On a winter day in 1995, I traveled to the National Archives facility at College Park, Maryland, home of that institution's still pictures collection. I was looking specifically for clear versions of photos I had scene many times on the pages of books, but never with enough clarity to allow anything much to be learned from them.
One picture in particular most interested me. First appearing in 1911's Miller's Photographic History of the Civil War, it depicted a large group of Confederate prisoners awaiting transport to Northern prison camps in the spring of 1864. I hoped, among other things, to find a print of this photo, reasoning that it must be clearer than the fuzzy, pixelated image I'd seen in books. To my surprise, I did happen across a print of it, mounted to a card. The print I found was no more than five inches across, so small that none of the soldiers in it are more than a quarter inch high, but through a magnifying glass it was clear there was a remarkable amount of detail visible. Before leaving I had a high quality enlargement made which, 16 years later, I am finally able to share through this website. The National Archives print of the Punch Bowl photo is superior to the one available on the Library of Congress website, and to my knowledge the images below have never been presented with this level of clarity.
The image was one of a series probably taken by an unknown photographer of Matthew Brady's firm on May 16th or 17th, 1864.1 The "Punch Bowl" was the informal name for a series of ravines at Belle Plain, Virginia, that became a temporary holding area for Confederate's captured during the Overland Campaign.
Books including this picture tend to posit that the prisoners are drawn up to receive rations from the wagons visible in the background. Some men in the extreme rear of the group seem to be doing so, but everyone else has clearly broken down the numerous shelter tents seen in other shots of the location, and are wearing or preparing to put on their personal baggage. Since the men on the right, closest to camera, seem most ready, it's likely that a short time after the photo was taken this line began to march, followed by each successive line, to the landing. There they would board transports that would take them to Point Lookout or another POW camp.
The assumption is often made that these troops are men from Major General Edward Johnson's Division, which was captured whole at Spotsylvania Courthouse when their position at the "Mule Shoe" salient was overrun. Furthering the suggestion that these are Johnson's men is the fact that they are arranged in what appear to be regimental lines of two ranks, and Johnson's Division was captured so intact they were allowed to maintain their organization during transport. But the fact that the men are in lines indicates nothing definite about their identity. They are preparing to move out, and all that would have been necessary to achieve this formation would be for the Federal guards to start several lines at the top of the slope and tell the prisoners to form up on them.
Arguing against their identity as Johnson's Division is the fact that one of the other shots taken on this visit to the Punch Bowl shows a group of prisoners around a dugout. Historian William Frassanito was able to enlarge the image to show a hat insignia reading "AL 4", presumably the 4th Alabama of Field's Division, Longstreet's Corps.2 About 7500 prisoners from both the Wilderness and Spotsylvania were moved through this holding area between May 13th to 18th. Only about 3000 of those were from Johnson's Division.3
At the far right of the photograph, the line closest to the camera appears ready to move out. The short amount of time until the move is made clear by the man near center, who holds two heavy bundles of ground cover, etc. under his arms. This is an unlikely pose unless they are about to start moving. If Brady's photographer had delayed a few moments, he may have missed his shot.
Because they are the first leave the area, these men have all their gear on, unlike many more distant from the camera or farther down the slope, who are still relaxed and waiting. This fact, and their standing apart from the others allowing them to be more clearly seen, warrants taking a closer look.
In the image at right, the bearded man standing at far left is the same one pointed out above, with two bunches of blankets or ground cloths under his arms. He appears to have rolled up his shirtsleeves to the elbow, which is interesting because there are a few men elsewhere in the photo wearing overcoats. Seated below him is a soldier in a very dark jacket, wearing a knapsack.
Standing left of center is a man wearing a frock coat with what seem to be matching pants. His haversack is unusually wide, as with an officer's private-purchase style. If this is Johnson's Division after all, he could be an officer (the division's officers were allowed to stay with the men instead of being separated), but he need not be. There are a few others in this photograph with similar haversacks.
The prisoner seated at center may be barefooted, and wears both a knapsack and blanket roll, as seen in the famous Gettysburg prisoner photo and in the art of some veterans. His uniform is very dark, and it is possible this is the imported blue-gray kersey run through the blockade from Britain in great quantity during this period of the war. If so, it is surprising there is so little of it in the photo. But there is another shade, visible in the trousers of the man at far right, the jacket of the man facing away from us at top left, and perhaps even the frock coat and pants of the man near center, which is more common throughout the picture and could well represent the imported kersey, which displays about this shade in some other probable photos of it.
Just to the right of the man in the dark uniform stands a soldier with a knapsack that could be of U.S. make, given its shape. He is holding his haversack in his hands. The canteen on his hip may simply be cloth covered or a dull tin drum, but there is the suggestion of a rim, and we may have here a wooden canteen of the type more commonly seen in the west, but also issued in some numbers to Lee's army. If it is a wooden canteen, it is (to my knowledge) the only one seen in any photograph of Confederate prisoners or dead on the battlefield.
Five of these men in the line closest to the camera wear knapsacks. The one on the far right is clearly an imported British pattern pack, as purchased from S. Isaac, Campbell & Co. and run through the blockade by the tens of thousands. Note that, like the seated soldier in the previous image, he too wears a blanket roll with his knapsack. Crouching below him is another man with a British knapsack, easily identifiable by its leather corner reinforcements.
Visible at center right is a man seated at the head of the second line. He sat down just as the lens cap was removed from the camera, leaving his own ghostly echo standing over him. He appears to wear a knapsack.
The man standing at center wears a different style of pack, probably the common M1855 U.S. knapsack. He is cradling a pole about ten feet long. A number of men in the "Punch Bowl" have these, and they are likely the remains of shelters. Why they seem to be taking them along with them is unclear. Perhaps rather than boarding a steamer for prison camp they are expecting to spend the night at another holding area. At lower left are two more men wearing imported British knapsacks.
These men are also in the line closest to the camera. The man at bottom left has two blanket rolls worn over a dark frock or sack coat. His pants are tucked into boots. Like many of these soldiers, head movement makes identifying the type of headgear difficult. Still, the fact that so much detail is intact in a small print photograph of a group of people not posing for or aware of the camera is amazing.
The man seated at bottom center may has a very wide painted haversack, similar to the man in the frock coat in the previous image. The unpainted haversack of the individual at far right is worn quite high. What may be a knot to shorten the strap is visible against his back.
Closer to the center of the photo, down the hill, we see men from the first two lines mostly seated on the ground. Note at upper left a group of three men in matching forage caps, the chin strap buttons clearly visible. It is the only such concentration of caps in a photo where hats are overwhelmingly predominant. Below these men stands a soldier with a knapsack of uncertain type. It appears to have parallel straps passing down the back, and so may be the Mexican War era style that was likely produced by the Ordnance Department at Richmond. At far right, leaning back on his pack, is a man wearing a wheel cap.
Still further down hill are more prisoners of the first and second lines. The man seated near bottom right sits on very full knapsack. Both a tin cup and a fire-blackened boiler or can are attached to his haversack. The soldier seated to his left wears a hat reminiscent of the U.S. Army dress hat (Hardee hat). Hats similar to this were run through the blockade from England. To his left stands a man with similar hat, with his bedroll suspended on a stick held over his shoulder. He appears to have a small tin drum canteen. The soldier seated at the upper left hand corner has a sizable hole in the knee of his pants.
These are men of the second and third line from the camera, near the top of the slope. The back of the jacket of the man standing at top center has a pronounced point. Seated below and to the right of him is a soldier clearly wearing canvas leggings. The strap under the right foot is just visible. Leggings appear with surprising regularity in the art of Confederate veterans like A.C. Redwood, and may not have been quite so much an oddity as some might think.
The man at lower right wears only a vest over his dark shirt, and seems to have tucked his pants into his socks. He sits on a full knapsack. The man to the left of him has a bedroll of the "short roll" variety. The two POW's to his left stand with hands in pockets, their haversacks worn high and over their blanket rolls. The one on the right has a gum blanket as the outer layer of his. Both have tin cups attached to their haversack flap.
These men make up the heads of the third and fourth line from the camera. Near bottom left, the soldier in the dark pants is barefooted. At right center, back to the camera, stands a man reminiscent of Sam Watkins' "Tennessee Thompson". In addition to his haversack, his knapsack is topped with a large roll with what is likely a shelter half for an outer layer. This is the only knapsack in the photo with anything on top. A frying pan is somehow attached, handle pointing skyward. The man's canteen seems to be suspended from this unusual rig. Sitting beside him, elbows on knees, is a prisoner with his pants tucked into his socks.
As a point of reference for the cloth shades in the picture, note the pants of the Union soldiers visible at the top of the image.
As we move left down the slope, things grow more crowded and confused, but there are still a few details to be gleaned. The soldier at bottom left wears his haversack very high. At bottom center, one Johnny has at least two haversacks. At the extreme upper right is another soldier with the probable Richmond issue knapsack with vertical straps down the back.
There is always a danger in trying to make too many sweeping observations from a single image. We cannot determine much of anything about Lee's army as a whole from one blurry picture of an unknown unit passing through Frederick, Maryland, and little more from the small group of men in the White House Landing prisoner photo. But with the Punch Bowl photograph, we approach a sample size that allows us, with reservations, to make some observations about general Confederate appearance.
It is no surprise that the vast majority of these men wear short jackets, and it is obvious that there are a wide variety of shades of cloth in this group. Despite the importation of large amounts of blue-gray and light blue kersey from Britain, it had clearly not translated into uniformity in the field, and generally speaking it never did. The Richmond Depot continued to receive thousands of yards of locally produced cloth (presumably of various shades) into 1865. Even if, as mentioned above, the imported kersey is represented by the medium-dark shade seen in the photo and not by the blackish hue seen here and there, it is still far from universal.
There is a tendency in this image for the pants to appear lighter than the jacket in most cases. There is one possible explanation for this. In the months previous to the taking of this photo, Richmond had issued large numbers of light or royal blue pants to the army, typically made from imported kersey. If a large number of pants in the photo are light enough shades of blue, it could explain this difference, since there is no evidence that lighter shades of gray tended to be used for pants and darker for jackets. But there is still the mystery of what that uniform and very dark shade, scattered thinly through the whole crowd, represents.
It is difficult to determine haversack type at this distance. There are many that appear to be of Federal make, and many that are clearly not, and some that could really be either. The haversacks are generally worn at the waist, with several considerably above that. This is one area where this image differs somewhat from the White House Landing picture, where no such extremely short straps are visible. Also, haversacks and canteens do not always match neatly in length, with the canteen resting atop the haversack. Where tin cups are visible they are always attached to the haversack closure, and not to the canteen.
As for the canteens, movement and sun reflection make telling a C.S. tin drum from a U.S. "oblate spheroid" difficult. What is clear is that, as with other images of prisoners and battlefield dead, no canteen covers are in sight.
There are many knapsacks and blanket rolls throughout the crowd, meaning that whatever battle they were captured in they were wearing these items in combat. Because many of the men are still lounging and have not put on all of their baggage, and are often sitting on their knapsack or blanket roll (if they have either), we cannot determine the ratio of packs to rolls. Certainly the men at the far right, who seem nearest to leaving, are mostly equipped with knapsacks.
A number of knapsacks are not clearly seen enough to determine type. Those that can be seen clearly enough are of three types: captured U.S. double bags, imported British knapsacks, and the style which was probably the standard type manufactured at Richmond, with its distinctive narrow leather straps passing over the bag.
The Punch Bowl photo is the largest assemblage of Confederate soldiers ever photographed. Yet even with such a large group, representing men from many regiments, we must refrain from making too many judgements. Often, questions asked about the appearance of Confederate soldiers are presented in general terms. "How uniform were they?," "How many wore knapsacks?," "How common were kepis relative to slouch hats?" Such questions assume that the Southern armies after 1861 were a homogeneous mass, where what applies to one company applies to all. But documents such as inspection reports and ordnance returns prove that there was considerable variation between units until the end of the war. Questions like these are the wrong way to approach the subject, as they can never have any answer other than "it depends." Many factors contributed to the appearance of a soldier or unit at a given time and place.4 Despite this, the Punch Bowl photo does show us how a group of Confederates, at this particular time and at this particular place, were clad and equipped, and how they preferred to wear and carry their clothing and belongings. Elements like hat styles, methods of carrying baggage, prevalence of beards, etc., are things we might safely suggest would apply to most other men in Lee's army at this time. To go much farther than that is to ignore the lesson, learned time and time again, that reality is the result of myriad factors, in history as well as the present.
"Confederate Prisoners in the Punch Bowl", May 16th or 17th, 1864; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
1. William A. Frassanito, Grant and Lee (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1983): 57.
2. Frassanito, 60.
3. Frassanito, 60.
4. Some of these factors are state of origin, region of origin (can they still receive packages from home?), socioeconomic status, strictness of company officers, strictness and personality of generals at several levels, stability and length of supply lines, experience and fortunes in battle, morale, length of time on campaign, and competence of quartermasters and other support staff.