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From the donor's perspective . . .

The Last Full Measure: The Liljenquist Family Collection

by Brandon Liljenquist

Have you ever seen a photograph of a person you knew you would never forget? Has a photograph influenced you to change your opinion on an important issue? For me, a tintype photograph of an American Civil War drummer boy turned out to be such a photograph. This young soldier would reach across time to challenge my beliefs about what makes an army great. He would lead me on a journey of discovery that would end in the vaulted halls of the Library of Congress.

Young George W. Weeks of Company D, 8th Maine Infantry Regiment
[Young George W. Weeks
of Company D, 8th Maine
Infantry Regiment
with drum in front of painted
backdrop showing shoreline
with house and lighthouse],

My brother Jason and I acquired the photograph at a Civil War auction. The image was a tintype of a Union soldier carrying a drum. It was identified as George Weeks of the 8th Maine Infantry. The tintype was accompanied by several hand-written letters between Weeks and his mother. Weeks' story came to life for us with every word we read. In a letter dated October 12th, 1865, George wrote to his mother, "I am coming home at last. ... I have served three years in the greatest army that was ever known."

At first, Jason and I laughed at Weeks' bravado. As lifelong residents of Virginia, we'd heard all about the Civil War. Being Virginians, we certainly knew which was the greater army. What possible basis could some young Union drummer boy have for making such a claim? The bravery and fighting spirit of the Confederate army was legendary. When equally equipped, the Confederate army always outmatched the Union army. "Stonewall" Jackson's lightning troop maneuvers in the Shenandoah Valley were famous. And General Robert E. Lee is still the most admired of all American generals.

Weeks' pride, and maybe our own, drove us to investigate further. With help from the National Archives in Washington, DC, we gained access to George Weeks' military record. Weeks contracted malaria while serving with his regiment in South Carolina. Later, at Petersburg, Virginia he was severely wounded. As a disabled veteran, Weeks struggled with malaria for several years. We were saddened to learn that he lost his battle with the disease at age twenty one. In the words of President Abraham Lincoln, Weeks had given "the last full measure of devotion." It was no longer easy to dismiss his words.

Jason and Brandon Liljenquist at the National Archives
Jason and Brandon Liljenquist
at the National Archives

Over time, as my brother Jason and I learned more about the Civil War, we came to understand the meaning of Weeks' words. We came to learn the ideals an army embraces are what make it great, not its military prowess. Weeks and his fellow soldiers were the emancipators of a race. They were champions of democracy, an idea much of the world expected to fail. That idea, that great experiment in self-government, is what they died for. It's what they saved: the United States of America. We had gained a new respect for Weeks. He and his regiment truly had served in 'the greatest army that was ever known.'

By 2009, our collection of Civil War photographs had grown to over 600 original ambrotypes and tintypes. Assembled by our family over the last fifteen years, these photographs were acquired from a myriad of sources: shops specializing in historical memorabilia, civil war shows, photography shows, antique centers, estate auctions, eBay, and other collectors like us. Assembling this collection has been a labor of love for our entire family.

Jason and I decided to share the collection with our fellow students at Georgetown Preparatory School, in Bethesda, Maryland. Our classmates, familiar only with Civil War generals pictured in textbooks, were amazed to see how many of the images depicted soldiers their age and younger. Almost all of our friends spotted a soldier who looked like themselves, a brother, or a friend. The biggest surprise for everyone was seeing images of African American soldiers. Our classmates were unaware of the significant contribution these soldiers made to the Union victory. Everyone enjoyed this knowledge-sharing experience. I was so happy to learn that our collection could be used to teach others.

In the summer of 2009, The Washington Post published deeply moving photos of U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon seeing them, Jason and I were struck with an idea. We envisioned a way to use our own collection of photos as a Civil War memorial. From our collection, we would select 412 of the best images; 360 Union soldiers (one for every thousand who died), and 52 Confederate (one for every five thousand). Presented together, we hoped the photographs would illustrate the magnitude of our nation's loss of 620,000 lives in a way never before shown in the history books.

That Fall, we approached the Library of Congress with the idea for our memorial. We knew immediately we'd found the right home for the collection, and went home excitedly to discuss it with the whole family.

It was with great pleasure that in March of 2010, we decided as a family to donate our collection of Civil War photographs to the Library of Congress. We intend to keep adding to it. And, we couldn't be happier that the collection will now be preserved for everyone to enjoy and share.

Brandon Liljenquist with the collection
Brandon Liljenquist
with the Collection

Laying out the photographs at home for the last time, and thinking about the collection in a whole new light, I couldn't help but notice how similar the faces of these soldiers were to those we'd seen in The Washington Post. These were the young men who did most of the fighting and dying. In their eyes and the eyes of their loved ones, I could see the full range of human emotion. It was all here: the bravado, the fear, the readiness, the weariness, the pride and the anguish. The loneliness in their long, distant stares overwhelmed me. As I held Weeks' image in my hand, I noticed he was gazing beyond his photographer, perhaps beyond his own death. His eyes appeared fixed on a distant horizon, a place he has found peace and comfort. A place where the killing has stopped, where there is justice and freedom for all.

As a family, we would like to dedicate this photographic memorial, "The Last Full Measure," to George Weeks, Union soldier and drummer boy of the 8th Maine Infantry; and to all U.S. servicemen and servicewomen throughout time, each of whom has taken us one step closer to that distant, elusive horizon.

See also the Summary information about the Liljenquist Family Collection to learn more about the collection and to see examples from it.

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  December 9, 2010
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