Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Zooming in on a USCT Camp Scene

Many of the photographs found in the Library of Congress' "Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints" collection that contain African Americans state so in their various descriptions, and thus are quite easy to search for. However, recently while looking for generic images of Civil War soldier's encampments, I came across the above photograph. It is not easy to see much in it as it appears, but downloading the TIFF file, and then enlarging it, shows some fascinating details.

In the center right of the photo are three soldiers. They stand and looking at the photographer. The man closest to the camera wears a greatcoat and has his hands behind his back. He is wearing a forage cap and apparently turned his head while the photographer took the shot. A long-handled shovel rests at his feet. To the right stands a soldier with his hands in his pockets and wearing a four-button fatigue blouse. Between but behind these two soldiers is another man who looks like he is wearing a large checked shirt and appears to have his right arm in a sling. One wonders if these three soldiers were mess mates, and what caused the injury to the soldier in the arm sling.  

Behind the three soldiers in the foreground is another soldier standing among the tents. He has his right side toward the camera and also seems to moving his heard to look at the photographer as the image was being made. Either corporal or sergeant's chevrons look to be on his coat's right sleeve. In other parts of the photograph are a couple of other "phantom" images where soldiers moved and appear "ghosted."

The only other clear soldier that I was able to locate is in the far background. All we can see is the top half of his blurry face and his forage cap. However he looks like he's spotted the photographer and camera as he peeks over the field of tents. 

Most of the shelters appear to be rigged up for colder temperatures, although none seem to have improvised chimneys. This may be in late fall or early winter of 1864. Many of the structures are composed of both wood plank castoffs and pieces of canvas. Many of the canvas pieces appear to be buttoned together, so they are likely shelter halves issued to the men. One of the shelters shown in the cropped image above shows a rubber blanket strung to the end of it to perhaps block the wind and rain. 

In an attempt to keep dry the soldiers have cut several lines of ditches to channel the rain water away from their shelters. The shovel shown in the first detailed image probably came in handy for this type of work. What looks to be an old wool blanket covers the end of one of the shelters.

Some soldiers, perhaps the three men shown in the foreground, have rigged up a clothes line behind their shelter for their laundry. Stretched out on it are a couple of pairs of trousers and maybe a fatigue blouse and shirt. 


A more stable log structure appears in the background. This could be the officers' quarters. It features vertical log walls, a canvas roof, and square window. A stovepipe pops from a side of the shelter, indicating that the occupants had better access to heat than the soldiers in the tents.

Behind the camp is a large field and then what looks to be a river or other body of water. Nothing in the photograph's description gives a clue as to where it was geographically. This location may be along the James River where much of the XXV Corps occupied winter quarters. However, it could also be along the Appomattox River near Petersburg. Many of the trees on the hillside were victims to the soldiers' axes.


Barely visible on the other side of the river is another group of winter quarter structures. One wonders if this is another USCT camp. Regardless, the ability to "zoom in" on details of this photograph gives us a better idea of how black soldiers weathered camp life and gives us an even greater appreciate for their service and sacrifices. 

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