IMPORTANT QUARTER PLATE AMBROTYPE OF COL. ROBERT W. BAYLOR, VIRGINIA MILITARY COMMANDER AT HARPERS FERRY AGAINST JOHN BROWN, LIKELY TAKEN AT CHARLESTOWN, VIRGINIA, PRIOR TO BROWN’S HANGING 1859

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This important, identified ambrotype, is likely among a small group taken of Virginia militia at Charlestown, Jefferson County, Virginia, in late 1859 while they acted as security for the hanging of John Brown and four co-conspirators. The officer is Robert W. Baylor (1813-1883), Colonel of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry and commander of the Virginia forces arrayed against Brown and his men during the raid at Harpers Ferry. In the Civil War Baylor commanded a company in the 7th Virginia Cavalry, Ashby’s regiment, from September 1861 and was wounded in action. He was also captured and tried by the U.S. for violating a flag of truce and murder, charges that were dropped, was exchanged and ended the war as Captain and Provost Marshal of the Valley District. The image was formerly in the collection of noted Virginia collector and dealer Bill Turner and comes with a 1980 bill of sale to him from Baylor’s granddaughter. The identification is also established from its 1900 publication in the memoir of Baylor’s son George: Bull Run to Bull Run.

Baylor is dressed in a dark, field-grade officer’s frock coat with two rows of buttons, epaulets, an officer’s sash, and cradles an 1850 pattern officer’s sword, all according to Virginia 1858 militia regulations, which followed those of the U.S. His epaulets are secured by a narrow strap over the top on the lower end. At the upper end a small insignia is fixed, which could be a bar (indicating he may have worn an old pair of epaulets or borrowed some for the image) or is, more likely, a small eagle. In either case, the button arrangement confirms his rank. The sword guard is slightly angled, making it difficult to see if there is a U.S. worked in it, but the lower part of the scabbard seems to match the upper, indicating he is using he metal scabbard of a field officer.

Baylor was a prosperous farmer in Jefferson County, Virginia, with real estate valued at over $18,000, a personal estate worth $22,000, 15 slaves, and a commission as Colonel in the Virginia militia, when he received word of Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry about 10:00 a.m. on 17 October 1859 while in Charlestown. He immediately called out the local militia company and citizens of the town and headed for Harpers Ferry, ordering up reinforcements along the way. Arriving about noon he assumed command of local citizens and arriving militia companies, seized control of both bridges into town and positioned men at both the front and back of the Armory, gradually isolating Brown and a final small group of his men with some hostages in the fire-engine house. He and Brown exchanged messages, but Brown would only release the hostages once across the river, and Baylor’s best offer was to let U.S. authorities decide things if Brown gave up. Discipline was apparently hard to maintain and Baylor was reluctant to order an assault in the dark: “our troops would have been as likely to have murdered our citizens as the insurgents, all being in the same apartment…” Baylor handed off the final assault to Col. R.E. Lee, who had arrived around midnight and took command of 85 U.S. Marines, also recent arrivals: “It was agreed between Col. Lee and myself, that the volunteer forces should form around on the outside of the government property, and clear the streets of all citizens and spectators, to prevent their firing random shots, to the great danger of our soldiers, and to remain in that position whilst he would attack the engine-house.”

The image was likely taken during Brown’s trial and month-long incarceration at Charlestown before his execution on Dec. 2, 1859, when some 2,000 Virginia Militia occupied the town and the surrounding area. One newspaper gave up trying to name all the generals and staff officers present. The photographer was likely Lewis. G. Dinkle (1829-1906,) who operated a horse-drawn photographic studio in the area at the time and specialized in ambrotypes. Baylor lived in the area and may have been photographed any time, but Dinkle photographed a number of militia officers during those weeks, including General Talliaferro, and the plain background and simple chairs used in those images match Baylor’s setting here. Baylor was certainly in the area, if no longer in command: one newspaper reported that Brown in his final hours arranged for Baylor to receive his sword, which at least places him there, even if no sword is documented.

Baylor fell afoul of Governor Wise in the aftermath of the affair and found his conduct criticized, along with imputations of cowardice. He demanded a court of inquiry in June 1860, which found no evidence of improper behavior on some other charges, but avoided the underlying issues, which may have been his willingness to let U.S. authorities take the lead. He also apparently made few friends over the next year by rebutting assertions of Republican party responsibility for the Brown raid and speaking against secession at the state convention. When war broke out, however, he followed the state, recruiting a number of militia companies to form a regiment, which elected him colonel, but was displaced as they became a volunteer unit by a major general and brigadier general of militia, which would have required him to serve in the regiment as a major. He went on to form an independent company of cavalry, named Baylor’s Light Horse, which elected him captain, and served under Ashby as part of the 7th VA Cavalry from September 1861, eventually becoming Co. B of the 12th Virginia Cavalry when Ashby’s regiment was subdivided in June 1862. Baylor was badly wounded through the lungs in a skirmish at McGaheysville, Virginia, in April 1862, and was captured in December 1862, and imprisoned at Fort McHenry.

At Fort McHenry Baylor was denied exchange, tranferred to Fort. Delaware, charged with violation of a flag of truce and murder, and sent to Cumberland, MD, for court-martial. The charges involved firing into a “truce-boat” and killing one of the men aboard. After a lengthy investigation, it was found that some of his men had taken it into their own hands to convince a black man to hail a boat from across the river near Harpers Ferry under the pretext of wanting to escape north. Several local citizens armed themselves and rowed across, only to be fired into. The charges were eventually dismissed on the grounds it was a “ruse de guerre,” no flag of truce was displayed, and the men fired into were armed civilians and not soldiers. It also probably helped that Baylor had influential connections both in the south and north, and that a federal officer was likely being held as hostage against his fate.

Baylor was exchanged in late 1864 and returned to duty as a captain, acting as provost marshal for the Valley District to the end of the war. He returns home to Jefferson County, where he died in 1883. Two sons died in the Confederate army. A third son, George, rose to command the Baylor Light Horse and published his recollections. The photo has scattered spotting around the perimeter and the photographer very lightly tinted Baylor’s cheeks and sash. It descended through George’s younger brother, Charles, to his daughter and then to Bill Turner, and is housed in a very nice thermoplastic case with a floral border and central patriotic panel of a U.S. shield, flags, eagle and ribbon, cannon, and other arms. Baylor is an interesting character, the image has a great provenance, and there is a clear and direct tie to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry raid.  [sr] [ph:M]

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