The young private anxiously buttoned his jacket. Freshly laundered in butternut grey, the wool coat felt oddly stiff and unfamiliar. In his four years in the army, this was the first time the private had ever washed his coat. He never needed to before.

He was clean shaven, but his hair was long. Saving up for the portrait took all the money he had. There was nothing left for a haircut. He slicked his hair back as best he could, and made his way to the photographer’s studio.

Sitting down in the posing chair, the private heard the photographer ask if there were any props he wanted to include in the picture. Many Johnny Rebs would pose with their muskets or their Bowie knives when they had their pictures taken. The private supposed the soldiers thought it made them look braver, more masculine.

“Yes. Here.”

He pulled a small daguerreotype from his pocket. A portrait of his wife and infant son taken before the battle of Bull Run, his first encounter with war and death. He had carried that picture with him for four years, from Antietam to Fredericksburg, from Chancellorsville to Gettysburg. The plain brass frame surrounding his family had been rubbed shiny over the years, looking polished and dull at the same time.

“You want this in your picture?”

“More than anything, yes.”

The private sat, stiff in his chair, with the picture held fast in both hands.


The light was good that afternoon, so he didn’t have to sit still long. As he waited for the picture, he nearly forgot the battle he knew would come the next day, in the woods called the Wilderness. He had already sewn his name on the inside collar of his jacket, so his body could be identified after he was killed.

But now he had a picture to send home first. A picture of himself, proudly holding the time-worn portrait of his wife and child, so they would know, really know, that he had been thinking of them, and how precious they were to him, the night before he died.

Leaving the tent, he smiled.