SCARCE LEATHER PANNOTYPE PHOTOGRAPH OF A VMI CADET IN UNIFORM, IDENTIFIED AS “WILLIS” AND DATED 1858

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Item Code: 846-202

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The Virginia Military Institute was intimately involved in the war. It fielded some 1,827 alumni in the conflict, all but 19 of whom served in the Confederate army, and 20 of whom achieved a general’s rank: a number that can be stretched to 21 with the addition of faculty member Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Combat losses amounted to 171, and sickness, accident, age and disease brought the total up to 240. As a corps, the cadets furnished a detachment for the security forces at Charlestown for the execution of John Brown and saw action at the Battle of New Market in 1864.

This is a scarce 1858 dated pannotype photograph on leather, 9th plate size, showing a young man in his VMI uniform jacket with 1850s style “wheel cap.” He wears his cap at slightly jaunty angle, looks directly into the camera and clasps his lapel with one hand, resting the other on his thigh. His uniform coat is open to shows his vest, shirt collar and cravat. The clarity and detail of the image is very good and there is just minor crazing to the surface. The photo is matted, glassed, framed, and cased in a thermoplastic union case with geometric and floral motifs. The case is good, with an intact hinge and clasp, with some surface and edge wear front and back, but no large cracks or missing pieces. The case still preserves its Littlefield & Parsons manufacturer’s label with 1856 and 1857 patent dates in the back of the bottom section. A separate piece of paper in the back reads “Willis 1858.” An arc of foxing on the bottom of that paper matches the oval leather of the photograph and shows they have been together forever.

As is correct for this unusual process, the image is a positive, not reversed, as with tintypes and other methods. Pannotypes were popular from the early 1850s to about 1860 and involved transferring the collodion bearing the image from a glass surface to another material. Silk, paper, linen, and leather were popular. Towler’s 1864 handbook “The Silver Sunbeam” had this to say about the process: “A transferred positive has all the beauty of a melainotype, with the advantage of being non-inverted, and upon a medium that suffers less from being bent. It is especially suitable for inclosure in letters to distant friends. Any fine substance, as very thin leather, linen, paper, etc., neatly and evenly varnished with black Japan, is adapted for the reception of the collodion transfer.”

Needless to say, the resulting image could suffer over time from the deterioration or flexing of the underlying material and they are very scarce today. In this instance the photograph was mounted in a conventional case, which has preserved it. The glass has adhered to the surface of the image, but the back clearly shows the leather to which it was transferred.

The 1858 date on the slip of paper inside could be the subject’s VMI class, but is more likely the date of the photograph, making him a candidate for the detachment sent to guard John Brown in 1859, and certainly for Confederate service. Somewhat ironically, given the number of VMI grads fighting for the Confederacy, the image was cased with a patriotic mat showing U.S. flags, stars and the motto, “The Union Forever.” Lastly, if we read the name in the back of the case correctly as “Willis,” there is a good chance this is Willis Fearn Mosely, who was VMI Class of 1861. He attended VMI for only fourteen months, which still might place him in uniform in 1858. He served in the Civil War in the 4th Virginia Cavalry and was wounded at Racoon Ford in 1862. Regardless of the individual identification, however, this is a very nice photograph in a rare format of a VMI cadet taken just as the secession crisis was reaching a head and the country was about to split apart.  [sr]

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