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Mysterious Faces, Gazing Across Time

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A forlorn-looking girl in a mourning dress holds a picture of her late father.  An impossibly young soldier, probably prepubescent, stands at attention with his bayoneted musket.  An African-American in Union uniform sits stoically with his wife and two daughters.  A pair of uniformed comrades pose comically, each holding a cigar in the other’s mouth.

The U.S. Civil War was the most photographed conflict of the 19th century, despite the relative infancy of the technology and its cumbersome, laborious nature at the time.  While pictures of death and destruction on American battlefields helped dispel many of the previously held romantic notions of war, images of the living also remain haunting and provocative even today, telling their stories or leaving behind tantalizing mysteries.

The Library of Congress recently acquired a remarkable collection of hundreds of portrait photographs and other materials from the Liljenquist (pronounced “LIL-lee-en-quist“) family, which will be the subject of “The Last Full Measure,” a Library of Congress exhibit opening April 12, 2011, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.

Today, the Library posted 693 photos of “Civil War Faces” on its popular Flickr page.  The images are also available online at, where you can download them in amazingly high-resolution TIF files of roughly 70 megabytes or more each.

Unfortunately, very little identifying information is known about most of the photos and the people pictured.  However, as has been the goal of the Library’s Flickr project from the start, we’re hoping the community at large will help tag and comment on the pictures.

Most of the people and photographers are unidentified, and we’d love to learn more about them. Please let us know if you recognize a face from your family, a regiment, or a photographer’s painted studio backdrop! You can read some of the personal stories that did survive in notes found with the photo cases.

Information that is ultimately confirmed will help augment the pictures’ official bibliographic records.

One of the things that strikes me about the photos is how “modern” some of the subjects look, with an immediacy and vitality to their visages that contrasts with people in many other historical photos who look a bit like dated and distant inhabitants of a time long since passed.

What impressions do you get when you look at them?

Comments (7)

  1. It’s a magnfic exhibition.Always is mare and more increasing in people’s interest,can see these photografiesmthat really give us an impactant sighting of these times.Most of us are already unsafes about the posibilities who had a photografer by taking pictures………many thanks for allow to see they.

  2. These are very moving portraits of real people, seen through the lens of time. A very poignant exhibition of people, many of them mere children, hardly grown-up, yet soldiering during the Civil War. Sad to think that for their loved ones at home, these photographs were, in some cases, the only thing that remained after the war.

    This is a beautiful and touching tribute to these mysterious faces, fellow human beings, who gaze so hauntingly from their gilded frames, beseeching us never to forget them. Wonderful LOC, thank you.

    Br. John

  3. Such poignant times captured for us to remember the pain of war.

  4. I feel like I am a silent observer, transported through time when I see such photos. Truly amazing!

  5. Noted the comment about some faces looking so “modern” contrasting with others that seem dated and distant. Some of this has to do with the lighting of the photograph and the image quality. Flat lighting and faded images don’t allow for much facial detail. When we see more detail in the face, it does seem more alive and real.

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