Sometimes, the best things are those things you find on your way to trying to find other things.
Things that are totally unrelated to what you went looking for in the first place. Things that are interesting in their own right, but not seemingly connected with your own very specific research interests.
In other words, serendipitous discoveries.
The word “serendipitous” and the noun “serendipity” came into general English usage because of the English writer Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Orford (1717 – 1797). Walpole recounted the amazing (albeit fictional) story of the three princes of the phantasmagorical kingdom of Serendip, who were in hot pursuit of a lost camel.
In the process of recounting the story, Walpole coined the word “serendipity.”
These days, “serendipity” suggests fortuitous things or discoveries that seem to just pop up by happenstance, unplanned and unsought-after.
And so it was that in the search for something entirely different, I learned that the folks at the U.S.Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle Pennsylvania had digitized the 19th century photo albums of the Massachusetts Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States(Mass - MOLLUS).
This was no small feat as those albums contain literally thousands of Civil War era photographs. In fact, the finding aid to the Massachusetts MOLLUS collection indicates that there are more than 4100 photographs taken in the mid-19th century in the collection.
The photographs cover a wide variety of topics: portraits, group shots, panoramas, buildings. You name it – there are all kinds of stuff in the one-of-a-kind photos in the Mass-MOLLUS albums.
Note that this is not actually a “new” online resource. The digitization of these photos – and their appearance online - goes back to 2009. However, like lots of stuff, if you haven’t seen it before, it’s “new” to you, just as it was “new” to me a few days ago.
That’s the thing with online resources – it’s hard to keep up with all the new stuff as it becomes available.
How important is this collection? Here’s a quote for someone who should know:
"This collection is truly unique and considered the single best Civil War photograph collection in the world," stated the USAHEC's photo curator, Molly Bompane. "Now not only have we preserved this collection for future generations, we have made it much more accessible to the many researchers and enthusiasts around the globe who have an interest in the Civil War."
So, what exactly was (or is) the “Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States” or MOLLUS?
MOLLUS was established in Philadelphia in 1865 after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was set up as a Civil War equivalent of the Revolutionary War’s Society of the Cincinnati, with membership open to officers and former officers of the Union military forces loyal to the Federal government. Today, it is a hereditary organization open to male descendants of those Union officers who served during the Civil War. You can learn more about it here. Pehaps you can even qualify as a "hereditary companion."
The online collection of MOLLUS photographs on the USAHEC website is searchable, although I noticed that the results returned are not always correct. (Note to USAHEC catalogers – “Port Royal” Virginia and “Port Royal” South Carolina are two different places.) Still, with that caveat in mind, give it a try.
When you search and find a photo of particular interest, be sure to click on the “metadata” button. You’ll learn a whole lot more about what you’re looking at.
So, what did I find?
A hitherto unseen Civil War-era photo of one of the grandkids’ third great-grandfathers, Edward William Hooper (1839 – 1901), the grandson of pirate fighter and entrepreneur William Sturgis, whose adventures were described in one of my earlier blogsposts here.
Hooper, a recent Harvard graduate lawyer (class of 1859) that everyone called "Ned", was sent to Port Royal, South Carolina in March 1862 as part of the contingent of teachers & administrators from the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society (of which his father was vice-president) and served as private secretary to General Rufus Saxton, during which time he held the nominal rank of Colonel. He was an important part of what is now known as the "Port Royal Experiment", about which I will write more in the near future.
Here’s the nattily dressed Ned Hooper, not yet 23 years old, looking quite properly Bostonian Brahmin-ish and all "private secretarial.” The photo is part of the digitized MOLLUS photo albums on the USAHEC website.
Maybe you have no Massachusetts Civil War officers in your family, so you figure that MOLLUS is not for you. Don't be so sure. You may find that it doesn’t matter.
Try searching by place (North Carolina) or event (Gettysburg). All kinds of interesting photos will appear.
More importantly, poke around the nooks and crannies of the US Army Heritage and Education Center’s website and learn about resources you never knew existed.
Remember, serendipitous discoveries are always great fun!