Sunday, December 23, 2012

Photographic Questions and Answers

I came across this photograph in the Library of Congress online collection and immediately wanted to know more about what is going on in the image.  Unfortunately, there was only some basic information provided in the online label.

The back of the image indicates that it was made at J.P. Ball's Photographic Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has the date September 16-22, 1862 written in pencil.  Also written on the back are the names of the men pictured standing and holding pistols. Confusingly, both men are indicated as being on the left, so I am not sure who is who. One of the men is Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant of the 22th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment and of Racine, Wisconsin. The other man is Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, from Geneva, Wisconsin. Sitting between the two soldiers is a young African American woman.

So, what's the story here?

I did an internet search and found an entry on the Oxford African American Studies Center located here.  It provided a brief description of the incident depicted. It states:

"In the fall of 1862, two soldiers from Wisconsin's 22nd Infantry Regiment escorted an escaped teenage slave from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of famed Underground Railroad operator Levi Coffin in Cincinnati. The regiment, composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause, had been stationed in Nicholasville to fend off a rumored attack by by Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. The soldiers were Frank M. Rockwell (left), a twenty-two-year-old postmaster from the town of Geneva, and Jesse L. Berch, a twenty-five-year-old quartermaster sergeant from Racine. With the young fugitive disguised as a 'mulatto soldier boy,' Rockwell and Berch traveled the one hundred miles to Coffin's house at a rapid pace. The party arrived safely and spent two days at the Coffin residence. Before sending the girl off to Racine (where the soldiers had friends ready to take the girl in), however, they posed with her for the above daguerreotype, taken at J.P. Ball Photographic Gallery in Cincinnati."

The information from Oxford did not include citations where their additional information was found, or how they determined that it was Rockwell on the left, since as I mentioned above, both men are indicated as being on the left. However, from what I know, much of the narrative holds up. The 22nd Wisconsin did in fact have a number of strident abolitionists. For one such soldier see my post about the 22nd's Col. William Utley, which can be viewed here.

There might possibly be a mistake though on the date indicated on the back of the photograph. Another internet search indicates that the 22nd Wisconsin was only mustered into service on September 2, 1862, and that they left Wisconsin on September 16 and were in Cincinnati and then Covington, Kentucky, on September 22. They appear to have been in the Nicholasville, Kentucky area a month later, after the Confederates had retreated from the state after the Battle of Perryville.

Regardless of the complete story, it is a fascinating photograph that seems to indicate that some Union soldiers were fighting the war for social changes in addition to preserving the United States.

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