by Mark H. Dunkelman
From the first issue of the Rhode Island Civil War Round Table newsletter.
The familiar photograph reproduced here depicts the departure from Providence, Rhode Island of one of the state’s first military units to leave for the front during the Civil War, just days after the April 13, 1861 surrender of Fort Sumter.
This famous photograph has been reproduced several times, most often credited to the collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society. I readily located it in five heavily-illustrated histories of the war from my personal library. The earliest appearance was in Francis T. Miller’s 1911 Photographic History of the Civil War (Vol. VIII, p. 60); the latest in Geoffrey C. Ward’s 1990 The Civil War: An Illustrated History (pp. 50-51), the companion volume to Ken Burns’s popular PBS television series, which utilized Rhode Island sources (notably the Sullivan Ballou letter and Elisha Hunt Rhodes’s diary) to such good effect. Between those two sources, I found the Providence photograph reproduced in The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (1960, p. 73); The Image of War 1861-1865 (1981, Vol. I, Shadows of the Storm, p. 144); and Time-Life Books’ First Blood (1983, pp. 40-41). No doubt the photo has been published elsewhere. The popularity of the image is not surprising, because it’s one of the best available depictions of Civil War troops leaving home for the front.
The way the photograph has been captioned through the years raises some questions, however. The caption in Miller’s is quite specific: “THE FIRST RHODE ISLAND INFANTRY LEAVING PROVIDENCE, APRIL 20, 1861. The sidewalks were filled with cheering throngs, and unbounded enthusiasm greeted the volunteers, as the first division of the First Regiment of Detached Rhode Island Militia left Providence for Washington on April 20, 1861. At 10:30 in the morning Colonel Ambrose Burnside, in command, had ordered the men of the first division to assemble upon Exchange Place. The band was followed by the National Cadets and the first division was led by Colonel Burnside himself. It contained practically half of each of the ten companies, six of which were recruited in Providence and one each in Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Newport, and Westerly. The second division left four days later. The men in this photograph marched through Exchange Street to Market Square, up North Main Street and through Meeting to Benefit, and down Benefit to Fox Point.” But, as William C. Davis points out in the introduction to the Image of War series, the editors of Miller’s reproduced “scores, if not hundreds” of photographs over erroneous captions — “errors that have been accepted and passed on by the hundreds of books since 1911 that have drawn upon Miller.” Which begs the question: is the caption in Miller’s accurate?
The captions in the newer books are annoyingly vague, or downright inaccurate. The American Heritage book simply states, “Colonel Ambrose Burnside led the Detached Rhode Island Militia out of Providence.” Davis’s Image of War series declares, “In April 1861, the 1st Rhode Island Infantry marched to the railroad depot in Providence to ride to the South, their governor, William Sprague, at their head.” The incorrect assumption had been made that the troops were transported via railroad — an understandable assumption, because they are assembled in front of Providence’s railroad station, the Romanesque brick structure at the right of the photograph. The Time-Life series repeated the railroad depot mistake, and compounded it by implying that the entire regiment is depicted: “One thousand troops of the 1st Rhode Island Infantry march past a cheering throng to the Providence railroad station en route to Washington, D.C.” The Ward/Burns book uses the photo as a backdrop to an inset of Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island, with the comment, “On his way to Washington, he [Rhodes] marched through Providence, cheered by many of the same citizens who had turned out to see the 1st Rhode Island off to war two months earlier” — displaying the same cavalier treatment of photographs as historical documents that was ofttimes evident in their TV series.
To complicate the mystery, let’s turn to Patrick Conley and Paul Campbell’s 1982 Providence: A Pictorial History, which includes the photo (p. 87) with this caption: “This April 24, 1861, photo depicts the departure from Providence’s Exchange Place of the second wave — 510 men — of the First Rhode Island Regiment of Detached Militia, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph T. Pitman commanding. The initial wave of 530 men had left with Governor Sprague four days earlier.” And so Conley and Campbell completely contradict the caption Miller assigned to the photograph.
The discrepancy between Miller’s caption and that of Conley/Campbell leads us to the Rhode Island Historical Society Library on Hope Street in Providence for a solution of the mystery.
An obvious place to begin a search for information about the departure is A Narrative of the Campaign of the First Rhode Island in the Spring and Summer of 1861, written by the regiment’s chaplain, Augustus Woodbury, and published in Providence in 1862. Woodbury offers a touching description of the departure scene, but makes no mention of a photograph being taken. However, pasted onto a blank page between pages 10 and 11 of the RIHS’s copy of Woodbury’s book is a small, two and a half inch-square paper print of an alternate view of the departure. So at least two photographs were taken on the same occasion, both of them obviously made from the same vantage point.
At least two Providence daily newspapers covered the departure of both detachments of the 1st Rhode Island and published detailed accounts. No mention is made of a photograph being taken when the first detachment left on April 20. However, the Providence Daily Post of Thursday morning, April 25, described the departure of the second detachment the previous day: “The last half of the First Regiment R.I. Detached Militia took its departure for New York, en route to Washington, on Wednesday afternoon. . . . There was a dress parade on Exchange Place at nine o’clock in the forenoon, and at two o’clock in the afternoon the Battalion met at the same place to form in line and march to the steamer Empire State, which awaited them at Fox Point. The line was formed by Acting Adjutant Eddy, and reviewed by Lieut. Col. Pitman. The companies were then wheeled into platoons and remained in position a few minutes, while a daguerreotype was taken from the roof of Gorham’s building, on Canal Street.” The Providence Daily Evening News of the same date confirms the Post’s account, noting that after the companies were formed in line, “A daguerreotype of the scene was then taken. The strains of Gilmore’s Band, which was present as a regimental band, were very fine” — thereby identifying the band seen at the head of the column in the “En Avant” photograph (as one popular reproduction of the photo is titled).
The newspaper accounts confirm the Conley/Campbell caption is correct — the photograph (and its alternate) were taken on April 24, during the departure of the second detachment of the 1st Regiment. And if the papers’ accounts are correct, we also know that the photograph was made as a daguerreotype. But while the correct date has been established — after many years of error — a number of other questions remain. Who was the photographer? At this point, unknown. Where are the original daguerreotypes? Not know to be extant. Why did Woodbury choose the alternate view to appear in his history? Good question — it isn’t as evocative of the scene as “En Avant.” (It’s my conjecture that the Woodbury view was taken first, before the crowd built up and the troops formed in line.)
A couple of legends about the photograph have grown. When I examined several copy prints at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library, Denise Bastien, Curator of Graphics, told me that someone claims an ancestor, a certain Crocker, took the original photographs. While several Crockers are listed in the 1861 Providence city directory, none are found among the twelve individuals or firms recorded as making ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, or photographs. Ms. Bastien also noted that one of the two top-hatted figures standing next to the railing on the bridge sidewalk is believed to be Jabez Gorham. The Gorham and Company silversmiths were located at 12 Steeple Street (which fronted on Canal Street) — the building from which the photograph was taken, and which “Gorham” and his companion face in the picture, their backs to the pageant unfolding on Exchange Place.
To answer a question raises a host of other questions. Let’s turn the focus to the people in the picture — sons, mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, friends. Chaplain Woodbury remembered, “It seemed as though almost the entire population of the State of Rhode Island crowded the streets of Providence to witness the departure of this gallant band of soldiers, and to bid them God-speed upon their dangerous enterprise. The wharves, the heights upon the shores of the harbor, and the coasts of Narragansett Bay, were crowded with spectators. Cannon belched forth its thunder. Cheers of men rent the air. The prayers and blessings of tearful women consecrated the hour. As the steamer, in which the command had embarked, left the bay, and entered upon the waters beyond, the boom of the heavy columbiads upon the parapet of Fort Adams announced to those upon the sea and those upon the land, that the shores of Rhode Island had been left, perhaps forever, by the flower of her youth and the prime of her manhood.”
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