Whose Father Was He

I read this lovely piece by Errol Morris on The New York Times site. It held me riveted and I just had to read it till the end. It is a lovely poignant tale. Here is parts of it:

The soldier’s body was found near the center of Gettysburg with no identification – no regimental numbers on his cap, no corps badge on his jacket, no letters, no diary. Nothing save for an ambrotype (an early type of photograph popular in the late 1850’s and 1860’s) of three small children clutched in his hand. Within a few days the ambrotype came into the possession of Benjamin Schriver, a tavern keeper in the small town of Graeffenburg, about 13 miles west of Gettysburg. The details of how Schriver came into possession of the ambrotype have been lost to history. But the rest of the story survives, a story in which this photograph of three small children was used for both good and wicked purposes. First, the good.

Four men on their way to Gettysburg were forced to stop at Schriver’s Tavern when their wagon broke down. They heard the tale of the fallen soldier and saw the photograph of the children. One of them, Dr. J. Francis Bourns, a Philadelphia physician on his way to tend to the wounded from the battlefield, was intrigued. He convinced Schriver to give him the photograph so that he might attempt to locate the dead man’s family. Perhaps he was touched by the poignancy of the photograph – three children, all under the age of ten, now without a father. As a life-long bachelor he might have yearned for a wife or family of his own. On the other hand, perhaps he saw it as an opportunity for financial gain.

Dr. Bourns returned to Philadelphia with the ambrotype. He had it copied by several photographers, producing hundreds of inexpensive duplicates in the carte de visite format. The carte de visite photograph, roughly the size of an index card, could be printed in multiple copies, allowing for much quicker mass production of a single photographic image than ever before. Because there was no way of printing photographs in a newspaper, Bourns knew that he might need dozens if not hundreds of cartes de visite to put the image of the three children before the eyes of someone who knew them.

But the story had to be circulated as well, so the photographs were supplemented by a series of newspaper articles, the most prominent of which appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Oct. 19, 1863, a little over three months following the discovery of the ambrotype. It appeared under the heading, “Whose Father Was He?”

Read the rest here.

Errol Morris: Whose Father Was He? (Part One)
Published: March 29, 2009
Untangling the mystery of a Civil War photograph, part one.
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