A picture is worth a thousand words, according to the familiar saying.
A carte de visite that turned up recently in the possession of a Maryland family just might be that of Brigadier General Richard Brooke Garnett, putting a face to the man whose death has, indeed, been the subject of thousands of words over the years. General Garnett died in the most conspicuous of ways, at the forefront of his Virginia brigade during the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
“Dick” Garnett, born in 1817 in Essex County, Va., commanded one third of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s infantry force during that attack. He rode, however, rather than walked into the fight because a horse’s kick had shattered one of his ankles and left him hobbling. Despite being such an easy target, he survived across several acres of bullet-swept ground before falling near the apex of the charge—but his body disappeared in the carnage of battle, never to be found. The mystery surrounding his life and death deepens because no positively identified photograph of General Garnett is known to exist.
Many readers may own one or more books that include a photo that purports to be of Garnett, facing toward the viewer’s right, his dark hair combed back, sporting a heavy moustache and dark spade beard. That image also appears with the Richard Garnett entry on Wikipedia, the user-compiled Internet encyclopedia, as of this writing. That picture, however, is probably an image of Richard’s first cousin, Robert Selden Garnett. Robert was the first Confederate general killed during the war, in July 1861 at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford.
A 1908 letter from a member of the Garnett family emphatically declared that the alleged likeness of Richard “can and will be vouched for by any member of [the] family as an authentic likeness of Robt. S. Garnett, and not Richd. B. Garnett, of whom there is no picture in existence so far as known. R.B. Garnett was a man of just the opposite type, having light hair and blue eyes, and he wore no full beard.” The late Eleanor Brockenbrough of Richmond, a mainstay on the staff of the Museum of the Confederacy and an incomparable oracle on all things Virginian from the Civil War era, knew Garnett family members well and agreed with them that no image of Dick Garnett survived.
But what about the carte de visite that turned up at a Maryland estate, bearing the pencil inscription “Gen. Garnett”? Is the light-haired, beardless, 40-ish man peering at the camera Dick Garnett?
The collection that includes the photograph contains an array of military documents, all of them antebellum, from widely separated points—Utah Territory, Matamoros, Austin, San Antonio, Albuquerque. Familiar names from the Civil War appear among the documents, including James Longstreet, A.T.A. Torbert and Beverly H. Robertson. Everything in the collection has some relation to U.S. Army quartermaster operations, and Quartermaster General Thomas S. Jesup’s name appears frequently.
Two documents in the collection supply collateral support for identifying the photograph as Richard B. Garnett. His initials appear on one undated docketing slip, and there is a long letter in Garnett’s handwriting on blue paper from Fort Laramie, in modern day Wyoming, and dated July 24, 1853. As commander of the fort, Garnett explained the need for construction of a government-owned bridge over the Laramie River. A freshet had washed away the civilian span, and the bridge owner’s contract with the Army had caused much confusion.
Lieutenant Garnett’s tenure at Fort Laramie ended shortly before a crushing disaster. One of Garnett’s detachments had killed three Sioux Indians and captured two others the month before he wrote the letter about the bridge. But the following summer, not long after Garnett had moved on to a new assignment, Sioux warriors killed his replacement at Laramie, 2nd Lieutenant John L. Grattan, and 29 other soldiers on August 19, 1854, in an event that became known as the Grattan Massacre.
Another legacy of a decidedly different sort survived Lieutenant Garnett’s interval in Sioux country. Early in 1855, near what is now Wheatland, Wyo., a Sioux named Looking Woman bore a son fathered by Garnett, who meanwhile had been reassigned to the East Coast on recruiting duty. The well-connected Garnett family in Virginia accepted William Garnett— called “Billy”—as one of their own without question.
In his several surviving photos, Billy looks a bit like the newly discovered “General Garnett” photograph. Making solid judgments on that informal basis would be outlandish, but Billy’s nose, forehead, chin and cheekbones do set one to wondering.
The backmark on the card establishes its maker as Silsbee, Case & Co., operating at 299½ Washington Street in Boston. George M. Silsbee had been a prominent daguerreotypist from the 1840s, and set up in Boston by 1852. John G. Case joined as a partner by about 1858. They photographed the noted actor and future presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, among other celebrities. Silsbee went on to be a photographer in Denver by 1870.
If Richard Brooke Garnett is indeed the subject of the image in question, it must have been taken by Silsbee during Garnett’s recruiting duty on the East Coast in 1855 and 1856, a stint that lasted more than a year. His primary duty post for much of that period was in New York, but he also traveled along the coast.
By the end of 1856, Garnett, now a captain, returned to the frontier and only came back east, from California, to join the Confederate Army. The backmark that includes Case’s name means that this card might have been reprinted from the image a couple of years later than the original date of the photograph, as studios often did. Whoever wrote “Gen. Garnett” on the card obviously did so after November 1861, when Garnett was promoted to brigadier general.
The fair-haired, beardless man in the image matches the family description of Dick Garnett, and it strikes a resemblance to his half-Sioux son. Captain Garnett certainly could have visited the photographer while he was on the East Coast. The Maryland family collection in which it lingered for 150 years contains two documents he generated, and someone long ago wrote “Gen. Garnett” on the back.
Does that all add up to an ironclad identification of a prewar image of Richard Garnett?
It does not—but the possibility is intriguing.
Robert K. Krick is retired from the National Park Service and writes from Fredericksburg, Va. He spends his time digging up new information on the Army of Northern Virginia, smoking cigars and rooting for the San Francisco 49ers.
This article was originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War.