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The Internet Can be a Powerful Tool for Historical Research

The internet can be a powerful tool for historical research. Several years ago, I purchased a fine carte-de-visite image of an unknown Union officer in hopes that I might someday identify him. The photographic image, which was obtained for a reasonable price, featured the portrait of a bearded Union officer wearing a double-breasted frock coat with shoulder straps that appeared to indicate the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or Major. The photographer’s imprint on the reverse of the image was very interesting and read: “Barr & Young, Army Photographers, Fort Pickering, Memphis, Tennessee.”

Fort Pickering was a Confederate earthen work erected in 1861 as part of the Memphis defenses along the Mississippi River. When Memphis fell to the Union forces in June 1862, the Fort was greatly expanded and served as a major command and supply facility for General W.T. Sherman’s army. Barr & Young also established a photographic studio there.

Research into the two photographers revealed that D.P. Barr and J.W. Young traveled with Sherman’s and Grant’s army in the Civil War’s Western Theater. The photographers produced images from 1863 to June 1864, and succeeded to photographing some of the leading generals, like U.S. Grant and John Logan, as well as common officers and soldiers, such as the subject of this post. Interestingly, a CDV bust portrait of General Grant in a private collection bearing the “Barr & Young/Fort Pickering” imprint has a notation penned on the reverse indicating that it was “bo[ugh]t at Vicksburg Oct. 10 1863” suggesting that the photographers were selling existing stock from their previous camp assignments after they moved on to their Vicksburg gallery.

Not long after Grant accepted the surrender of Vicksburg, D.P. Barr and J.W. Young, set up a gallery in the City that they called the “Palace of Art.” Business partnerships could be fleeting in wartime, however, and by June of 1864, Barr and Young had dissolved their business arrangement. D.P. Barr advertised on June 8 that he was now in business as the Washington Photograph and Ambrotype Gallery on the third floor of the Odd Fellows Hall on Washington Street in Vicksburg. The gallery, he promised, was “Guaranteed to give Satisfaction.” At the same time, he announced that he had hired J.E. Joslyn, who formerly had worked in two of New York’s largest photo galleries, those of Edward Anthony and Mathew Brady, to “execute work in the most beautiful and desirable manner.”

Original photo in the Library of Congress Collection showing Barr’s Washington Gallery

The Barr & Young photograph in my collection has always intrigued me. A handsome officer without a name, posing for the camp photographer in the field at Fort Pickering. Although he appeared to be either a Lieutenant Colonel or a Major based on the oak leaves on his shoulder straps, it was not until recently that I was able to confirm his rank and identity.

Recently while perusing eBay listings, I encountered another example of a photograph of my unknown officer with the same photographer’s imprint. This example, however, was signed by the subject on the face of the photograph with the flourishing signature of “Geo. F. French, Surg[eon] USV.”

George Franklin French led an impressive life. According to the 1906 book, A History of New Hampshire Surgeons in the War of the Rebellion, French was born in Dover, New Hampshire on October 30, 1837. After attending public schools in Dover, he attended Harvard University and graduated in 1859. He taught Greek and Latin in the private school of Professors Lane & Lovering for three years before returning to Harvard to earn a medical degree in 1862. He almost immediately entered the army following his graduation and was appointed Acting Assistant Surgeon in 1862. He was appointed Assistant Surgeon on June 4, 1863 and was promoted to Major and Surgeon on June 13, 1863. He spent his first year of service in the military hospitals at Alexandria, Virginia. There are published reports included in government records of his surgical work at these facilities dating to 1862. In 1863, French was ordered to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he served as a personal surgeon to General U.S. Grant. It appears that French served primarily at Hospital Number 3 in Vicksburg. When Grant was elevated to command of the Union army and moved east to Washington, French accompanied him. He was ordered back to the West and charged with setting up field hospitals during General Sherman’s epic March to the Sea in 1864. He established massive hospitals at Rome and Atlanta, Georgia. He officially served as Surgeon-in-Chief of the First Division, 15th Army Corps under Sherman. French resigned his post on June 5, 1865. He was offered a medical appointment in the Regular Army in February 1866, but declined the appointment.

After the Civil War, French settled in Portland, Maine, where he taught medicine and was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Maine General Hospital. He relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1872, where he was also active in civic affairs. He practiced medicine, taught, and helped establish the Minneapolis College Hospital. Dr. French died in Minneapolis on July 13, 1897.

The internet can indeed be a powerful research tool. Being able to correctly identify the subject of a Civil War image is rewarding. The detective work involved revealed a fascinating story of one man’s dedication and service to the Nation and added value to historical understanding. There are thousands of Civil War portraits waiting to be likewise identified; thousands of compelling stories just waiting to be told.

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