Civil War photo ID help found in a tip of the cap

Soldier’s identity revealed in most unusual way

Cased, sixth plate tintype of a Union soldier wearing an infantry frock coat, forage cap and Model 1851 saber belt and armed with a brace of Colt revolvers was previously unidentified—even though the clues were before our eyes! All images courtesy of www.AdvanceGuardMilitaria.com.

by John Adams-Graf

While studying a Civil War tintype of what appeared to be a Union cavalry trooper, clues about the soldier’s identity revealed itself in a most unusual manner. The soldier’s sword belt with cross strap and brace of Colt revolvers quickly indicated a mounted role, but his Union Army 9-button infantry frock coat seem to contradict that conclusion. It would have been easy to consider the anomalous mounted sword belt and revolvers as “studio props” (an explanation used far too frequently among collectors and dealers of military photographs). Regardless of the incongruous uniform, weapons and accouterment, something about this portrait had an air of legitimacy. The question was, could the details reveal what it was?

Though impossible to determine the exact model of revolver, they appear to be Colt-style with an open frame, round trigger guard and brass backstrap. The details of the belt buckle reveal it to be Model 1851 sword belt plate. The brass saber hook on the side of the belt is apparent as well.

 

USING THE COMPUTER FOR VIEWING

When details of a photograph are just too hard to decipher with an open eye or under hand-held magnification, a trick is to carefully copy the image with a high-resolution digital camera and view the image on a large screen. It was obvious the image had been laterally reversed when first made. This was quite common with many photographs since the invention of photography in 1839.  An artist could use a reversing prism to correct the image, but this was a luxury few photographs seemed to indulge. Once the electronic image of the tintype was loaded onto a computer, it was a matter of one mouse click to reverse the image so that it appeared as one would have seen the soldier sitting in front of the camera.

With the reversed image on the large computer screen, one detail became obvious that had not been noticed under manual magnification—something was written on the underside of the soldier’s forage cap. The first thought was that someone had scratched something into the image’s emulsion. A couple of more mouse clicks and the greatly to enlarge the image to about actual life size, and it became obvious the writing was actually on the cap’s visor and not on the photograph’s surface. But what was this hidden message?

Because the image had already been laterally corrected, “mirroring” wasn’t the problem. A few more clicks of the computer’s software rotated the image 180 degrees. Upside down and laterally reversed, the message revealed itself: “W.A. Perisho.” Whether to prevent theft or to identify himself in the photograph, the soldier had written his name on his cap’s visor!

Once the copied image was viewed on a computer screen at nearly life-size, it bacame apparent there was writing on the visor of the soldier’s cap. A quick 180-degree rotation revealed his identity written on the leather visor: “W.A.Perisho”.

WHO WAS ‘W.A. PERISHO?’

The name was unusual, so the chances of identifying this soldier were good.  A quick visit to the National Parks Service’s “Civil War Soldiers and Sailors” database (www.itd.nps.gov/cwss) turned up four Perishos who served in the Union Army. Only one had a name that matched the photo subject’s “W.A.” initials: Private William A. Persisho, of Company G, 123rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

Armed with his full name and regiment, further research was easy. With the assistance of Google, various genealogy and Civil War history sites, a quick military dossier of William Perisho’s military was possible.

An Illinois farmer born in 1841, Perisho enlisted in Company G, 123rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry on Aug. 14, 1862, at Martinsville, Ill. Within one month of mustering into service at Camp Terry in Coles County, Illinois, the 123rd found participated in its first major battle at Perryville Kentucky.

Following the clash at Perryville where the regiment lost 36 men who were killed and another 180 wounded, the 123rd was assigned to protect the railroad bridge across the Green River at Munfordville, Ky., during November and December 1862. It was while on this duty, the 123rd was assigned to the 1st Brigade, Fifth Division,  Army of the Cumberland. In May, however, at the request of Colonel John T. Wilder, the regiment transferred into his 1st Brigade, 4th Division, 14th Army Corps.

Early that year, Wilder’s brigade that included the 17th, 72nd and 75th Indiana, the 92nd and 98th Illinois and the 18th Indiana Battery was tasked stopping Southern cavalry from raiding the Army of the Cumberland’s main supply route, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Frustrated by trying to get foot soldiers to chase down the mounted Confederates, Wilder mounted some of his men on mules from his supply wagons. Though the experiment failed, Wilder recognized the potential of a mounted infantry force.

Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, the commander of the Army of the Cumberland, wholeheartedly agreed with Wilder’s idea. In February 1863, Rosecrans issued Special Field Orders No. 44, giving Wilder permission to mount his brigade. Mounted on horses and mules appropriated from the local area, Wilder’s infantry could swiftly deploy on the battlefield. Soon, others began to refer to the mounted infantry soldiers as Wilder’s “Lightning Brigade.”

But to complete the impact of rapidly deployed soldiers, Wilder wanted his men to deliver withering firepower. Using private channels rather than the Army supply system, Wilder secured breechloading Spencer 7-shot rifles for his men. Now, his soldiers really could deliver the impact of lightning.

SITTING FOR HIS LIKENESS

When the 123rd joined Wilder’s brigade on May 6, 1863, it, too, was mounted and equipped for rapid deployment and heavy firepower delivery. The former foot soldiers quickly adapted to their new role as “mounted” infantrymen.

Though records don’t reveal the cause, William Perisho died just 20 days after becoming one of Wilder’s mounted soldiers (research has not uncovered the cause of his death). Apparently, he was able to sit for his photograph sometime during those 20 days.

In addition to his Model 1858 forage cap with name written on the visor, Perisho posed in his infantry frock coat with the two final clues that help to secure his identity: A cavalry saber belt and two Colt revolvers, just the kinds of weapons a mounted soldier would want in addition to his rifle. With the written clue on his visor and his choice of cavalry weapons and accouterments for his portrait, the identity of W.A. Perisho was restored to this otherwise forgotten Civil War image.

AFTERWORD

Apparently, Perisho sat for this tintype photograph somewhere during the 20 days after the 123rd was mounted and Perisho’s death. Though he looks stout and healthy in his image, one is left to wonder about the circumstances that led to his demise. William Perisho was buried in Murfreesboro and his grave can be found today in the  Murfreesboro National Cemetery. Curiously, the image was discovered not far from Murfreesboro, making one think that he died before he had the chance to send it home to his wife of three years, and his one-month old son, William Henry Perisho—a son who never saw met his father or saw the image that was likely intended for him.

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