QUARTER-PLATE DAGUERREOTYPE OF AN ARMED AMERICAN MILITIA OFFICER

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Item Code: 30-2222

This young man cradles a P-guard hilted sword in its scabbard in one arm and with the other displays an 1851-style shako fitted a feathered plume, 1821-style eagle, and oval hat badge reading “A.G.” He wears a single breasted coat with brass buttons (likely ten in number,) epaulets, and a tall collar differing in color from his coat, that has two buttons on each side and rows of tape creating false buttonholes.

To compensate for the reversal of the image in the daguerreotype process (hence the apparent “G.A.” of the shako insignia,) he has turned over his waist belt to the sword slings would appear on the correct side, but has detached the scabbard and cradles it in the crook of what is actually his left arm. A narrow sword knot is visible, wrapped around the guard and sword appears to have langets and be set up with a frog stud as well as carrying rings. No rank insignia is visible on the epaulets and the sitter is plainly young, but he does wear an officer’s style sash and although volunteer militia companies might have charters with their own uniform regulations, we might take him at face value as an officer.

His waist belt plate certainly adds to that impression. Shown upside down to the camera, because he has flipped his belt, the plate is a two-piece interlocking (or “wreath and spoon”) pattern with an oval center section and very evident border. This was the U.S. 1819 regulation pattern for regimental officers that remained popular in militia companies for years afterward with several variations. In this case the image is clear enough to see that the tongue portion has a row of stars around the edge and the center has an eagle with wings raised to head height and is looking to one side. This is clearly the pattern shown by O’Donnell and Campbell as Plate 126 or 127, or very similar to it, where the eagle clutches the edge of a tilted U.S. shield in front of him and holds or rests on arrows and olive branch, the leaves of which show just next to a small spot of discoloration.

O’Donnell and Campbell date the popular use of the belt plate among militia as 1830-1838 and the height and trimming of the collar suggest an early date, but the photographic process and other uniform details date the image later. Uniform regulations in a militia company might be quite conservative and adhere to tradition, but the form of shako in particular points to a date around 1851, when it was adopted by the U.S. army, though our man wears it with a feathered plume rather than U.S. pompom, and has added the earlier style eagle front plate.

Volunteer militia companies are fascinating bit of American military and social history, often expressing ethnic identities or political leanings in their uniforms and names, making clear their social standing in the elegance of their outfits, hosting one another at parades and banquets, and competing on the drill field and target practice, etc. Many militia officers, of course, went on to prominence in the Civil War. The letters “A.G.” suggest a unit title like the “American Guard,” though there were several units with that name, the most famous of which, the 71st NYSM, adopted it in 1853, and other unit designations with those initials can’t be ruled out. The image has great clarity and detail, just a few small spots and tarnish along the edge of the mat and a little overexposure to the white plume feathers, which have been slightly tinted red at the top by the photographer. The image is glassed, matted, and cased in a leatherette case with separated hinge, but with facing pad in place.  [sr]

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