How I Met My Great-Great-Great Granduncle
By Kurt Luther
At least one million photographs were taken during the Civil War. A century and a half later, the surviving images offer an amazing visual record of the war, its participants, and its impact.
But as much as these photographs can tell us about this period, they often leave us with more questions than answers, namely, what are the names and stories of the soldiers pictured?
Sometimes, fortune smiles upon us and provides an easy answer: an autograph, a date or inscription, a photographer’s back mark, a distinctive uniform. More often though, we have to piece together the names behind the faces with sparse, scattered evidence.
Many of us feel drawn to these mysteries and compelled to unravel them. For me, each unknown image represents a challenge and an opportunity: often rewarding, sometimes frustrating, always engrossing.
When investigating a Civil War photograph, time melts away as I follow a trail of clues and piece together evidence. I experience an indescribable feeling in those moments when I rediscover the identity of a soldier in some tintype or carte de visite, lost for decades.
I’ve found that success in solving Civil War photo mysteries requires a combination of perseverance and luck. While an effective procedure is always critical — knowing what clues to consider and what they mean — some investigations seem to depend more on serendipity, while other instances rely on good old-fashioned legwork. One of my favorite discoveries involved a generous portion of both, spanning multiple decades and family members.
My father, Robert, grew up with rumors of Civil War ancestors. But he had only been able to trace his family back to a great-great-grandfather, John W. Croxton, born in 1858 in what is now West Virginia. The contentious history of that state meant that even the side our ancestors had fought for, if any, was unclear. One day back in the 1980s, he browsed the history section of a Pittsburgh public library, and discovered a copy of J.R. Sypher’s History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. The 700-plus-page book fell open, of all places, to a page listing several Croxtons: Harris (John’s father) and David, brothers in the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, a hard-fought infantry regiment. Subsequent research in other sources identified a third brother, Oliver, who served in other Pennsylvania units. We dreamt of finding an image of one of these men, but for low-ranking soldiers of modest means who passed down no possessions, the odds were miniscule. Our tentative hopes faded as nothing surfaced, and the years passed.
Then, in 2013, the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh hosted a new exhibit, Pennsylvania’s Civil War, to coincide with the War’s sesquicentennial. My family and I eagerly attended during its opening weeks, taking in the impressive collections of weapons, uniforms, documents and artifacts.
A modest display case in one corner of the exhibit held a remarkable leather-bound album of cartes de visite. The album contained views of nearly every member of one infantry company from Beaver County, Pa., more than 100 portraits in total, presented as a “testimonial of esteem” to their captain, J. Adams Vera. As I read the name of the unit — Company E, 134th Pennsylvania — my heart skipped a beat. I practically dragged my father over to it without explanation, and his eyes widened as he too read the label. Of the thousands of companies organized during the Civil War, this one happened to be Oliver’s.
As amazed as we were by the coincidence, we tempered our enthusiasm. The album might not contain Oliver’s image, and, if it did, there was no guarantee we’d be permitted to see it. My mother, Melanie, tracked down a museum employee, who put us in touch with the album’s owner, Ken C. Turner, a noted collector and co-author of the exhibit’s companion book, The Civil War in Pennsylvania: A Photographic History. Willing to help, he told us, “I am always happy to fulfill these dreams whenever I can.” He arranged for museum staff to inspect the album after hours for Croxton’s image.
A few weeks later, we ran into Turner again at the History Center, as he appraised collectibles for a charity event. He confirmed for us that Croxton was in the album, and generously offered to let us see the photograph in a few months, after the exhibit closed. To celebrate the good news, we strolled downstairs to pay another visit to Pennsylvania’s Civil War. As I approached the familiar glass case, I noticed the album had been opened to a different page. My eyes fixed on the inscription above the right-most image: “Croxton, Dead 1880.” Below it, a seated Union corporal, wearing a sack coat, a full beard and a serious expression, gazed back at me. We couldn’t believe our luck. The staff member who checked the album must have left the page open. I saw there, for the first time, my Civil War ancestor, great-great-great uncle Oliver, closing a gap of 150 years.
Finding Oliver’s photo was hugely meaningful to my family. Every discovery has an impact, even if it is highly focused: the descendant searching for a glimpse of his ancestor, the historian seeking to better understand her subject, the museum staff working to interpret their collections. These outcomes by themselves are worthy endeavors, but together they help us better understand, and preserve, a key moment in American history. They paint a more accurate and complete picture of the experience of Civil War soldiers and sailors, from their clothing and valued possessions to the places where they lived, fought and died. Their stories deserve to be told, and photography that bears witness to those stories offers an incomparably powerful way to express them.
The goal of this column is to help every reader, including me, become a more effective Civil War photo sleuth, by sharing knowledge and supporting collaborative efforts to improve our understanding of the war’s visual record. I will reveal not just the names of unidentified subjects, but also the nuts and bolts of the process by which these discoveries are made. To that end, I will be writing about my own research process as well as reader-submitted tips, tricks and investigations. We ask you to use our email address, PhotoSleuthMI@gmail.com, to send us brief summaries of your most compelling success stories, as well as scans of images that continue to elude your best efforts. We’ll do our best to help you give names to these faces, and, with your permission, may publish a sampling in the magazine. I look forward to hearing from you. Until next issue, happy hunting!
About Oliver Croxton
Oliver W. Croxton was born around 1829, probably in Western Pennsylvania. As a young man, he worked with his brother, Harris, as boatmen on the Allegheny River. In 1853, he married Rebecca Hollenbaugh of Beaver County, Pa. Oliver and his brother-in-law, James Hollenbaugh, enlisted in the 134th Pennsylvania Infantry in August 1862.The regiment saw intense action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Va., with more than 120 men killed or wounded during its nine-month term of service. In February 1863, Oliver was promoted to corporal, a rank which he maintained when he enlisted the following year in the 188th Pennsylvania, a converted infantry regiment spun off the above-strength 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. His unit fought in Grant’s Overland Campaign, taking significant losses at Cold Harbor and, later, the capture of Fort Harrison outside Richmond, Va. He mustered out in December 1865.
Oliver survived the war, but not unscathed. A pension application by his wife, Rebecca, indicates that Oliver developed a heart condition during the war, which first afflicted him after the Battle of Fredericksburg. His ailment prevented him from working for extended periods. On July 31st, 1880, he returned home from the mill where he was employed and dropped dead from heart disease — so suddenly that an inquest ruled out foul play. He was about 50 years old. His wife and at least four children survived him.
Kurt Luther is the author of Photo Sleuth, a regular column in Military Images magazine. An assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech, he writes and speaks about ways that technology can support historical research, education and preservation.
This installment of Photo Sleuth appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Military Images.