Identifying a Civil War Soldier

For those interested in Civil War history, there’s a marvelous story on NPR.org today.  A collector and his family donated 1,000 photographs of enlisted soldiers from North and South to the Library of Congress, and reporter, Ramona Martinez tells of her quest to learn the identity of one of these men who intrigued her with his flamboyant uniform and dashing pose.  You can read the story and see the photograph here:  http://www.npr.org/2012/04/11/150288978/unknown-no-more-identifying-a-civil-war-soldier.

The collector, Tom Liljenquist, gave Martinez her first clue, pointing out that the young soldier had carved his initials, T.A., into the stock of his rifle.  At the West Point Museum, Martinez learned that the Zouave-like uniform belonged to just one regiment, the 14th Brooklyn, sometimes called the “Red Legged Devils, for the bright red pants they wore.  The 14th Brooklyn served in some of the fiercest fights of the war, including Antietam and Gettysburg

Martinez plugged this information into the National Park Service’s Civil War Database http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/soldiers.cfm, and found just four men with initials, T.A., in the regiment.  A National Archives researcher helped her narrow it down to two possibilities.  Armed with vital statistics, including the height of the men, Martinez found an antiques dealer in Gettysburg who owned a musket like the one shown in the photograph.  Using the gun as a yardstick, they identified the soldier as Thomas Ardies, who stood 5′ 4 1/2″ tall.

Ardies was wounded at Chancellorsville, but survived the war.  He emigrated to Canada, where pension record notes, “He was always considered a bachelor by all who knew him in the community where he was widely known and most respected.”  Ardies married at age 75, five years before his death, and is buried in Ontario.

Those who have followed this blog for a while know I am fascinated by Civil War history.  Ramona Martinez search for the details of one private soldier’s life highlight an area that’s not as well known as the stories of generals and major campaigns.

I wonder a lot about the lives of private soldiers, during and after the war.  The battles were as horrendous as those of the First World War fifty years later, but history does not record a “lost generation” after the earlier conflict.  Bitterness, economic hardship, and instances of violence,yes, but not the world-weariness that characterized veterans of later wars.  More Viet Nam veterans died of suicide after the war than were lost on the battlefields – nothing like that happened after the Civil War.

We always see history through the filter of our own sensibility.  It’s easy for us to believe the casual brutality we find in the pages of Cold Mountain. It’s harder to imagine the idealism we see in pictures of men like Thomas Ardies.  Maybe that’s why the old photographs are so haunting.

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6 Responses to Identifying a Civil War Soldier

  1. Rosi says:

    I had no idea about the suicide rate after Viet Nam. That’s a stunning statistic. Thanks for the info on the Civil War story and photos. That is fascinating stuff.

  2. What a great story. Thanks for your post and the links.
    The Civil War is beyond a doubt one of the most fascinating events in US history. My husband’s and my g-grandfathers fought in three of the same battles during the Civil War – on opposite sides. We’ve been to each of those battlegrounds, and it’s hard to find words to describe the experience. But I’m trying! Will get some of that story up on my blog before long.

    • I know what you mean about the battlefields. When I was a kid, and later in my 20’s, I toured some of those places with my mother, who was born in Richmond, and her uncle, who was an avid historian of the period. Almost everyone I know who has been to Gettysburg says the same thing: “It’s sacred ground.” I agree. I look forward to seeing your post when you get to it.

  3. This otherwise well researched story suffers from one critical error. The photography method used to make this specific image during the Civil War produced a mirror image, making the initials actually reversed.
    http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/2012/04/still-unknown-despite-diligent.html

    • That is a great catch and one I had not considered, even though I used to have my students make cyanotypes as a fun historical exercise back in the early 80’s when I taught photography for several years.

      I have several dozen tintypes, both in family albums and ones I’ve collected. I think all of them are studio poses, lacking all text.

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