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A Serendipitous Discovery Identifies a Civil War Soldier

A serendipitous discovery allows the identification of a Civil War soldier depicted reading October 24,1862 in a sketch drawn that day and long owned by the DC Public Library's Peabody Room.

Housed in the Georgetown Neighborhood Library’s Peabody Room is an unusual art collection consisting of portraits of 19th century Georgetown residents and 20th century Georgetown landscapes.  All of these works suffered water damage that occurred during the April 30, 2007 library fire but have since been fully conserved with funds donated to the DC Public Library Foundation.

One of the Peabody Room’s more unusual pieces of art is a 10" H x 16" W graphite and opaque watercolor on paper by Johannes Adams Oertel titled "Cavalry Officer at Pleasant Valley, Maryland October 24, 1862."  The study depicts a Union officer reading while sitting on a barrel alongside what appears to be a lean to tent.  A saddle and other gear are hanging from a wooden beam and horses are visible in the background.  The watercolor was donated to the Peabody Room by Mr. Oertel's granddaughter, Harriet, who lived at 1675 32nd Street, NW.

Oertel (1823-1909) was a German-American Episcopal clergyman and artist whose most famous religious work was “Rock of Ages” (c. 1867).  This popular representation of Christian faith was reproduced in the millions through photographs and chromolithographs during the 1870s and 1880s.  The image depicted a maiden clutching a stone cross while surrounded by a wave-tossed sea.

According to the 1917 biography “A Vision Realized: A Life Story of Rev. J.A. Oertel, D.D., Artist, Priest, Missionary” (available on-line at http://tinyurl.com/8k9wwvh), Oertel’s friends urged him during the Civil War to “go to the scene of the conflict and make studies, as in their opinion when the time of peace came around every record of the strife would be of interest.” 

Oertel set out for the front from Washington, DC on October 3, 1862 and joined the 6th Regiment, New York Cavalry under the command of General Ambrose Burnside at Pleasant Valley, MD.  Twenty-one days later Oertel captured this candid "moment in time" of a bivouacking Civil War officer that took place 150 years ago.

Desiring to learn more about the watercolor and perhaps the circumstances surrounding the depicted moment, I conducted a search on Google Images using the search term “Pleasant Valley, Maryland 1862.”  Hundreds of Civil War archival images came up and as I continued to scroll through them I came across a thumbnail of what looked like the Peabody Room watercolor.  My immediate thought was that this was impossible as this artwork had never been photographed.  With one click I soon found out what was being depicted.

What at first appeared to be the Peabody watercolor study was in reality a finished 11½” H x 18 ½” W oil on board version of the same scene done by Oertel in 1883.  The painting was being offered for sale by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery in Charleston, SC and titled “Sergeant Peck’s Establishment / Md. 1862 / J.A. Oertel 1883.”  Here was a name ascribed to the Union cavalry officer depicted reading in the sketch!

Excitedly I consulted the National Park Service’s on-line “Soldiers and Sailors” database (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm).  Using the search terms “Peck” (Last Name), “Union” (By Side), “New York” (By State), and “Cavalry” (By Function) resulted in the names of 61 soldiers.  Of those 61 names only four served in the 6th Regiment, and of those four only one had the rank of sergeant, Hiram Augustus Peck. 

By utilizing http://www.ancestry.com it took me mere minutes to locate an amazing paper trail of Mr. Peck’s life.  Born November 15, 1836 in Saratoga Springs, NY, Hiram enlisted on October 21, 1861 in New York City where his occupation was listed as coachman.  He was noted as having brown eyes, a dark complexion, and standing 5’ 4” tall.  One week later he was mustered into service as a sergeant.  He was discharged at Culpepper, VA on December 16, 1863 and immediately reenlisted for a second tour of duty serving as a private until August 17, 1865.

The 1900 US Census listed Peck as living in Lee, MA with Sabrina, his wife of 33 years. The Pecks had no children.  On August 22, 1901 Peck, by then noted as being a widower, moved to the US National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton, OH.  His monthly pension was $8.00. 

Mr. Peck died on June 15, 1903 at the age of 64.  His nearest relative listed in the home’s logbook was the Scott Bradley Post #177, Grand Army of the Republic, Lee, MA.  He is buried in Section N, Row 22, Site 2 of the Dayton National Cemetery, located at 4100 W. Third Street, Dayton, OH.

I feel so fortunate for serendipitously discovering the identification of this individual who served our country 150 years ago.  Please visit the Peabody Room where Mr. Peck will be only display until Saturday, November 10, 2012.  If anyone can translate the German inscription, please contact the Peabody Room librarian at 202.727.0233 or email jerry.mccoy@dc.gov.

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Mal Eckert October 26, 2012 at 03:10 PM
Great research and find! Mr. Peck is of great interest to our historical society as he lived in our town, Lee, Massachusettts. We would appreciate any other information that is found about him. thanks. Mal Eckert, Treasurer Lee Historical Society
Hope Blackford October 30, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Hi Jerry, I forwarded your blog post to Dan Reigle with the Ohio Genealogical Society. His response: "Hope—another interesting one. It’s curious how he would have ended up in the Dayton Home if he was living in Massachusetts, unless it was an issue of where he could find a vacancy. "By the way, the author misinterpreted the discharge and second enlistment, as many people do. He was actually enlisting for a second three-year term, as a “veteran volunteer,” which earned him another bounty and a 30-day leave at home. It’s not a big thing, but I have found that it confuses a lot of people who actually look at the records. If enough guys from a unit re-enlisted, they were allowed to retain their unit designation and their colors; if not, those who still have time left were transferred to other units, which often leaves people puzzled." [Dan Reigle] Thought you might be interested in his interpretation. Hope Blackford Assistant Editor - Wake Treasures Wake County Genealogical Society
Jerry A. McCoy October 31, 2012 at 04:01 PM
I am pleased to report that two individuals living in Germany, Fritz Hopfgarten and Dirk Wessner, provided a transcription and translation of the German text located on the sketch Herbstlandschaft. Die Beleuchtung glänzend. Die Lichter klar, spärlich u. gelb im Ton. Der Gesamteindruck ist grau, mit schimmerndem, hüpfendem Lichte. Die Bäume leicht, zierlich, verwirrt. Der Rauch des Feuers wird leicht vom Winde zur rechten Seite geblasen. Autumn landscape. The illumination gleaming. The lights clear, sparse and yellow in tint. The overall impression is grey, with shimmering, bouncing light. The trees lightly, petite, tangled. The smoke from the fire is slightly blown by the wind to the right side. I find the translation to be a poetic and amazing description of a moment in time witnessed by the artist 150 years ago and am grateful to these gentlemen for this information to add to the drawing's documentation!
Jerry A. McCoy October 31, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Hope, Thanks for the information about discharge and re-enlistment! Jerry
Shaun Courtney October 31, 2012 at 04:05 PM
What an amazing story about the power of the internet and research. Thanks for sharing Jerry! -Shaun

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