Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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If you’re moved to mark the Civil War’s 150th anniversary but are wary of Manassas traffic and re-enactors, there’s an option closer to home.

 

At the Library of Congress until Aug. 13, you can drink in the stunning collection of Civil War-era photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection.

 

To glimpse the sober images of the young soldiers who peer out from the 379-item exhibit (only 52 of which are the rarer Confederate portraits) is to leap across the ages. You experience a face-to-face encounter with the ordinary humanity of the individuals – most of whose names are lost to history – caught up in heroic and tragic times.

Tom Liljenquist, as it happens, grew up in the same Arlington neighborhood as I, and we both attended elementary school on the site of Fort Ethan Allen, one of “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts” that for four years defended Chain Bridge from rebel invasion.

I asked Tom, who made his fortune with the Liljenquist & Beckstead jewelry stores, whether his collector’s interest went back to our callow days at James Madison Elementary, during the Civil War Centennial of the early 1960s.

Sort of. He recalls prowling around the old fort’s trench lines behind the trees looking for bullet casings. But the real inspiration, he said, “was just growing up in Virginia.” He remembers as a boy finding a pencil sketch done by a student of his mother, who taught English at Washington-Lee High School, showing a Civil War soldier on a white horse and wearing a sword. “It was the most beautiful picture I’d ever seen,” he says.

As an adult, Liljenquist, with sons Jason and Brandon and, later, youngest son Christian, made it their project to assemble the period photographs by visiting memorabilia and antique shops, attending auctions, scanning e-Bay and approaching other collectors. The historic Union images on average cost $1,000 each, he said, while the Confederate ones command $4,000-$5,000.

Over 15 years, the Liljenquists amassed more than 700 ambrotype and tintypes. Just in time for the war’s Sesquicentennial, they turned around and donated them to the Library of Congress, which created the exhibit its main building titled “The Last Full Measure.”

Some soldiers posed with a spouse. One holds a guitar. Another lounges precariously on the edge of a Tennessee cliff. All display fascinating detail of 19th-century uniforms and equipment, from insignia to belt buckles to buttons to weapons. One unusual shot of an African American soldier includes his whole family.

Photography in the 1860s, of course, was new as a popular medium. The typical price for a sitting-either in an urban studio before deployment or against a makeshift backdrop set up near an Army camp-ranged from 25 cents for small shots to $2.50 for the luxury size ($6 to $60 in today’s dollars, according to the curators).

The photographers’ names are largely unknown. But the library does a fine 21st-century job supplying accompanying online commentary and digitized close-ups of the shots presented like a patchwork quilt in their original embellished leather cases.

Tom Liljenquist and I have both revisited the fort on our old school grounds, but neither of us was lucky enough to find artifacts. Yet he went on to some incredible finds that the whole country can now appreciate. The good news is that his family plans to continue the search.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]

 

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