April 11, 2012
A Washington, D.C.-area collector and his family have donated more than 1,000 Civil War photographs to the Library of Congress. But you won’t find the men in these photos in history books — they’re enlisted soldiers, and most of them are unidentified.
In one striking photo, the man depicted has crazy sideburns, a steady expression, and very clear eyes — maybe gray, or perhaps blue. He holds a rifled musket at his side. He is a Union soldier in the Civil War. And the only things we know about him are what we can learn from a single photo.
The photo came from Tom Liljenquist — he and his family have collected 1,000 of these images and donated them to the Library of Congress. But the photographs don’t feature generals and other high-ranking officers.
Instead, they’re images of the enlisted men who fought for the Union and the Confederacy during the war. And only a handful of the soldiers have been identified.
Clues Emerge In An Image
“Look at that look. Is he telling you something from 150 years ago?” Liljenquist asks about the man staring out from the photo. “It’s amazing.”
Then Liljenquist says it’s time to look closer. The first clue to the soldier’s identity is in plain sight — right on the gun he’s holding.
“Look here,” he says, “at the very bottom of the stock.”
There, carved into the wood, are the letters “T.A.” — the soldier’s initials.
And the soldier’s uniform provided another clue, Liljenquist says. Many Civil War regiments had their own uniforms, and the uniqueness of this one made it a valuable clue.
Liljenquist sent me to New York to see Mike McAfee at the West Point Museum, part of the U.S. Military Academy. With one look, McAfee immediately knew the regiment.
“It’s really sort of a cross between a Zouave and a chasseur that grew out of the experience that the French had in North Africa,” he says. “They sort of created a distinctive uniform that I don’t think anybody else used it or wore it. So you see that uniform, the short blue jacket, the red vest, or actually a shirt vest, the red trousers, and the red and blue cap, then you know it’s the 14th Brooklyn.”
The 14th Brooklyn, also known as the “Red Legged Devils,” saw many major battles as a regiment including the First and Second Battles of Bull Run, Antietam and Gettsyburg. The regiment’s soldiers were well-known for their skills on the battlefield, as well as their refusal to wear anything but red pants during their three years of service.
Sifting Through Military Records
Now that we had the regiment, the next step was to visit the New York soldiers index, where a search in the National Parks Service Soldier and Sailors Database turned up four possibilities with the right initials: Thomas Abbott, Thomas Adams, Thomas Ardies and Thomas Austin.
Our next stop was visiting Vonnie Zullo, a professional researcher who does a great deal of her work at the National Archives in Washington.
At the Archives, we pull the pension files and military service records of our four soldiers — all with the first name “Thomas,” and the last initial “A.” Very quickly, Zullo rules out two of the possible candidates: Adams and Austin.
“One never actually reported to his unit,” she says. “And the other soldier was in a band — and he was 35 years old and much larger.”
And then there were two. One, Thomas Abbot, was around 5 feet 8 inches. The other, Thomas A. Ardies, was 5 feet 4 1/2. We didn’t know the height of the mystery soldier. But there was an item in the photo that could serve as a yardstick: the rifle he was holding when the photographer made the image.
It turns out that Zullo’s family owns a military antique store called The Horse Soldier, in Gettysburg, Pa., where it collects and sells weapons and other memorabilia from the Civil War and other eras. So, we went there and spoke to Zullo’s brother, Sam Small.
“We actually have, in stock and available to us today, an 1855 rifle musket,” he says, “the exact make and model that the soldier is holding in the photograph.”
The Height Test
With that artifact of the Civil War era in hand, Sam Small was able to help us calculate the approximate height of the mystery soldier by setting up a test. We asked a store employee to re-create the soldier’s pose — holding the rifle upright, with the stock resting next to his foot.
With the help of a thick book under his feet, our test subject stood at 5 feet 8 inches exactly.
“And the muzzle of the gun comes to approximately 2 inches or so below his shoulders,” Small says.
That means that at 5 feet 8, Thomas Abbott was much taller than the soldier in the photo. It also means that the mystery soldier from the 14th Brooklyn is Thomas A. Ardies.
Now we had a name to put to the face. But that didn’t tell us what happened to Ardies during the war. So we went back to Vonnie Zullo.
She found Ardies’ pension files, and read:
“While a member of the 84th NY infantry, in the line of duty at Chancellorsville in the state of Virginia, on or about the first of May, 1863, he received a gunshot wound while in action.”
To my relief, Ardies was not killed. The Archives documents show that after the war, he moved to Canada.
The National Archives records also include Ardies’ pension file. In one section of his record, an official notes, “He was always considered a bachelor by all who knew him in the community where he was widely known and most respected.”
Ardies finally got married at age 75, just five years before he died. On his death certificate, his occupation is listed simply as “Gentleman.” He is buried in Ontario, Canada.
With this history mystery solved, we can now say rest in peace to Thomas A. Ardies — and thank him for his service to our country.