SIXTH PLATE AMBROTYPE OF MAJOR LAFAYETTE GALL, 169th VIRGINIA MILITIA, WITH EPAULETS, HAT INSIGNIA & TWO COMMISSIONS; ENROLLED IN THE 20th VIRGINIA CAVALRY; IMPRISONED AT CAMP CHASE 1863

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Item Code: 846-369

This family archive includes an excellent sixth plate ambrotype of Major Lafayette E. Gall in uniform, two of his commissions in the Virginia militia, his epaulets, and his Virginia militia hat insignia, the latter pieces actually showing in the photograph. In addition to being visually impressive, the group is significant for the light it casts on the military and political importance of the western counties of Virginia in the Civil War.

The 6th plate ambrotype is extraordinarily clear and sharp, and shows Gall seated in a Virginia 1858 regulation double-breasted field officer’s frock coat, wearing a waist belt with square belt plate, and epaulets on his shoulders. The coat is piped with cording on the collar and cuffs, and he wears a regulation 1858 pattern officer’s army hat with the brim turned up one side and a plume on the other and the upper portion of his “VA” in wreath hat insignia visible. His officer’s sash is draped over one wrist. The photographer has delicately gilded the buttons, belt plate, letters, wreath and border of the hat insignia, and the cording, though by regulation yellow would indicate cavalry service. The sash has been lightly tinted purple, probably red or crimson originally. The image is excellent. The case is a standard leatherette style, with facing pad and the hinge intact, but fading and wear to the exterior, with losses to the embossed paper and a push on one side.

Gall’s epaulets are a match for those in the photograph: period militia epaulets with gold embroidered straps, narrow brass crescents, and thin gilt fringe. The underside is a thin off-white silk with simple long hooks to fasten to a loop near the collar. The hat insignia also is certainly the one shown in the photograph. The velvet oval measures about 3 by 2 3/8 inches and is stiffened with thin cardstock. Originally black, the velvet has oxidized to brown. The border is a gilt cord, sewn in place. The wreath is false-embroidered brass. The letters were stamped brass also, but only the “A” remains. The “V” has left an impression, however. The reverse shows the fastening pins of the wreath and letter.

The two commissions are both signed by Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise. One appoints Lafayette E. Gall a captain in the 169th Regiment of VA Militia on 1 June 1858, giving him rank from April 27. The second commissions him major on 6 August 1858, with rank from July 16. Both include a light-blue Virginia state seal at lower left. (A three page set of instructions for a regimental clerk giving the proper form for several military documents is also included.)

Lafayette E. Gall was born in 1834 and in 1860 was a 25-year old farmer in Barbour County, using Philippi as a post office, and living with wife Elizabeth, age 19. Although in the western part of the state, Barbour voted in favor of secession in 1861: Richmond newspapers said it was by a large majority; a county history says it was close. Some pro-Union citizens held their own meetings and made it to the Wheeling Convention, but a Confederate flag flew over the county courthouse until June 3, 1861. Governor Letcher had called out the militia on May 1, and various militia companies, began gathering at the Barbour County seat: the town of Philippi. On the morning of June 3, however, they were scattered by the sudden attack of Union troops in what is billed as the first organized land engagement of the war, though it was more of a skirmish. The county government, mostly Secessionist, ceased to operate until October 1861, when it was reorganized with pro-Union officials and the county moved with other western counties toward forming the new state of West Virginia over the next year and a half, though not without trouble.

Gall is not listed among the pro-secession forces in 1861, but county records are fragmentary. One piece in the archive suggests he was involved: a receipt dated Sept. 7, 1865 (sic,) for “bonds executed to the ‘Commonwealth of Virginia’ for Sabers & Belts in May 1861.” Twenty-one names are listed and there is note of twenty-six others, each bonded for $9.00. (Gall is not listed, but as an officer he would have purchased his own weapons in any case.) It looks very much like he was involved in issuing state arms to a militia cavalry unit when the state seceded, possibly a troop attached to his own regiment since militia regiments often included different branches of service. The postwar date likely reflects efforts on his part to resolve claims upon the State of Virginia by its now former residents, his former men. He, himself, seems to have been removed from the regiment in 1862 as State of West Virginia took form. A June 1864 letter to the Governor of the new state of West Virginia by “major Benjamin Simon of the 169th Regiment Virginia militia” indicates he had “organized” the regiment in 1862, likely to purge it of Confederate sympathizers: he asks the Governor to reorganize it, renumber it, and remove the colonel as disloyal (WV Archives.)

If we could not guess Gall’s Confederate sympathies from the fact that he named his first son, born in 1862, Jackson Lee Gall, we would know it from his appearance on the roll of Company D 20th Virginia Cavalry, a company raised in Barbour County in mid-1863. His service record has few details, only that he was enlisted by Capt. E.M. Corder at Spaw Lick, a stream in Barbour County, on May 1, 1863, to serve three years, and that he enlisted as a private, a good indication of his devotion to the cause. The date corresponds to the presence of Confederate troops in the area, a raid into western Virginia by 5,000 cavalry under Imboden and Jones in two columns. A county history specifically mentions Jones being in Philippi on May 2.

Corder seems to have commanded the men he raised as an independent company from June 1 to their muster in as Co. D of the 20th Virginia Cavalry on August 14, 1863. The regiment served in Jackson’s Brigade, seeing action in West Virginia as part of the Dept. of Western Virginia and East Tennessee, and in the Shenandoah as part of the Department of Northern Virginia, fighting at Droop Mountain, Lynchburg, Monocacy, Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek. They disbanded April 14, 1865.

Gall’s service with the regiment, however, is unclear. He certainly did not join it before mid-September 1863: he was arrested by the Provost Marshal in Barbour County for “harboring Rebels,” and was sent from Wheeling to Camp Chase, Ohio, where he arrived on July 7, 1863. Interestingly, he is listed as a “citizen” of Barbour County rather than a soldier. The date of his arrest is given as June 23 in one document and what seems to be May 28 in another, both well after his enlistment. Perhaps, being arrested in civilian clothes, he thought it best to present himself as a “citizen,” or he relied on the formality of not yet having been mustered. In any case, he arrived at Camp Chase with five Confederate soldiers and two other “citizens,” and remained there until Sept. 12, 1863, when he was discharged by order of the Secretary of War. He likely had to sign a loyalty oath when released, though none appears in his scant records, and whether he then managed to join his regiment or simply went home is unclear.

One final piece to the puzzle does not resolve the question, but hints he had a sense of humor: he shows up on the US 1890 veterans’ census schedule, which was certainly not for Confederate veterans or sympathizers. He apparently convinced the census taker to list him as a former major in the 169th (whether “WV” or “US” is a little unclear from the handwriting,) claiming service from June 1857 to April 1865, for a total of 7 years 11 months, which should have raised some eyebrows in the census bureau or War Department. Unfortunately, dating the end of his service to the end of the war could be taken two ways. Either it confirmed the end of the 169th Virginia Militia and his post, since there was now no arguing over there being a State of West Virginia, or it marked the end of his service in the 20th Virginia Cavalry.

In either case, Gall returned to farming after the war. His first wife died in 1873, leaving him with two children. He remarried about 1875 and fathered two more. He died in Freemansburg (or Freemans Creek,) Lewis County, WV, in 1912, having moved there about forty years earlier by one obituary, which dates about the time of his first wife’s death.

Some paperwork in the archive relates to Gall’s postwar farming and livestock, including three account books of the 1890s with his name in them, but most relates to other family members, including bills and bank books, three unidentified ninth plate tintypes of civilians, a cabinet card, ca. 1910 studio photo, several memorial booklets and well over 100 clipped newspaper obituaries of friends and relatives of the family extending into the 1970s mounted in several binders and contained loose in one file pocket, along with three unidentified snapshots ca 1930, a lady’s Victorian sash buckle, and a small powder horn.

This is a sizable group of material, but the core of it is the wonderful ambrotype with the epaulets and hat insignia shown in it. These make an impressive, comprehensive display with some interesting history behind them.  [sr] [ph:m/l]

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