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June 15, 2024

Before Photoshop, Here’s a Very Weird Photo of Ulysses S. Grant From 1902

At first glance, this photo entitled “General Grant at City Point” appears to be a rare shot of Ulysses S. Grant reviewing his troops during the Civil War. But take a closer look at the image and questions begin to emerge, according to the Library of Congress, this photograph is a montage or composite of several images and does not actually show General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point. Three photos provided different parts of the portrait.

It does look like Grant but the “head joins the body at an odd angle and the uniform seems wrong for the time period.” If the photo would have been taken at City Point, it would have been shot in 1864. But at that point, Grant would have had three stars on his uniform to reflect his title as General-in-Chief for the union forces. In the photo, he has just one star.

Then, there is the horse that Grant sits atop. His favorite at the time was named Cincinnati but Cincinnati didn’t have white hair around his ankle as this horse does. It also doesn’t look anything like any of Grant’s other horses.

When you look closely at the photograph, you can see small scratch marks around Grant's head, and around the horse's body. These marks suggest that the photograph was made by combining different images. It’s actually a composite or montage photograph. Long before the advent of Photoshop, people figured out how to manipulate images and make invented scenes look real. They exposed negatives multiple times, sandwiched two negatives together, or pasted parts of different pictures together and photographed the result. This montage is skillfully done and hard to detect unless you look twice.

The notation “Copyright 1902 by L.C. Handy” is another important clue. The copyright date suggests that the photo was created considerably after the Civil War.  Levin C. Handy (1855-1932) was the nephew of Mathew Brady, who oversaw the making of many Civil War photographs that have survived in public and private collections. Handy was apprenticed to Brady at the age of twelve and went on to operate photographic studios in Washington, D.C. He  had access to Civil War photos through his uncle’s negatives, many of which eventually entered the collections of the Library of Congress.

But which photographs did Handy use to create this imaginary portrait of Grant at City Point in order to illustrate Grant’s important role in the Civil War?

1. Grant’s Head.

The head comes from a June 1864 portrait of Union leader Grant standing next to a tree in Cold Harbor, Virginia.

Edgar Guy Fowx, photographer. Gen. U.S. Grant at his Cold Harbor, Va., headquarters, June 1864.

2. Grant’s Body.

The horse and the rider’s body were borrowed from a July 1864 photo of Maj. Gen. Alexander McDowell McCook. McCook saw most of his action in the Western theater of the war, not in the Petersburg area of Virginia, and the information with the original negative indicates the photograph was made in the vicinity of Washington, D.C.

Washington. D.C., vicinity. Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook on horseback, Brightwood, July 1864.

3. The Background of the Picture.

For the background, it appears the photographer turned to a photo of Confederate prisoners captured at Fisher’s Hill, a battle that took place in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in September 1864. The Confederate soldiers had no connection to Grant and were nowhere near City Point, but their plight became a handy background to highlight Grant’s leadership nearly 40 years later.

Confederate prisoners captured in the Battle of Front Royal being guarded in a Union camp in the Shenandoah Valley, May 1862.


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