Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Looking Closely at Old Photos

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on March 19, 2011

One of the (many) things to love about the online collections at the Library of Congress is that many of the images there are made available in high- or very-high resolution, in TIFF format. The glass plate negatives used at the time often captured far more detail that is apparent when the image is reproduced in a book, or at a size that fits conveniently on a computer monitor.

Not long ago I used a Library of Congress image of the ferry connecting Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) to Georgetown. But looking more closely at that image, I keep coming back to one of the privates at the landing, standing guard while his colleagues check the passes of people coming off the ferry. There’s nothing particular about his pose; he’s standing in profile, facing to the left, seemingly oblivious to the photographer capturing his likeness. But even though I know next to nothing about period firearms, his weapon strikes me as unusual. Is that a patch box on the stock? What sort of bayonet is that? Do these details provide clues as to his unit?

And what’s up with the cut of those trousers?


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  1. cherokeebydesign said, on March 19, 2011 at 10:03 am

    great questions, sorry I can’t give clue to any of them.


  2. Will said, on March 19, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Well, I don’t know anything (specific) about ACW weapons either but it’s Saturday morning and I’m bored, so I looked around a bit.

    Maybe it’s a Springfield Model 1855?

    The pic on Wiki shows a plate on the stock that looks very similar. And I guess it would make sense that a sentry in DC would have the not-top-of-the-line musket.

    Dunno about the bayonet. Maybe it’s a plug bayonet (that is, one that sticks in the barrel itself)?

    Anyway, yeah, those glass plate images are awesome. I get Shorpy on my RSS and it’s stunning how much detail there is.

  3. corkingiron said, on March 19, 2011 at 11:17 am

    When was this picture taken? Was it normal for someone on guard duty to have the bayonet fixed rather than sheathed?

    • Andy Hall said, on March 19, 2011 at 11:30 am

      The LoC catalog only says “between 1860 and 1865.” Yes, I think it would have been routine to stand post with fixed bayonets, although in actual combat bayonet wounds were rare.

      • corkingiron said, on March 19, 2011 at 11:46 am

        Yeah – I can see one fixed on a nearby sentry – and the soldier standing behind the subject does not have a musket – and you can see the hilt of his bayonet on his belt.

        The Tiff format is cool! These sentries must be on the island – you can zoom in across the river and see the opposite landing – where there are no sentries. Wiki says Union troops were stationed on the Island for a period – so it’s likely this ferry traffic is moving to and from their encampment.
        Wiki also says there was a causeway built to the island – which was likely still in existence – the need to ferry all the troops back and forth would make the site a poor choice for an encampment otherwise. It must have been a busy crossing nevertheless – you can see another ferry midstream.
        While I can’t make out a cable, these craft have the appearance of what are called -cable-stayed ferries. The ferry was connected – and disconnected – from a taut cable by means of a “traveller” ( a simple wheeled device – like on a clothesline). They used the River’s current as a means of propulsion. A simple but effective device.

        • Andy Hall said, on March 19, 2011 at 12:09 pm

          Masons Island ACW

          Across the Potomac, in the background, is Georgetown. As you can see in the map, the Virginia side of the river near Mason’s Island was essentially an armed camp, and there were guards on the Aqueduct Bridge connecting the Virginia shore to Georgetown. The ferry — which connect directly to Georgetown, D.C. and beyond — would’ve been carefully guarded. Mason’s Island was the initial assembly and training camp of the 1st USCT — George Hatton’s unit. Another LoC image showing the island as viewed from Georgetown west of the Aqueduct Bridge, with the bridge and causeway visible, is here:

          If you use Google Earth, there’s an 1861 map overlay from the Rumsey Collection, available under the “Gallery” menu.

  4. corkingiron said, on March 19, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Warning: Boatbuilder Nerd Alert!

    Thanks for the map. As I study the photo more, I think I can make out the system used to effect a crossing. It appears to be a “reaction ferry” – you can see the cable anchored in the left foreground and running alongside the “starboard” side through two pieces of tackle – a “bridle”. By varying the tension on the bridles, the ferry could be “pointed” into the current, and the tension between the river’s current and the cable (which is probably under water) propelled the ferry across the river.
    I suspect the midstream ferry is heading to a different landing on a separate cable – I think I can barely make it out, emerging from the water, running along the starboard side and re-submerging. I haven’t worked out why the landed ferry would have a similar bridle arrangement on the port side, but “I’ll figger it”. I should be gardening y’know…..

  5. corkingiron said, on March 19, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Yes – the submerged cable is clearly visible in that photo. In the one you posted, there is a black man lounging against the rail on the port side “aft” – (I’m assuming, for convenience, that the ferry is tied up bow to). It’s clear that some of the Georgetown-bound traffic has already loaded and is waiting to cross. I didn’t know the USCT were stationed there – and I’m tempted to say the lounging man is in uniform – but I could be reading too much into it. He might – or might not – be accompanying the mounted man beside him, who is a soldier.

    I learned as a novice sailor that I can make use of strong currents to make headway – even in the absence of wind. By tacking back and forth across the current flow, I can move directly into a current at a speed of 2 to 3 knots. If I was connected to a cable at 90 degrees to the current, I would slide along the cable at a significant rate of speed. I just love the simple ingenuity of it!

    • Halteclere said, on April 1, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      There is still a ferry in Southern Missouri that carries a single car across the North Fork River (north fork of the White river) using only a cable as a guide and the current as propulsion.

  6. Harry Smeltzer said, on March 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    At first glance it looks like a M1855 Harpers Ferry rifle with a sword bayonet. See the wo bands? But I think it doesn’t have a, what’s it called, primer door cover? So maybe a Remington “Harpers Ferry” M1855. OK – that’s what I’m going with. Remington M1855 “Harper’s Ferry” rifle with sword bayonet.

  7. Harry Smeltzer said, on March 19, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    two bands, I meant.

  8. said, on March 19, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I too could look at the LOC images all day.
    To answer your question, the sentry is holding what appears to be a M1841 Mississippi Rifle with a sabre bayonet. The guy looks like he is wearing a NY State Shell Jacket, so he is probably a New Yorker. Somebody could probably run with that info and track the unit down to a fairly decent educated guess…;)

  9. Jacob Dinkelaker said, on March 19, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    of course, the link I posted doesn’t have a picture….drats!

  10. Craig Swain said, on March 19, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I have some modern day photos from that area. Built up today, but the GW Parkway does mask off the development well.

    I concur the rifle id as a MOdel 1841 Harpers Ferry, or “Mississippi”, with the original fixed rear sight. Patch box is a good indicator of the model.

    As for the cut of the pants… having worn “authentic” and “quasi-authentic” wool garb, I recall a pair of regulation style trousers that wore that way. I wore them through a rainstorm while mounted, so my legs were almost constantly bent at angles (not to mention mounting and dismounting). Afterwards, the trousers became very “airy” around the knees. Actually became my favorite riding pants after that!

    Not uncommon, especially early, for Cavalry outfits to receive Mississippi Rifles until proper carbines arrived in number. Mostly out west though. And the profile of the cartridge box (fixed directly on the belt, BTW not on its own sling) looks like a cavalry pattern. Plus the shell jacket. Might this guy be a trooper sans horse?

    Look on the tree behind the guy. Another set of accouterments hangs from a peg.

  11. Harry Smeltzer said, on March 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Here’s what I’m looking at, and why I called it a Remington M1855 HF: page 191 of Edwards’s book “Civil War Guns”. The caption reads that it had a similar lock and cone seat to the M1841, but that the rest of the rifle was finished like the US M1855, and the photo in the book has a simlar sling eye built into the trigger guard. As detailed as the image above is, I can’t make out the detail of the sight. OTOH, the patch box above looks a lot bigger than that on the Remington.

  12. Harry Smeltzer said, on March 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    So yeah, I think I’d go with M1841.

  13. Harry Smeltzer said, on March 19, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Notice that the fella checking the papers is smoking a Clint Eastwood?

  14. Neil Hamilton said, on March 20, 2011 at 8:33 pm


    Went to my copy of Echoes of Glory: Arms And Equipment Of The Union, and found on page 31, two rifles with patch boxes in the stock and with two bands around the barrel.

    The first was the U.S. Model 1841 “Mississippi” rifle. “Originially fabricated in .54 caliber, this regulation percussion arm was rerifled to the new Federal standard of .58 caliber and refitted with a long-range sight. Nearly 5,000 of the rifles, named for a regiment of Mexican War volunteers, were altered at the Harpers Ferry Armory from 1855 to 1860.”

    The next is the U.S. Model 1855 Percussion rifle. “Only a few of the more than 7,000 .58 caliber rifles originally manufactured on this pattern existed in Federal arsenals at the beginning of the War. Most were damaged or destroyed during the Confederate takeover of the armory at Harpers Ferry in April 1861. The rifle was designed to accept a saber bayonet with scabbard.”

    Lastly, on page 33 of the book, we have the U.S. Model 1841 rifle, Remington Alteration.
    “E. Remington & Son, a private armsmaker in Herkimer, New York, rebored 6,000 of these Mississippi rifles from a .54 to .58 caliber and attached lugs for saber bayonets under a Federal government contract let early in the War. Contracts for alteration were let to other private armsmakers as well. Colt altered 10,200 Model 1841s between 1861 and 1862.”

    As I cannot see a large, sliding scale, rear sight on the rifle in your picture, I am going to vote for the last weapon above, the U.S. Model 1841 rifle, Remington Alteration.

    But, if anyone else sees something that my tri-focals have missed, please feel free to let me know. 🙂


  15. Will Hickox said, on March 23, 2011 at 9:38 am

    All signs–the New York jacket, the Mississippi rifle, the saber bayonet, and guard duty on the island–point to infantryman, not cavalry. The 45th NY or “5th German Rifles” wore these jackets and were armed with Mississippis and saber bayonets, and they were stationed in the Washington defenses from October 1861 to April ’62, so he may be one of them.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 23, 2011 at 9:46 am

      Thanks for commenting. Are we sure this could not have been a cavalry unit, though? I looked at the NY Cavalry regiments, and the 1st through 4th (quit looking after that) all also did several months’ service in the Washington defense early in the war, as well.

  16. Will Hickox said, on March 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Cavalry wouldn’t be guarding an island in the middle of DC when there were plenty of infantry regiments around and the horsemen were needed for patrolling, message carrying and picketing outside the city. And the uniforms and equipment are those of infantrymen, not cavalry. Someone else mentioned the cartridge box carried on the belt, but many infantry did that as well.

  17. Will Hickox said, on March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    For those with an inteest in such things, the books of artist Don Troiani and the Echoes of Glory series mentioned above are excellent resources for the material culture of the Civil War soldier.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm

      Thanks. I’m a fan of Troiani’s work, and generally find his uniform/figure studies to be more aesthetically satisfying than a lot of his larger battle scenes, though I appreciate the research that goes into both. I’ll look into the Echoes of Glory series.

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