Home > Interesting Works > A Name Recovered from History: Piecing Together Clues, Collector Identifies Fallen Soldier in Liljenquist Collection

A Name Recovered from History: Piecing Together Clues, Collector Identifies Fallen Soldier in Liljenquist Collection

Note: I am reprinting this work under the understanding that works made for the US government are not under copyright in the US. This is from the Library of Congress Gazette dated April 15, 2011. It’s a great story of researching the identification of unknown people in old photographs using genealogy. It’s also a great example of the benefits of crowdsourcing and what happens when what was once a private collection is made public to all.

By Mark Hartsell

Piecing Together Clues, Collector Identifies Fallen Soldier in Liljenquist Collection

He definitely knew the face.

The mustache and hat were unfamiliar. But Bryan Watson instantly recognized the eyes, the chin and, especially, that nose – long and flat on the sides.

The title of the photo – part of the Library of Congress collections on Flickr – offered only the sketchiest of information about the man pictured: “Unidentified Confederate soldier in captain’s frock coat wearing hat.”

Watson had been collecting Civil War ambrotypes and tintypes for 18 years, and he never forgot one of these haunting faces.
Including this one.

This captain in the Library’s collection, Watson was sure, was the same man pictured in an ambrotype of an unidentified captain in his own collection.

“Those images burn into your mind, and you remember stuff like that,” Watson says. “That’s why when I saw that picture, I thought, ‘That has got to be the same guy I have.’ ”

Now, Watson needed a way to confirm his instinct – and, hopefully, put a name long lost to history to that familiar face.

The image recognized by Watson is one of more than 700 ambrotypes and tintypes of Union and Confederate soldiers assembled by Tom Liljenquist, a McLean, Va., businessman, and his three sons over a 15-year period and donated to the Library last spring.

Almost 400 of those portraits went on display in the Jefferson Building on April 12 in “The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection,” an exhibition commemorating the sesquicentennial of the war. The exhibit runs through Aug. 13.

The identities of the vast majority of the subjects in the photographs remain unknown.

The Library in December posted the collection to Flickr, a photo-sharing website, for the public to view – and, it was hoped, help fill in gaps in information about the soldiers.

Tracking down long-lost identities of Civil War soldiers is a tricky business – records often contain conflicting dates, ages and spellings.

So researchers gather clues, weigh probabilities and second-guess their own assumptions. Any identification leaves a shadow of doubt without the confirmation of another portrait bearing the same name and a solid provenance.

“When clues exist, such as part of a name with a rank, state, or regiment, you check such sources as the Soldiers and Sailors System and ancestry.com,” says Carol Johnson, photography curator in the Prints and Photographs Division. “But you usually have to make assumptions along the way, for example, that a soldier who lived in North Carolina joined a regiment from that state.”

No soldier in the Liljenquist Collection had been solidly identified since the images went online. A Virginia researcher in December tentatively put a name to an image of a Union soldier, but uncertainties about the name, age and date couldn’t be definitively resolved.

Then, in mid-March, a message appeared on Flickr in the comments section for an unidentified Confederate soldier wearing a captain’s frock coat and a hat and sporting a mustache.

“I am sure I know who this is,” the message read. “I will follow up with the story later.”

Watson grew up far from the heartlands of the Civil War in a small town in Wyoming where he still lives and works as a pharmacist.

Watson loved history, and as a teenager on a family trip to Oregon in 1992 he noticed a photo of a Civil War soldier in an antique shop. The image touched something in him, so he bought it and continued to collect.

“These photographs were like a chain reaction: I just started buying more and more, as much as I could find,” says Watson, now 36.

About five years ago, Watson bought three images – a Confederate ordnance sergeant, a Confederate captain and a South Carolina militia officer – from an estate in Florida.

The photos weren’t put together by a dealer or collector – part of their appeal to Watson. “They’d been sitting together forever,” he says.

Two of the solders were unidentified. But the image of the sergeant carried two inscriptions: a note in period ink on the cushion opposite the photograph read “Father of R I Barnes.” On the back of the image was inscribed “William Sharpe Barnes, 19 years old.”

Watson searched for information on William Sharpe Barnes, found nothing and put the search aside.

Years passed.

Then, in March of this year, Watson viewed the Liljenquist Collection online and saw that familiar face: the unidentified Confederate soldier in a captain’s frock coat.

Beneath the mustache and hat, the soldier bore an unmistakable resemblance to the photograph of the captain Watson bought from the Florida estate.

Watson put the image of the Liljenquist captain on his computer screen side by side with the image of his captain.

The eyes. The chin. The long nose, flat on one side. This has to be the same guy, Watson thought. They are even wearing the same uniform.

The Liljenquist captain wears his coat open with a string bowtie hanging prominently from the shirt collar. Watson’s captain wears what appears to be the same coat, but closed. A string bowtie peeks just above the coat collar.

The same man, Watson was sure, but a man with no name.

Inspired by the chance discovery, Watson resumed his search for information about the soldiers in the photos from the Florida estate.

This time, a Google search on William Sharpe Barnes produced a hit at http://www.findagrave.com, an online database of cemetery records.

The database entry, posted in 2009, showed that a William Sharpe Barnes, born in 1843, rose in rank from sergeant to lieutenant to aide-de-camp for Gen. Bryan Grimes of the 4th North Carolina.

Interesting.

The record also showed that Barnes had four children, the last of whom was Ralph Ivor Barnes.

Yep: R I Barnes, the name on the note attached to the photograph.

“How many people have a middle name that starts with ‘I’? Ralph Ivor Barnes? That’s absolutely him,” Watson says.

Watson had positively identified the sergeant in his photos, but what about his ambrotype comrades?

William Sharpe Barnes, the record showed, had two older brothers – including one who served as a captain in the 4th North Carolina.

That brother, Jesse Sharpe Barnes, was killed at the Battle of Seven Pines near Richmond, Va., in the late spring of 1862.

Watson felt certain he had discovered the identity of the captain in the photo from the Florida estate – and, by extension, the captain with hat and mustache in the Liljenquist Collection he so closely resembled.

“How many Confederate captain ambrotypes exist to this day? Not many, perhaps a few hundred,” Watson says. “It’s got to correlate. They’ve got to be brothers. If they were just picked from different areas and put together, I wouldn’t think that. But the fact that they’ve been sitting together for 130 years just made me think that that’s got to be him.”

Watson posted his findings on Flickr, and Johnson and Helena Zinkham, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division, set about to confirm his theory.

Zinkham found information on the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System database that supported Watson’s conclusion: The 4th North Carolina listed only one Barnes who held the rank of captain – Jesse S. of Company F.

Johnson found more corroborating evidence on ancestry.com, and the captain’s entry in the Library of Congress online database was amended to reflect the discovery – the only soldier in the Liljenquist Collection thus far to be positively identified.

The captain with the hat and mustache – his life lost 149 years earlier and his identity lost for decades unknown – officially had his name back: “Captain Jesse Sharpe Barnes, F Company, 4th North Carolina Infantry in frock coat and hat.”

And Capt. Barnes had close, newly discovered relations – a long-lost brother and a clean-shaven, slightly younger version of himself – sitting some 1,700 miles away in Wyoming.

But not for long.

Liljenquist heard about the discovery of his captain’s identity and thought a family reunion at the Library of Congress might be in order. He called Watson and offered to buy the three photos, with the intention of donating them to the Library.

Watson hesitated – selling his best images is the “equivalent of having your dog run over,” he says – but ultimately agreed.

So William Sharpe Barnes and Jesse Sharpe Barnes this month arrived at the Library to reunite with a long-lost comrade, a mustachioed captain in a hat and frock coat.

“The Liljenquist Collection,” Zinkham says, “keeps bringing us good surprises: A family reunion among the photos and a great education in visual literacy and how the ‘history detective’ sources really work.”

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