The young man with velvet-collared jacket and jaunty striped bow tie gazes intently at the camera for the twenty-second exposure. His hair is neatly parted, with a wave combed across the front. The artist has colored his cheeks and lips pink. The cased photograph was found among an old collection of images from my grandmother’s home, the majority of which are portraits of my father’s paternal ancestral line. Most are post-Civil War carte de visite or otherwise printed on paper.
This one is an ambrotype—the only one among the collection—a negative image produced on a silver-coated sheet of glass with a black backing, making it appear as a positive. Ambrotypes were a cheaper alternative to the daguerreotype. They were produced in the thousands between 1855 and 1865. The brass inner frame and mat is more ornate, dating the photo from 1859 or so. Also noteworthy is that this young man is not wearing a uniform, possibly narrowing down the date of the image to between 1859-1861.
Who was he? The young man’s age, approximately 17-21, eliminates many possibilities. He was presumably born between 1838 and 1843. Scanning through my genealogy, only two or three men match these birth dates. A likely candidate was my great-great grandmother’s younger brother, Adoniram Elliot Vining, born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1840. Further research revealed that he enlisted on August 4, 1862 and was mustered into service with the First Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery.
According to the regimental history from Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War “the entire regiment was employed during the spring and summer of 1862 in the defenses of Washington...garrisoning forts, strengthening fortifications, and doing other similar duties.” In May of 1864, the regiment was ordered to join the Army of the Potomac, acting as infantry in support of Grant’s Overland Campaign. On June 22, 1864, during an ongoing assault on the Petersburg entrenchments, 143 men were captured by the Confederates. Vining was among those sent to the Camp Sumter military prison at Andersonville, Georgia.
Andersonville was built in early 1864, as the Confederate officials decided to move large numbers of Federal prisoners from Richmond to greater security in the deep South. During the fourteen months it served as a prison, 45,000 inmates were confined there; 13,000 died of disease, exposure, and malnutrition. By the end of June, 26,000 inhabited a space designed for 10,000. Due to the Union blockade and the severe economic decline of the South, the Confederate government was unable to provide adequate food, shelter, or medicine.
One newly captured Union soldier described his entry to the prison: “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. ‘Can this be hell?’”
Vining survived his imprisonment at Andersonville, released on December 31, 1864. After Sherman’s troops occupied Atlanta in September, most of the Andersonville prisoners were moved to South Carolina and the Georgia coast. He may have been among those transfers. Vining was discharged from the Army on May 12, 1865, returning to Massachusetts; he married in 1867 and had three children.
Post traumatic stress disorder was unknown in the 19th century, but severe psychological trauma was all too familiar for Civil War veterans. Depression, anxiety and flashbacks with attendant behaviors such as suicide, alcoholism and domestic violence were common. Excepting further discoveries from pending research, I'll never know how Vining fared after the war. Records show that he died of heart disease in 1909, just months before the dedication of a monument to another member of the First Mass Heavy Artillery who died at Andersonville.* Vining was sixty-eight.
One thing is certain: after the war, he never again knew the bold and vibrant youthfulness so much in evidence in his ambrotype likeness. Perhaps, gazing at his image years hence, he wondered whether that young man ever existed. Maybe it was someone else after all.