A few years ago, I was doing archival research and I came across an interesting letter. The author was Lieutenant Mathias Edgar Richards, a staff officer for Colonel Joseph J. Bartlett. He wrote this letter to his sister, Sophie, who lived in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Here it is:
Hd. Qrs. 2nd Brigade
June 24, 1862
I send enclosed another photograph picked up—
Description of Characters commencing left side of picture, where lager keg is— front row—
J. J. Bartlett—Col. 27th N. Y. Vols—Col Comdg 2d Brigade—
Genl. H. W. Slocum—Comd’g Division—
Genl. Wm. B. Franklin—Comd’g 6th Prov. Army Corps—
Gen. Newton—Comd’g 3rd Brig of our Division
Second or back row—
Col. Jos. Howland—16th N. Y. Vols—
Capt. E. Sparrow Purdy Asst. Adjt. Genl.
“ Arnold—Inspec. Genl. & Chief of Staff
“ Hoff—Ordnance officer—
The picture was taken at White House. The little nigger is front of Genl. Franklin is a slave of Mrs. Lee and his name is Braxton Flannel—the keg had lager beer in it—&c &c.
. . . Your affect bro, Mat
When I read Lieutenant Richards’s description, I immediately recognized the photograph to which he referred. It is this photograph:
This is a fairly well-known image. A copy of it is kept in the Library of Congress (Call number: LC-B815- 382) and through the LOC website, it is easily accessible. The image is usually attributed to photographer James Gibson. The LOC’s description says that Gibson took it on May 14, 1862, at Cumberland Landing.
Meanwhile, here is an image of the author of the letter, Lt. Richards:
Richards offered us historians a great resource, labeling all of the officers in the photograph. He identified the general officers, although it must be said, that historians have long known their identities. They are, left to right, Colonel Joseph J. Bartlett, a brigade commander; Brigadier General Henry Warner Slocum, a division commander, later renowned for commanding an army during Sherman’s March to the Sea; Major General William Buell Franklin, commander of the 6th Corps; Brigadier General William Farquhar Barry, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery; and Brigadier General John Newton, a corps commander at Gettysburg. Here are close-ups of the characters in the front row:
(Bartlett, front row, far left)
(Slocum, front row, second from left)
(Franklin, front row, center)
(Barry, front row, second from right)
(Newton, front row, far right)
The men in the back of the photograph have never been identified by historians. Richards thankfully provides names with faces. They are (with a few accompanying photographs):
Colonel Joseph Howland was the husband of nurse Eliza Newton Woolsey. One month after this photograph Howland received a wound at the Battle of Gaines Mill. After the war, he served as New York’s state treasurer)
(Howland, back row, far left)
Captain Erastus Sparrow Purdy was Franklin’s adjutant general. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.
Captain Richard Arnold was the 6th Corps’ inspector general. Later on, he rose to the rank of brigadier general and served as chief of artillery for the Army of the Gulf.
Lieutenants W. H. Philip, J. P. Baker, J. C. Jackson, were all aides-de-camp for General Franklin.
Lieutenant John Hoff was the most enigmatic man, and honestly, I have no real clue about who he was. My friend, Garry Adelman, tells me that Hoff is one of the top ten most photographed people of the Civil War. Apparently, Hoff can be found in dozens of other photographs.
(Hoff, back row, far right.)
More to the point, Lieutenant Richards's letter makes it clear that this photograph has been mislabeled by the LOC and subsequently by historians. Gibson took the image at White House Landing, not Cumberland Landing. The usual date ascribed to the photograph is possibly correct, since the 6th Corps arrived at White House Landing on May 12, 1862. However, a Union cavalryman wrote that General Slocum (one of the generals in the photograph) did not arrive at White House until May 15. Consequently, the LOC date may be off by a few days.
The story of White House Landing is well-known. White House was once the home of Martha Custis, the wife of George Washington. The property passed to Martha’s great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Custis, who eventually became the wife of Robert E. Lee. Before the war, Mary Anna Lee turned the property over to her son, Rooney Lee. In 1861, Mrs. Lee departed from her husband’s home in Arlington and moved into Rooney’s home, which was her former home. Before the 6th Corps arrived at White House’s doorstep, Mary Anna Lee fled. She pinned a note to the door, imploring the bluecoats to respect her property, reminding them that it had once been the home of George Washington’s wife.
This photograph, then, shows the Union officers partaking of Mrs. Lee’s unoffered hospitality. They sit in the yard. Presumably, they are drinking the Lee-family beer, and the little slave child—now free—was once the property of Mrs. Robert E. Lee. (The slave, Braxton Flannel, might have been the property of Rooney Lee, and the “Mrs. Lee” mentioned by Lieutenant Richards could have been Rooney’s wife, Charlotte. However, given the context, it seems certain that he meant Mary Anna Lee.)
Well, this leads to a series of questions: who was Braxton Flannel? Was he a slave of Mrs. Lee? If so, how old was he? Why did this bevy of illustrious Union officers want him in their picture?
Whenever I have trouble with Civil War photographs, I turn things over to Garry Adelman, who has an eye for seeing things that I cannot. In trying to figure out a little bit more about Braxton Flannel, Garry remembered something. He had seen the slave-child once before. Check out this photograph:
This photograph depicts a cluster of freed slaves. Take a look at the center of the crowd. There is Braxton Flannel, apparently wearing the same outfit. Presumably, this photograph was taken on the same day, and the building in the background is the same slave cabin at the right of the photograph depicting the 6th Corps officers. Were these men, women, and children all once owned by the Lee family? I offer yet another unanswered question.
Needless to say, this tale has yet to reach completion.