Bone collectors were responsible for a series of postwar images of the battlefields near Fredericksburg.
Mystery has long surrounded a collection of photographic images of the battlefields administered collectively today by the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. For many years the questions of why the images were taken, by whom and when, and—perhaps most important—exactly which portion of these battlefields the images portray have been left unanswered. In all, 121 images were originally part of this series of stereoptic views, but only about 65 percent of the aggregate collection is currently known to survive.
Clues to their common origin started to come to light in the 1990s when a private collector of historic photos made public 15 mounted stereo cards bearing the photographer’s imprint of “G.O. Brown, Baltimore, Maryland.” Civil War aficionados clamored for more information. Who was G.O. Brown? When did he undertake the laborious journey to produce these images, and why? Over time, recognizable traits became apparent and helped to include many other images in the series, quite a few of which had been previously used as the basis for engravings in Century Magazine’s “Battles and Leaders” Series of the 1880s, and were reprinted as photographic halftones in Francis Trevelyan Miller’s 1911 The Photographic History of the Civil War.
By late 1993, collector Wendell W. Lang Jr. from Tarrytown, N.Y., was among the first to recognize that the images belonged together. Lang sought out all available prints of the series, initially in the well-known collections at the Carlisle Barracks and West Point, but none of those prints revealed any information regarding the photographer. Lang consulted with National Park Service staffers as well as acclaimed photographic historian William A. Frassanito, who alerted Lang to their association with G.O. Brown and the aforementioned private collector’s holdings. Tragically, however, within a year of beginning his efforts at cataloging, Lang died at the age of 55. It was not until an annual 2004 seminar/convention of an enthusiast organization, the Center for Civil War Photography, that examination of the images began anew.
Who was G.O. Brown?
Research reveals that the photographer’s full name was George Oscar Brown, who was born in 1843 in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He entered the military in August 1863, and was stationed as a hospital steward at the Surgeon General’s office in Washington. He was assigned to the photographic department in 1865, and assisted with photographing soldier’s wounds for the Army Medical Museum. After being dismissed from active duty in August 1866, Brown settled in Baltimore and opened his own photography studio.
How the “Brown photos” ended up in private hands is still something of a mystery. Since Brown was on active duty at the time they were taken, one would assume the photographs were being produced as official business, using government supplies. It is possible that Brown was given the glass negatives and allowed to take them with him to do as he pleased. There is also the possibility that he took them without permission.
Additional documentation at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (former Army Medical Museum) indicates that 29 of the 121 negatives from the series were missing from the collection as of February 1874 and that the last prints created from the negatives were made during the period of Brown’s employment in the photographic branch. Did only a select group of these negatives end up in Brown’s hands? If so, that helps explain why very few prints exist with his imprint.
The truth may never be discovered. None of the negatives are known to exist today. Whatever the circumstances, we can appreciate these images for their documentation of landscapes that have survived relatively unaltered for nearly 150 years.
The key image
Reproduced on P. 34, this is perhaps the most intriguing image in the series. It shows a battle-scarred tree upon which is nailed a horizontal grave marker, bearing these often-quoted lines from Theodore O’Hara’s poem “The Bivouac of the Dead”:
On fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.
Compared with image No. 96, right, one can recognize the same tree, but from a near 90-degree change in view. The key element for figuring out the location of these images is in the left distance of image No. 94. There, nearly 400 yards in the distance, is a three-quarter view of the rear of the McCoull House, a prominent landmark in the center of the Mule Shoe salient. After extensive field reconnaissance, the author determined that the view was from the west angle of the salient looking inward to the south.
The distant ridge in No. 96 turned out to be the one across which Colonel Emory Upton made his bold assault on May 10, 1864. The location of the sign has proved to be close to halfway between the modern park road and the site of the Bloody Angle. The sign-bedecked tree stood a scant 50 yards west of a much-celebrated 22-inch oak tree that small-arms fire cut down during the bloody fighting on May 12, 1864. Identifying this pair of images has helped to pinpoint the position and thus opened the door to identifying the locations and order of creation of a good portion of the remaining photos.
Throughout the series, there are several images, mostly of battle-scarred trees, whose exact location will likely never be precisely identified, since they are devoid of any relevant topographic clues. But locating the McCoull Farm was the clue needed to identify the site of a sizable number of the shots in the collection.
Why were they taken?
Numerous exposed skulls and other skeletal remains appear in some photos. The National Museum of Health and Medicine collection contains many skulls that are identified as “Unknown, Confederate, Wilderness Battlefield.” An unpublished manuscript in the museum archive reveals that prominent Union surgeon Dr. Reed B. Bontecou traveled to the Virginia battlefields within a year of the war’s end, accompanied by museum employee William Bell—Brown’s superior and an experienced photographer in his own right. Documents included with Bontecou’s papers at the National Archives show they made the trip between April 6-15, 1866, indicating that these images document Bontecou’s trip. Dr. Bontecou, in fact, can be seen standing among the trench lines of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields.
The inspiration for Bontecou’s tour may have been the published travel journal of John T. Trowbridge, an acclaimed Boston novelist who had ventured south in the summer of 1865 to examine conditions in the former Confederacy. He spent several days touring the battlefields around Fredericksburg and made special note of numerous exposed shallow grave sites, where remains were identified by their uniform buttons as Confederate soldiers. Trowbridge was appalled by the neglect of the Southern dead, especially since he knew that Union casualties had already been reburied in two special cemeteries.
Nine months after Trowbridge’s trip to the battlefields, Dr. Bontecou compounded the disrespect shown to Confederate remains by collecting shattered Southern crania as forensic specimens. Those skulls re mained in Bontecou’s possession until 1873, when he finally donated them to the Army Medical Museum.
Yet another clue
Theodore Lyman, a former aide to Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, also made a visit to the same battlefields. He noted that on Saturday, April 14, 1866, he and a companion just missed being caught in a severe storm that brought hail as well as rain. Fredericksburg newspapers verify the story’s date. Some of the final images attributed to the Brown series, such as the one below, show the muddy Sunken Road at the base of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. These photos could only have been captured on the morning of Sunday, April 15, prior to the group’s return to Washington. At that point Lyman’s party would have still been at Spotsylvania Courthouse, where they stayed the night. Lyman does not mention Dr. Bontecou or any expedition collecting bones, which surely would have aroused his interest.
By the evening of the 15th, Bontecou had reported for duty back at Harewood Hospital, on the outskirts of Washington. Bell and Brown may have accompanied him, or they may have returned later, since they had to transport the fragile glass negatives and bulky photographic apparatus.
This article is a synopsis of a forthcoming book on these images by Spotsylvania resident John F. Cummings III, chairman of the Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.