EXTRAORDINARY SIXTH PLATE AMBROTYPE OF COL. DAVID ADDISON WEISIGER, LATER BRIGADIER GENERAL C.S.A., WITH FELLOW VA MILITIA OFFICER AT CHARLESTOWN, VIRGINIA, FOR THE HANGING OF JOHN BROWN 1859

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This is an extremely rare, identified ambrotype, one of fewer than a dozen known taken of Virginia militia officers and men assembled at Charlestown, Virginia, in late 1859 as security forces for the hanging of John Brown and four co-conspirators. The officer is Col. David Addison Weisiger of Petersburg, colonel of the 39th VA Militia, two of whose companies were at Charlestown, and one of which was the immediate guard for Brown on the day of his execution.

In 1859 Virginia’s officers followed U.S. uniform regulations. Weisiger and his companion wear regulation full-dress uniforms of field-grade rank with epaulets and dress hats, Weisiger wearing a wreathed “VA” hat insignia and the officer on the left, an infantry hunting horn. Both carry eagle pommel officers’ swords of a style popular with militia officers. Weisiger’s companion has thrust a pistol in the front of his belt for effect. Weisiger wears gauntlets and has a white handkerchief protruding from his lapel.

Weisiger’s identification can be established from another prewar image of him in his Virginia militia uniform of colonel sitting next to Lt. Marks, published in the Virginia Regimental Series History of the 12th Virginia Infantry and vignetted in the more recent Petersburg Regiment. We also include with this image a Civil War CDV by Anthony with a vignette bust view of Weisiger in his uniform as a Confederate brigadier general, identified in ink on the front and in pencil on reverse.

Weisiger appears with the same officer in another image taken at the same sitting in Charlestown. That image was published in Military Images (Summer 2017 pages 24-25,) and shows them standing behind Major General William B. Taliaferro, placed in command, “of the forces now stationed at Charlestown and its vicinity” on November 23, 1859 by Governor Wise (Va. Free Press 11/24/59.) (The identification of Taliaferro was challenged, without reason, in a Fall 2006 Museum of the Confederacy Magazine article on a third image of Taliaferro from the same series, but posed with other officers and men. Based simply on the opinion of a descendant, the article ignores the fact that Taliaferro is given a position of prominence in all three photographs and clearly wears the uniform frock coat of a major general.)

Fears of a rescue attempt had turned Charlestown into an armed camp, with at least 650 militia troops in the town and several hundred more in the county, acting as sentinels, questioning strangers, and patrolling the countryside. By the day of Brown’s execution, some 1,500 were estimated to be in the area, many of whom remained until the execution of four of Brown’s men two weeks later, on December 16. The Virginia Free Press of December 15 listed many of the different militia companies, but gave up on the officers: “Our space will not admit of a list of the General and Staff Officers.” They did note, however, that two of Weisiger’s Petersburg companies, the Petersburg City Guard and the Petersburg Grays had been in town “more than two weeks,” placing them in Charlestown for Brown’s hanging, and that the Petersburg Grays had been, “detailed as immediate guard for Brown” on the day of the execution. This duty may explain references to Weisiger as “officer of the day” on the day Brown was hanged: by regulation the officer of the day has command of a camp or garrison guard.

Weisiger was born in Chesterfield County, VA, in 1818, and was a businessman in Petersburg. He had served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War in the 1st Virginia Volunteers from December 1846 to August 1848. Returning to Petersburg, he joined the Virginia militia in 1853, rising from captain to colonel of the state’s 39th Infantry. He had a very active combat role in the Civil War, rising to brigadier general, but actually commanded the brigade a long time before that.  He enrolled 4/19/61 and commanded the 4th VA Battalion, which expanded into the 12th VA Vol. Infantry, giving him a commission as its colonel dated 5/9/61. The regiment served at Norfolk before being called into the field for the Peninsular Campaign, where, as part of Mahone’s brigade, they saw action at Seven Pines and Glendale. At Second Manassas Weisiger took over the brigade after Mahone was wounded, only to be hit himself and invalided until mid-summer 1863, when he appears again as present on the regiment’s July-August muster rolls.

Weisiger again took command of the brigade during the Battle of the Wilderness and led it for the rest of the war, fighting at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, up to the surrender at Appomattox. Although appointed brigadier general in mid-1864, his commission and confirmation were delayed by an official lack of vacancy. It finally came through in October1864 and was back-dated to July 1864 to reflect the critical role he played at the Battle of the Crater, where he had again been wounded. Some records indicate he had been wounded three times and had his horse shot out from under him twice during his service. After the war he returned to business in Petersburg and Richmond, where he died in 1899.

The image shows a little shading on the upper left, but rates very good overall, with clarity and detail, and is cased, matted, and glassed. Comparing it to the version with Taliaferro published in MI, shows the photos were taken at the same sitting. Weisiger and his companion have simply switched positions. He still wears gauntlets and still has a white handkerchief tucked in his lapel, though he has chosen to pose with an eagle pommel sword this time to match his companion’s, and his companion has upped the ante by sticking a revolver in his belt. The backdrop is the same simple sheet or plain canvas.

The photographer is likely Lewis Graham Dinkle (1829-1906,) who was born in Pennsylvania, but by 1850 was on his parents’ farm in Frederick County, Va. By 1859 he had taken up photography and seems to have been operating a mobile photographic studio in the Charlestown area. By luck or design he was in town in November as militia companies poured in to guard Brown and his companions who had a month to wait between conviction and execution of their sentences. Dinkle took several outdoor views of the Richmond Grays posing in the street in front of the wall of the jailhouse yard on November 21. A contemporary newspaper report mentions them posing in front of the “daguerreotype wagon,” making it clear he had a horse-drawn studio, if getting his photo process wrong. That he specialized in ambrotypes is made clear from a notice in the March 1, 1860, issue of the Virginia Free Press, published in Charlestown, that he operated an “Ambrotype Saloon.” An April 19, 1860, notice in the same paper says he had been taking photographs “in this place” for at least six months (4/19,) giving him a mid-November date of arrival. No other photographer is mentioned as operating in the area at the time and the population density would likely not have supported one. He married a Charlestown girl and settle in the area, served in the 7th VA Cavalry during the war, and survived to return to return to Charlestown, but abandoned photography as a business.

The ambrotypes in the series are often dated precisely to December 2, 1859, the day Brown was hanged. There was much going on that day and we know Dinkle was at work at least by November 21, though his April 1860 notice brags that he, “averaged 46 ambrotypes a day,” so he could work fast. And, the execution was, indeed, a solemn, formal affair: officers likely appeared in full dress. Certainly, none were unaware of its significance. Brown’s final note said it was now clear to him that, “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” and many of the men guarding him saw it not as the end of trouble, but the beginning. The Richmond Whig (11/25/59,) recording the Richmond Grays crowding around to have their pictures taken in the street, wrote they were doing so, “to send to their families and friends behind them, in the event of their not being able to return to them until after the close of the war.”

This is a remarkable memento of a key event in American history.    [sr]

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