Solving a Civil War Photograph Mystery
Is this photo fact or fiction? The title information on the bottom left corner of the print says "General Grant at City Point," so the image claims to show General Ulysses S. Grant on horseback, in front of his troops at City Point, Virginia, during the American Civil War. But, once you look closely at the content of the photo, questions begin to surface.
Let’s work through the puzzle together, and unravel the mystery. By learning to question what you see in photographs, you can become a better history detective.
Is that General Grant?
The face resembles Grant, but the head joins the body at an odd angle and the uniform seems wrong for the time period.
If the photo shows Grant at City Point, then it would have been taken in June 1864 or later while City Point was his headquarters during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia.1 By June 1864, Grant should have three stars on his shoulder straps to indicate his March 1864 appointment by President Abraham Lincoln to the rank of General-in-Chief for the union forces.2 Only one star is visible, however, and there doesn’t appear to be room for two more on the shoulder strap in the picture.
Why is Grant, who was noted for his skill and ease around horses, sitting so rigidly on his mount? And, come to think of it, is that really Grant’s horse?
Grant’s favorite horse at the time was Cincinnati, but Cincinnati didn’t have a "sock" (white hair) around his left hind ankle as this horse does. Nor does the horse look like Grant’s other horses Although Grant’s horse Egypt had a sock on his left hind foot, Egypt’s neck had a different shape and his mane fell in the opposite direction.
And on the subject of appearance, Grant wasn't quite that stout around the middle, was he?
With these questions in mind, let’s explore who made the photo and how by comparing the "City Point" image to other photographs and by doing some research in written sources.
Close Looking and a Dip Into Photo History
When you look closely at the photograph, you can see small scratch marks around Grant's head, and around the horse's body.
These marks suggest that the photograph was made by combining different images. It’s actually a composite or montage photograph. Long before the advent of Photoshop, people figured out how to manipulate images and make invented scenes look real. They exposed negatives multiple times, sandwiched two negatives together, or pasted parts of different pictures together and photographed the result. This montage is skillfully done and hard to detect unless you look twice.
The notation "Copyright 1902 by L.C. Handy" is another important clue. The copyright date suggests that the photo was created considerably after the Civil War. Levin C. Handy (1855-1932) was the nephew of Mathew Brady, who oversaw the making of many Civil War photographs that have survived in public and private collections [view Mathew B. Brady – Biographical Note]. Handy was apprenticed to Brady at the age of twelve and went on to operate photographic studios in Washington, D.C. He had access to Civil War photos through his uncle’s negatives, many of which eventually entered the collections of the Library of Congress [view Brady-Handy background information].
So the next question is, which photographs did Handy use to create this imaginary portrait of Grant at City Point in order to illustrate Grant’s important role in the Civil War?
The Photo Search: Sleuthing and Happenstance
The easiest photograph to identify is the source for Grant’s face. Searching the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for "Grant City Point," reveals a June 1864 portrait of Grant at Cold Harbor, Virginia. The original negative was at one time identified incorrectly as "Grant at City Point," perhaps giving Handy the title for his 1902 composition.
By searching for the word "horseback" in the Civil War photographs section of the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog and then browsing visually through the results, you’ll soon see that a portrait of Major General Alexander McDowell McCook provided the man’s body and the horse. McCook saw most of his action in the Western theater of the war, not in the Petersburg area of Virginia, and the information with the original negative indicates the photograph was made in the vicinity of Washington, D.C.
Background of the Picture
Searching the online catalog for "tents," "soldiers," and other features visible in the 1902 photo’s background does not uncover the source for the final part of the montage. Sometimes, serendipity plays a role in detective work. It takes browsing Civil War photographs regardless of their topic to spot that the soldiers in the "Grant at City Point" picture are not Grant’s men at all—quite the opposite.
The last piece of the puzzle is a photo of Confederate prisoners captured at Fisher’s Hill, a battle, which took place in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in September 1864. Union General Philip H. Sheridan outflanked Confederate General Jubal A. Early for further control of the valley, taking Confederate soldiers prisoner in the process.3 The Confederate soldiers had no connection to Grant and were nowhere near City Point, but their plight became a handy background to highlight Grant’s leadership nearly 40 years later.
1 National Park Service, "Grant's Headquarters," http://www.nps.gov/history/logcabin/html/cp11.html. [back to text]
2 White House, "Ulysses S. Grant," http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/ug18.html; United States War Department. Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861. Philadelphia, G.W. Childs, 1863; "Civil War Uniforms of the United States Military," based on Historical Times (Illustrated) Encyclopedia of the Civil War edited by Patricia L. Faust, http://www.civilwarhome.com/uniformsunion.htm. [back to text]
3 National Park Service, "Study of the Civil War Sites in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia," (Sept. 1992), http://www.nps.gov/history/hps/abpp/shenandoah/svs3-13.html. [back to text]
Acknowledgment: Prints & Photographs Division staff prepared this case study in 2008 from a Civil War photo mystery solved and explained by Kathryn Blackwell, former Reference Assistant, Prints and Photographs Division, acting on a question received from a researcher in 2007.