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Image of African American Soldier holding a flag
Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with American flag

Using Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection to Learn More about Civil War Soldiers

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This is a guest post by Amira Dehmani, a student at Stanford University who worked with the Library’s education team as a 2022 Liljenquist Family Fellow.

Paloma Ronis von Helms, another 2022 Liljenquist Family Fellow, has been working in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division to identify individuals in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. I recently sat down with Paloma to learn about her work. She describes the steps she takes to locate and verify information about these individuals:

I look at accession files, which are the receipts the Library receives for each item in a given donation deposit. These will usually have the name, regiment, enlistment date, and other key information about who is photographed in a given portrait…We [Paloma and Library staff] use Library sources like Ancestry Library Edition and Fold3 Library Edition to confirm accession details and to find more details about a person’s life. Using these genealogical databases, we can sift through census records, tax records, etc. to track a person throughout history.

Students can use the tips that Paloma provided to find out information about the individuals in photographs, including photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Some ideas to get started include:

  • Look at any information you can find about the individual’s regiment and uniform. Where is this person from, and what type of uniform is the person wearing? This can help students figure out whether a soldier is affiliated with the Union or Confederacy.
  • Search for other interesting notes and clues in the photograph. Is the subject a musician (carrying an instrument), a Zouave, or a member of a USCT (United States Colored Troops) unit? Is the individual an African-American soldier? A cavalry member?
  • If the photo includes a woman or child, is anyone else in the photo? What might this indicate about each person’s role? Why would the person have been photographed?
  • Is there handwriting on the image? What does it tell you about the person?
  • Who is the photographer? Where is the studio located? This could indicate where the photo was taken.

Teaching Activities

  • With the information they discover during their research, students may creatively write a “day in the life” essay about a soldier or about a soldier’s family.
  • Cartes de visite were easily reproduced and sold at affordable prices.  Because these images were made with paper, soldiers could write notes on them to send to their families. Ask students to learn as much as they can about someone in a carte de visite and then write a letter from the soldier’s point of view to send home to their families, along with the photo.
  • Tintypes were a type of photograph produced on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel, often with hand painted accents. Because tintypes were difficult to write on, they are often unidentified. What do students notice is more difficult or easier about researching individuals featured in this type of photograph?
  • For a researcher’s challenge, take an unidentified soldier’s photograph and work as a class to discover as much information as possible. Maybe you will actually identify the person!

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