The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Help Us Identify This Civil War Photo

We need your help identifying the location of this photo! Taken during the Civil War, it was a 1911 gift from Edmund A. Whitman to the Society. The photograph accompanied the materials of his father, Col. Edmund Burke Whitman, a Harvard graduate and army quartermaster in the Civil War. Col. Whitman played a key role in the creation of the cemetery system for the Civil War dead, which was constructed after the war. During the war his career took him many places in the North and South, so it does not narrow the possibilities of this photograph’s location.

View a larger scan of the image here. It depicts what appear to be four African American soldiers with a cannon, probably a rifled Rodman breech-loading siege gun, a large cannon designed to knock down enemy fortifications. These Rodman guns were used by both the North and South. Since the Rodman gun fired cylindrical shells that looked like enormous modern-day bullets, the round cannon balls depicted were not used for that gun and may indicate that the emplacement had been in use before the arrival of these soldiers.

The fortification in the photograph appears old, and the grass growing over it indicates it was not very well maintained. Churches and other large buildings and a wide, bending river are visible in the background.  It is likely that some of the buildings in this photograph still stand and the modern-day view from the same vantage point is somewhat similar.

The soldiers could have been members of one of several U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery Regiments from the Civil War, designated with the numbers 1 and 3-14. They were raised in 1864, although some existed as state units prior to being called into federal service and re-numbered. Some remained in service, occupying the South after the end of the war. If the soldiers were part of these regiments, it would narrow the possibilities of the photo’s location because they often were assigned to border garrisons away from the fighting or to areas of the South occupied by the Union. However, the soldiers depicted in the photograph would not have needed to be members of a heavy artillery battery in order to man a siege gun, and there were African American artillery men not assigned to heavy artillery regiments.

Please help us solve this longstanding mystery! If you think you recognize the location of this photograph or have other related information, please share it in the comments below.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 1:00 AM


Jun 20, 2012, 9:27 am

Kristie Poehler

I will be happy to do some research. At first glance, it looks like it may be around Petersburg, VA.

Kristie Poehler, Executive Director
New England Civil War Heritage Foundation

Editor, Battlefield Journal

Jun 20, 2012, 12:14 pm


Thanks so much! We would love your insight.

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