US Army styles. The sash is Officer of The Day style. During combat, officers would wear sashes around their waist not over their shoulder. Of course, he could just be doing it for the photo. Note, also, the large ends of the sash. Typically, normal officer sashes did not have them this large, but an OD could. Also, normal sashes were red. This looks lighter than that. A sword was typical for all officers and NCO Sergeants, not Corporals, but, worn for parade, and infrequently in combat, especially late in the war. If the photo owner could tell what state the man came from this might narrow some things down. The pistol appears to be a Remington 1855 pattern.

  2. He is an officer, probably company grade. To find out his rank, zoom in on the shoulder straps. If there is no bar on the strap he is a Second Lt. one bar and First Lt. The reason that the sash is over his right shoulder is that on the day the photo was taken he was the Officer of The Day. What you can see on the hat is not the unit designation. In those days it was usually worn on the top of the crown. For example, infantry would be a curled horn, artillery the familiar crossed cannons and cav. the familiar crossed sabers. If you zoomed in on it we might be able to see that it is probably a corps insignia or associated with a state regiment. The fact that he is wearing gauntlets is of no help since officers could wear them…but that might also be a good indicator that he is a cavalryman. I can’t tell but in the photo showing the stand there might be a strip on his pants, which would be consistant with being a cavalry officer. Company grade infantry officers walked and thus probably would not haul around gauntlets just for show. Bill Dalton