Searching for Photos of Civil War Soldiers
Unidentified Union soldier (right), presumably with family members. (Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress)
Trying to locate a Civil War photograph of your Union or Confederate ancestor is the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack search. Although nearly every soldier had his photograph taken, tens of thousands of the images have been lost over the past 150+ years. And of the tens of thousands of soldier images that survive, the vast majority are unidentified. Most people, then as today, did not write down the name of the soldier and keep it with the image because, after all, they already knew who he was. David Wynn Vaughan, a premier collector of Confederate soldier images, estimates that no more than 10 or 20 percent of the images he’s seen during his more than 25 years of collecting are identified.
The potentially most fruitful avenue of research is with other family members, especially those interested in family history and genealogy. Contact the genealogist in the family. They can often provide other leads. You should also search the public records related to your ancestor, especially service pension records at the National Archives. In very rare instances, actual photographs are part of these records. But the records themselves often provide fascinating insights into your ancestor’s service and may also provide new leads for your photograph search.
Check with the libraries and/or historical societies in or near the community where your ancestor lived, or the community or region his unit hailed from. Try to determine if there’s a regimental history for his regiment; often they contain photographs.
Unknown Union soldier (Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress).
Check with reenactors who reenact your ancestor’s unit, or other units from the same state. Reenactors are often extremely knowledgeable about the history of the units they represent.
If your ancestor is a higher-ranking officer, by all means check the various other sources listed here on our Guide to Finding Civil War Photographs. The MOLLUS-Massachusetts collection at the Army Heritage and Education Center here includes hundreds of images of identified individual officers.
Even if you don’t find an image, a dedicated search is likely to reveal a wealth of other fascinating facts and information that will enhance your knowledge of your own ancestor’s role in our nation’s greatest conflict.
Good luck searching!
The Center for Civil War Photography