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Civil War Weekend presenters to reveal methods for uncovering historical clues

March 17, 2016

Modern sleuthing has revealed that an iconic recruitment poster for the Union Army was based not on the artist’s imagination, as had been assumed for nearly 150 years, but on an actual photo. Photo courtesy of James Spina; illustration courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia.

Civil War Photo Sleuth
Modern sleuthing has revealed that an iconic recruitment poster for the Union Army was based not on the artist’s imagination, as had been assumed for nearly 150 years, but on an actual photo. Photo courtesy of James Spina; illustration courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia.

Why did Abraham Lincoln tip his stovepipe hat to a terrier? What role did weather play in determining Civil War battle outcomes? And what sleuthing techniques exposed the truth behind an iconic Union Army image?

These and other mysteries will be explored during the 25th anniversary of the Civil War Weekend, to be held at The Inn at Virginia Tech this weekend.

William C. “Jack” Davis, a former director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, will open the conference Friday, March 18, with an enigma: who, truly, was Loreta?

Loreta Janeta Velazquez, whom Davis calls “the Confederacy’s only media celebrity,” was the Cuban-born wife of a Confederate soldier. When her husband refused to allow her to join him on the battlefield, Velazquez took on a new persona – that of Harry T. Buford. As Buford, she joined a regiment just in time for the Battle of Bull Run, was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh, and later served as a Confederate spy.

Nearly everything historians know about Velazquez comes from her 1876 memoir, “The Woman in Battle.” But how accurate was that account? Davis will delve into a range of historical clues to assess the veracity of her story.

Kenneth Noe, the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University, will probe a different kind of mystery: the role weather played in Civil War battles.

“Civil War weather was very unusual, and meteorologists are still arguing about why,” Noe said. “Weather had a definite effect on the war, especially in terms of its duration. Without all that rain on the Peninsula in 1862, for example, Richmond might have fallen in the summer. Weather conditions also played a significant role in the outcomes of more than half of the war’s battles and campaigns.”

Kurt Luther, an assistant professor in computer science at Virginia Tech, will offer tips for solving photographic mysteries. One example he likes to use is an iconic poster used to recruit African American soldiers into the Union Army. Investigations by a series of Civil War historians led to the discovery that the image was based not on the artist’s imagination, as had been assumed for nearly 150 years, but on an actual photo. Further research helped debunk a version of the photo that had been altered to misrepresent the recruits as Confederate soldiers.

Luther’s own contribution was in scrutinizing both biographical details and visual cues – a cap insignia, a set of whiskers, a single row of buttons – to identify the white officer pictured. This finding, he hopes, will help him identify the other soldiers in the photo.

“The discovery process is one of the great joys of photo sleuthing,” said Luther, who supplements his more traditional detective work with crowdsourcing techniques and facial recognition software. “It allows us to restore meaning to images and personal histories that would otherwise remain forgotten.”

James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., the founder of the Civil War Weekend and an Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech, will conclude the weekend with a history of the role animals played during the Civil War. One of those “four-legged soldiers” was Sallie, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier who served as mascot and battlefield companion of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry. It was during a spring 1863 review of the Union Army that Lincoln spotted Sallie marching alongside her fellow soldiers and hoisted his stovepipe hat in salute.

Other presenters will include Paul Quigley, the current director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies; Barbara Gannon, an assistant professor of history at the University of Central Florida; Jonathan Noyalas, director of the Center for Civil War History at Lord Fairfax Community College; and Tom Seabrook, lead historical interpreter at the American Civil War Museum. In addition, two period-music bands, the Coburn Brass and the Blacksburg Brass Band, will help recreate the sounds of the era.

“Each year the Civil War Weekend gives us an opportunity to showcase Virginia Tech’s extensive contributions to Civil War history,” said Quigley. “This 25th-anniversary edition allows us to build on the traditions of the center’s two former directors – Bud Robertson and Jack Davis – and feature a number of the university’s history graduates. It also enables us to display the breadth of scholarship and demonstrate new tools for solving old puzzles.”

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