Thursday, July 21, 2011

Family's gift of Civil War portraits shows America's best side -- Column of July 21, 2011


Here, finally, is a story to make you feel good about Washington. And, no, that’s not impossible even in this summer of dysfunctional government.

It does mean that for today this space will be debt-free, politician-free, tax-and-spend-free and, I hope, migraine-free.

With Washington sweltering and cranky, I headed to the cool marble of the Library of Congress. If there’s a more beautiful public building in America, I’ve not seen it.

“The Last Full Measure” is billed as an exhibit of Civil War portraits – but that doesn’t do it justice. Unlike other collections of Civil War photos, the nearly 400 images are not of famous generals and politicians, and there are no camp scenes or soldiers dead in a field.

These are portraits that ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers paid to have taken of themselves with what then was the latest technology. Two-thirds of the exhibit pictures are ambrotypes, underexposed images on glass placed against a dark background, and the rest are tintypes, images on thin sheets of coated iron.

Each picture was framed with an ornate brass mat and cushioned with a facing pillow of brocaded velvet. The treasure was then encased in a leather or plastic box.

It’s shocking how young these soldiers were. Many of the solemn faces into whose eyes we look 150 years later can’t be more than 14 or 15 years old. With a change of clothes, they could be boys we see on the street. Their names mostly are lost, their identities only hinted by a button, hat or belt buckle. Many died much too young. Three million from North and South marched off to war, and 620,000 didn’t come back.

Choosing how they wanted their “shade” or “shadow” captured, some soldiers sat with friends or family members, others atop trusty steeds. Some held a gun or sword -- or a sword and a gun.

One heart-breaking portrait is of a sad-eyed girl of about six, in whose hands are a picture of her deceased father. Another portrait comes with a scrap of lace and a note saying it was taken from the hand of a dead Rebel after battle.

Photographers were much more plentiful in the North, so there are many more pictures of Union soldiers. The exhibit has five cases of Union pictures and one with Confederates.

Intriguing is an unidentified Confederate soldier from Co. E “Lynchburg Rifles,” 11th Virginia Infantry Volunteers, who looks like he has stepped from the pages of a catalogue. He holds an 1841 “Mississippi” rifle, Sheffield-type Bowie knife, canteen, box knapsack, blanket roll and cartridge box, according to the description. The pictures is only 2 ¾ inches by 3 ¼ inches. Who is he?

The exhibit inspires gratitude for a family’s philanthropic vision and to technology, modern and 19th Century. The Liljenquist family of Virginia donated 700 portraits to the library with a request that the photos be digitized and high-resolution scans made available online. The small pictures are so sharp because photographers used more silver in those days, creating a sharper image, experts say.

Tom Liljenquist – pronounced LILLY-en-kwist – and his sons began collecting Civil War relics in 1996 after finding a Civil War bullet in a park near their house in Arlington. They discovered a Civil War portrait in an antique store and began combing shops, shows, estate sales and eBay to add to their collection.

In 2003, the hobby took a more serious turn when The Washington Post began publishing the faces of fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Liljenquists hoped their collection could honor Civil War dead in a similar way.

Last year, with hundreds of portraits at home and in Tom Liljenquist’s jewelry stores in the Washington area, sons Jason, 19, Brandon, 17, and Christian, 13, offered the collection to the Library of Congress.

If you can’t make it to Washington by Aug. 13 when the exhibit closes, don’t fret. You can experience it online through The online exhibit is rich in detail, and it was easier to call up individual pictures from home than to use a kiosk in the gallery.

Here’s more good news. The Liljenquists are still collecting Civil War portraits. They plan to keep giving them to the Library of Congress -- and to all of us.

©2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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