To anyone interested in the Civil War, this vintage photograph of young soldiers is irresistible. The faces are so fresh and confident, so unscarred by war. The picture has appeared dozens of times in books, newspapers and TV documentaries, but it is often misidentified. Writers and editors frequently label the soldiers as eager Confederate recruits, just after Bull Run (July 21, 1861) or just after Fort Sumter (April 12,1861). Neither description is accurate.
The photograph was taken in November 1859, before the Confederacy existed. The men are not Confederate soldiers but Virginia militiamen, mostly Richmond Grays. The real story of the photograph is that it was taken about the time of John Brown's execution after he was convicted of treason for his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). The Richmond Grays were dispatched to nearby Charles Town, the site of Brown's hanging, to guard against any uprisings and reprisals from antislavery factions.
The photograph is owned by the Valentine Museum of Richmond, Virginia. Teresa Roane, head of Reference Services, says she informs borrowers that the picture is from 1859 when she sends it out, "but they always come out Confederate soldiers."