A Distinct Tintype of a Typical Soldier

by James Brookes


anonymous, ‘Unidentified soldier in Union sergeant uniform and sash with Model 1840 non-commissioned officer’s sword, revolver, cap box, and knife in front of American flag’, 1861-1865, sixth-plate tintype, hand-colored, Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress), http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.37129/

The most common conclusion about the military tintype portrait in the Civil War is that it represents the subject’s pride in his military service. This is undeniably so, and any investigation of the soldier’s tintype portrait must take into account the significance of notions such as commitment, loyalty, and masculinity in the republican nation, especially during times of conflict when such traits are most severely tested. The firing on Fort Sumter and the excitement it sparked afterwards prompted the Detroit Free Press to note on April 1861, that the “The Star-Spangled Banner rages most furiously.”[1] In the middle of the war, Abraham Lincoln accredited several motives that might induce a man to enlist: “patriotism, political bias, ambition, personal courage, love of adventure, want of employment.”[2] In the South, one soldier wrote “The vandals of the North… are determined to destroy slavery… We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty.”[3] It is evident that during the conflict, republican virtues regarding the protection of the nation, and consequently the rights that such a nation bestowed upon its citizens, were highlighted both through rhetoric and visual symbolism.

As James M. McPherson has stated, for both Union and Confederate volunteers, “abstract symbols or concepts such as country, flag, Constitution, liberty, and legacy of the Revolution figured prominently in their explanations of why they enlisted.”[4] Military service was not only a national responsibility to preserve freedom and liberty, but also a part of the United States’ revolutionary lineage that had originated with the Minutemen of the War of Independence, and both North and South would proclaim to be the true heirs to this legacy. To have a tintype taken in military uniform created a visual archive that confirmed the fulfilment of this commitment to one’s nation, as much as it provided undeniable proof of one’s military service.

The unidentified man in the above image provides the viewer with an encapsulation of the pride, patriotism, and rugged determination of the citizen-soldier in the Union army. The anonymous subject stands with a straight back, with his left hip cocked in a way that proclaims the self-confidence required for a first sergeant. The Library of Congress’s identification of this man as a sergeant is distinguishable by the three chevrons on each sleeve, but the mostly hidden lozenges above these chevrons and his infantry sash confirm his actual rank as that of a first sergeant. The importance of the position was clearly not lost on this subject, who has chosen to be photographed wearing his rank-defining apparel and with props that identify him with the nineteenth century notions of honor, masculinity, and loyalty. Such traits were paramount in ensuring the discipline and devotion of the rank-and-file. Tucked into his belt is a revolver and a knife; both proposing this young soldier’s readiness to defend the Union.

His surplus of weaponry gives testimony to the naivety of many volunteers, who would rush to the portrait galleries to have their image struck with a variety of the tintype operator’s ferocious props. The subject’s sword must be left out of this consideration; as it is intended to be symbolic of rank rather than to be used as a weapon. The subject’s red worsted sash, according to U.S. Army regulations of the period, should in fact be “tie[d] hind the left hip” and worn beneath the belt.[5] The subject has not achieved this and this laxity in uniform causes the sash’s knot to cover the belt plate adorned with the letters “U.S.” The flaws in this man’s military appearance suggest his unfamiliarity with military doctrine. However, his placement in front of the U.S. flag positions him as a defiant obstacle to any who would attempt to take the colours. The manner in which the flag has been presented, almost as a theatrical curtain, suggests the tintype’s adoption as a method of performance, allowing this soldier to declare his loyalty and determination on an unending stage. This man presents himself as a steadfast, resolute defender of the symbolic national flag, but his awkward adjustment to military life remains present.

[1] Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1861, quoted in Bell I. Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), p. 18

[2] Abraham Lincoln in, ed., Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), Vol. VI, p. 446, quoted in James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 6

[3] Lunsford Yandell, Jr. to Sally Yandell, April 22, 1861, Yandell Papers, FCHS, quoted in McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, p. 20

[4] McPherson, For Cause and Comrades, p. 21

[5] Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1863), p. 468