Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A New Collection of Civil War Photos and the File of the One-Armed Man

The Liljenquist family collection of nearly 700 Civil War soldier photographs now has a new home.

Collector Tom Liljenquist, 58, of McLean, Virginia recently donated the collection he and his sons had assembled over 15 years to the Library of Congress, where it will be on display next April, in time for the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Meanwhile, since the images from the collection are being digitized and are gradually appearing online, you can check out some of the highlights here.

This is an important collection – one of the largest the Library has received in a half century – because it shows “ordinary” soldiers, both Union and Confederate. (More details about the collection in the Washington Post story here)

Of course, for many of us, finding photos of our Civil War ancestor would be a dream come true. So, even if your guy doesn’t show up in the Liljenquist collection, here’s a suggestion.

For those who have Union Civil War ancestors, it’s always worthwhile to check the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for an ancestor’s pension papers.  The index to these records can be found in Record Group T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861 – 1934,  which is found on 544 rolls of microfilm at all NARA locations, the Family History Library and on Ancestry.com.

If you find your guy in the index, it’s worth ordering the FULL pension file (using NATF Form 85)  from NARA and actually springing for the $75 for the first 100 pages and the .65 cents for each additional page.  More info here)   You can do this online.


Civil War pension laws changed frequently, and many veterans qualified for a pension early on because of war-related injuries.  In cases like this, almost always, the pension file contains graphic detail about the soldier’s specific war wounds that qualified him for a pension.  In addition, soldiers were required to submit to periodic physical examinations, and the record of each will be found in Civil War pension files. These can be extensive. Plus, they may also include photos.

For example, one of my great-great grandmothers, an immigrant from Germany in the late 1840s,  was left a widow with six young children sometime between 1860 and 1865.  At the conclusion of the Civil War, she married a second time – this time to a severely disabled vet  ... with a government pension. Her second husband, a sailor who had served on the Union Blockading Squadron vessel “Granite City”, lost an arm at the Battle of Calcasieu Pass in April of 1864 and had actually been described as “dead” in some accounts of the battle.

His pension file, however, shows that he was very much alive, surviving until 1919.

In addition, the pension file contains the only known photograph of him.  He is sitting, bearded, frowning and naked from the waist up, with the stump of his arm graphically visible, circa 1880. The pension file described his sojourn from the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital, to Albany, NY to the National Soldiers’ Home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a prosthesis for his lost arm, and then back to Albany and finally  to Bath, NY – where the NY Soldiers’ and Sailors Home was located.

After spending some time at the Bath Home in what we’d call today “physical rehabilitation and therapy”, he checked himself out, moved with his wife and two younger step-children to the edge of the nearby village and opened a tavern within walking distance of the Home.

He was popular with Home residents out on day passes, but with the Home’s administration – who preferred sober "inmates" - not so much!

His two younger step-children used his surname throughout their adult lives, even though there are no records of anything resembling a legal adoption.  In fact, my grandfather (who thought that the man with one arm was actually his paternal grandfather) was mightily surprised when I presented him with the evidence of just who his grandmother’s second husband actually was.  At the time (circa 1965), my grandfather was 75 and not ready to give up his surname (his step-grandfather) and replace it with that of his actual male ancestor.

The point of all this?

Even if you don’t find your Civil War ancestor’s photograph in the collection of recently donated Liljenquist photos described above, don’t fail to check for his pension papers.  They may contain a treasure beyond belief.


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  2. Seaman John Scott--his file states that he lost his left arm. He was also a POW at Camp Groce for 6 months.

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