150 Years Ago: A photo that speaks to us today

Often we can point to a spot on the battlefield, or a document, or in my case a cannon, and then make a direct sesquicentennial link. Today, let me turn to an iconic photograph taken on this day (August 19) in 1862:

Better details in the stero-view, although through the cracked negative:

John Hennessy discussed this photograph in detail on his Fredericksburg Remembered blog (here and here and here). This photo, among the most widely reproduced of the war, captures a scene at Tin Pot Run Ford on August 19, 1862. The Army of Virginia, under General John Pope, was in full retreat that day. According to those orders captured at Verdiesville, the Confederates aimed to capture or destroy the railroad bridge, seen in the background of the photo (or more accurately, the modern equivalent of), and cut off the Federal line of supply.

Timothy O’Sullivan took this photo during that retreat. But the soldiers at the ford are the side story. The focus of the photographer’s lens were the fugitives and their wagon. John Hennessy examined in detail the riders on the wagon and the boy on horseback. As he speculated, this could be a group of escaped slaves fleeing north; or a family of free blacks seeking to avoid the war. Are those the family’s belongings in the wagon? Or army material?

O’Sullivan composed (as I don’t think he “posed” this scene) the camera view to focus our attention on a particular subject. Although the technology was new, well established was the relation between pictures and 1000 words. While perhaps not the “photo essays” of later generations, the photograph speaks to us today. The reason this image appears in books and on blogs with regularity is the activity frozen in time. On one black-and-white glass plate, there is the cause and the result of the Civil War. The link between civil war and civil rights is rarely demonstrated with such proximity – at both physical and temporal levels.

So when my friend Clark “Bud” Hall mentioned a visit to the site where O’Sullivan took this photo, I was all in. While perhaps a minor, somewhat wonkish (if not obsessive) sesquicentennial occasion, the experience does connect directly to the past in a unique way. We timed our trip to around mid day. I figure, given the shadows seen in O’Sullivan’s photo, the original was taken sometime in the early afternoon.

Tin Pot Run Ford… 150 years to the day, if not hour and second, from the time the photo was taken:

Rappahannock Station 19 Aug 12 005

For perspective, here’s a copy of the O’Sullivan photo, held out by my pal Mike Block:

Rappahannock Sta 19 Aug 12 013

Update: Had to move the photos to Flickr for better viewing.  The down side to “mobile blogging”, given the current WordPress iOS software, is the photos are never well placed on the page.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “150 Years Ago: A photo that speaks to us today

  1. A friend of mine wrote a book about Chickamauga, and another friend took the modern day photos to match the older ones. Yes, I am biased, but I think it’s a pretty cool book.

  2. Craig, it was a real honor for all of us to pay this on-the-site tribute today to that courageous black family–and so many others like them–who desperately fled the only life they knew for an uncertain life ahead that they knew not. But these former slaves were certainly aware that henceforth they would be free, and whatever choice they made would be their choice, for better or worse.
    O’Sullivan’s classic image in one fell swoop captures the reason the war was fought–and the reason it was worth winning.

    Thank you, Craig, for giving voice to this powerfully iconic scene.


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