Photos show early views of Civil War battlefields

Ohio lawyer who died in 1925 left thousands of glass plate negatives

July 07, 2002|By Jim DeBrosse | Jim DeBrosse,COX NEWS SERVICE

DAYTON, Ohio - For two decades near the turn of the century, Dayton lawyer Albert Kern criss-crossed the eastern half of America pursuing two of his life's biggest passions - amateur photography and the history of the Civil War.

For Kern, who died in 1925, the thousands of pictures he took of Civil War battlefields, gravesites and monuments were his personal testimony to the Ohio soldiers who gave their lives to keep the nation from being torn asunder. In his will, he told his son, Walter, to pick out what he wanted and throw the rest away.

Seventy-five years later, Kern's personal collection of nearly 15,000 glass plate negatives - forgotten by his descendents and nearly packed off to a recycling center in 1971 - is intact and helping to preserve the very ground he held sacred.

Since 1998, Kern's photos have been used by more than a dozen National Park Service sites to enhance their understanding of the original Civil War locations - before tree growth, ground cover and suburban sprawl obscured their pasts. The Montgomery County (Ohio) Historical Society has owned the collection since 1971.

`A whole new vista'

"It has given us a whole new vista into what the battlefields looked like, usually within 30 years of when the battles took place," said Robert E. Lee Krick, a historian at the Richmond National Battlefield Park in Richmond, Va. "It's been a very valuable tool" for restoration and planning efforts all over the country.

In Richmond, Kern's photos have offered new, uncluttered views of the Malvern Hill battlefield, where the Confederates repelled the invading Northern troops after a week of intense fighting in the summer of 1862.

At Manassas, Va., Kern's photos will aid in the restoration of the Henry farmhouse, where 85-year-old Judith Carter Henry was killed by a Yankee cannonball intended for Confederate sharpshooters in the hills beyond.

And at Stones River, Tenn., where more than 80 percent of the battlefield has yet to be claimed by the National Park Service, dozens of Kern's photos are being used to develop a new master plan for the park.

While hundreds of photos of the two most popular battlefields of the Civil War - Gettysburg and Sharpsburg - have existed almost from the day those battles ended, early photos and drawings of the lesser battle sites are scarce.

That's where Kern's passion has provided a treasure for the National Park system. As an avid student of military history, he traveled the country between 1890 and 1910, taking some 5,000 glass-plate negatives of nearly every major battlefield of the Civil War - from Antietam and Atlanta to Chickamauga and Chancellorsville.

He compiled and edited a history of the First Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, prefacing the book with these words: "The memory of the soldier will never depart from this land so long as human hearts thrill at tales of heroic deeds and are moved with the story of man's love for liberty."

Kern had been too young to serve in the war. He was 14 at its start and 18 at its end. But "he was old enough when it was happening to really know what was going on," said Mary Oliver, curator of the collection for the Montgomery County Historical Society. "I think that experience, and his general love of history and military history, made him the passionate person that he was."

Proud of Ohio

Although not a veteran himself, Kern was made an associate member of the Old Guard Post of the GAR of Dayton for his work on behalf of Civil War veterans. He was proud of Ohio and Montgomery County's contribution to the war. In a history of the county published in 1909, he noted that Ohio had recruited 313,180 men for the North who "remained true to the flag and the Union. ... A comparison with other states will show the great excess in favor of the splendid `Buckeye State.'"

About 13,000 of the 15,000 photos he made were devoted to sites of battles, fortresses and burials of the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Intending no pun, he captioned a picture of the small white tombstones for veterans at Woodland Cemetery with the words "A Soldier's Lot."

Other parts of Kern's collection include early photographs of the Indian mounds in Southwest Ohio, some of which have been used by archaeologists at Wright State University for land surveys.

Kern also loved a parade, taking numerous shots of highly decorated affairs early in the century in downtown Dayton, including the 1909 parade that honored the return of the Wright brothers after their successful tour in Europe.

When he wasn't photographing history and pomp, Kern liked to pose his own family in still-life mini-dramas. He took photos of his wife, Helen, modeling a Napoleonic helmet, and of Helen and Walter, dressed in a calvary officer's uniform, embracing in a simulated scene he dubbed "The Farewell."

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