What happened? Civil War Photograph Mystery

I like to look at the Civil War era photographs of couples and families. It’s a visual reminder that the war and what happened in the military affected the homefront and vice-versa.

One afternoon I was looking at civilian/military images, noting details on poses for couples, and I came across this image digitized in Library of Congress and the Liljenquist Family Collection. As soon as you look, you’ll see the shocking detail. (Yes, this is entirely G rated!)


The image is labeled in the archive as a tintype and it appears that the woman’s face has been scraped out of the metal. And only her face. It looks like intentional damage to this image to me.


I don’t think the woman’s death—at least through natural circumstances—would have prompted this tintype disfigurement. Usually photographs of deceased loved ones were prized after their passing as a piece of personal memory.

It’s curious that only her face is damaged. As far as I can tell, it’s not a circumstance of a broken case. This looks like someone took a knife or some other object to intentionally erase that part of the portrait.

The young man’s expression in the image seems calm, relaxed, happy, and maybe a little proud or jaunty. There is a ring on the woman’s left hand which is resting on his shoulder. Of course, that does not automatically mean they were married, but it is a possible hint of matrimony or engagement.

Did she break an engagement? Did she cheat on him? I don’t like to think ill of someone without knowing the facts, but something pretty dramatic seems likely for this type of photographic damage.

Or maybe someone not in this photo did it? Jealousy?

When I found the photo in the online archive, I texted it to a colleague who also researches civilians and asked what she thought. We both agreed that we didn’t want to “spin a story” but there was something worth investigating.

The information in the catalog is pretty vague and no clues to the individuals’ identity. I decided to upload the photo to Civil War Photo Sleuth. Since the software doesn’t take group photos at this time, I had to crop the image so that it centered on the guy. And I added it to the system with documentation as best I could.

I thought there were two very possible matches, but there are enough differences that I don’t feel confident confirming a match. What happens next? Well, I’ve left the photo in the AI system to see if a more solid match appears as others continue to add more photos. I’m also thinking about running the names of the two *possible* matches through Ancestry or Newspapers.com to see if any clues surface.

To be honest, I haven’t really had a chance in the last few weeks to keep working on this, but feel free to share some research ideas or other relevant information, if you want. And over the next few months I’ll add more details about the process and any discoveries.

Ah…the mysteries and questions to be uncovered…


Published by Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?

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