Book illuminates stories of Union soldiers who fought in Frederick County

·5 min read

May 15—Joseph Stahl and Matthew Borders stood atop the Bolivar Heights overlook near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, squinting into the valley below and rattling off facts about a particular September day in 1862 as if it were last week.

The 9th Vermont Infantry Regiment would have marched in right about there, one says, gesturing toward a pasture to the west. And Confederate troops had the Union forces cornered at the banks of the Shenandoah, the other puts in, turning east to face the river.

For Stahl and Borders, each a Civil War expert in his own right, visiting the sites where soldiers fought and died brings the conflict into sharp focus.

What makes it feel even more real, though, are the photographs. Looking into the faces of Civil War soldiers, forever frozen on 150-year-old paper, these men feel a sense of almost personal connection to the subjects of their research.

In April, Stahl and Borders released their second book of portraits, stories and maps — this time focused on young men who marched through Frederick County. "Faces of Union Soldiers at South Mountain and Harpers Ferry," published by The History Press, aims to highlight the stories of the individual, rank-and-file fighters who, the men say, are too often forgotten.

"Everybody knows Stonewall Jackson. Everybody knows Robert E. Lee," Stahl said, flipping through a three-ring binder filled with sepia-toned photographs of grim-faced Union soldiers. "But the people who paid the price were these people."

The book is meant to act as a sort of companion for battlefield visitors. The collection of 30 soldiers' stories is organized by location, accompanied by detailed maps of each site where they fought.

The previously unpublished portraits in the book give readers a sense of the human toll of the war, Borders said. "We're trying to bring not only the history but the faces of the history to the public, so they have someone that they can visualize."

Borders, raised in Michigan and a trained historian, has been a self-described "Civil War nerd" since visiting Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at the age of 9. He's worked as a ranger and battlefield guide at Antietam and Monocacy national battlefields and for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

Stahl, meanwhile, studied engineering and said he didn't have much interest in history classes. Growing up in the Midwest, the Civil War, in particular, seemed far away — and somewhat irrelevant, whether measured by years or miles. Then, his career moved him to Washington. All of a sudden, it was all right there: Gettysburg was 45 minutes away. Antietam was an hour. He started visiting the battlefields, and when he stumbled across an ad in the paper for a Civil War show — huge gatherings where collectors can display and sell artifacts — he started visiting those, too. His fascination grew steadily until, a few years and many visits later, he began collecting the small portraits that formed the basis of the project.

The photo cards are akin to today's high school senior portraits, Stahl said. Soldiers would pose in their uniforms, often leaning against a hidden post to ensure they kept still for the several seconds it took the shutter to click, and hand out copies to their family, friends and fellow servicemen. Eventually, the photos took on a status not unlike baseball cards. People would pay between 25 and 50 cents for one, then collect and trade them. They were easy to mass produce because they could be printed on paper, rather than metal or glass plates.

Stahl didn't have the expertise required to turn his collection of images into a book, so he recruited Borders, whose knowledge of the Civil War was built over years of study.

As the wind whipped across Bolivar Heights on this recent afternoon, Borders thumbed through a copy of his book. He pointed to the minute details in each small photo — a particular style of button here, a barely-visible star on an arm patch there — that clued him into who each man was, their rank and how to track down their stories.

Cross-referenced with service records, the images also helped Borders nail down a timeframe.

"If I've got a photo of him as a brigadier general, I can look in the service record," Borders said. "When was he promoted to brigadier? He's promoted on this date, so this image was likely taken around this time. And then we start looking at things like, where was the image taken?"

The men focused their research on Union images because Confederate ones are so much rarer, making them much more expensive, Stahl said. During the war, blockades made it difficult for paper and printing materials to enter the Southern states.

As a result, while Stahl can buy a Union portrait for around $125 on a good day, he said a typical Confederate image starts at around $750.

Their book is meant to be accessible or, as Stahl termed it, an "airplane book." At 170 pages, it's less intimidating than many historical anthologies.

They published their first book, "Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam," in 2019 and considered combining both books into one, but that would have made it thicker and more expensive, they said. Each paperback retails for $21.99 on Amazon. They provide information about individual soldiers, the regiment they came from and the fighting through the region, all organized by location.

"Nobody else is doing this," Stahl said. "It's a combination that has not been done in the genre."

The pair is working on a third book, this time focusing on soldiers in Fredericksburg, Virginia. They spoke about it excitedly as they strolled along the ridge overlooking Harpers Ferry, their boots crunching on the gravel path.

When it's complete, they will have published the names and faces of about 100 soldiers.

"I like to think that's a hundred stories that will not be lost," Stahl said.

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

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