Common Valor

Their names may be forgotten, but their sacrifice isn’t.

Tom Liljenquist sits at his kitchen table, staring into the eyes of a freckled soldier. The soldier stares back, his gaze preserved for 150 years in a tintype photograph. It’s encased in a frame that resembles an ornate, lady’s compact.

“He put his life on the line,” Liljenquist says. “He deserves to be remembered.”

The photograph, and the 20 others that are spread out like a small quilt in Liljenquist’s McLean kitchen, came from a recent Civil War show in Gettysburg, Pa. From here, they will go to a jewelry store vault, and then to their final stop at the Library of Congress, which houses and digitizes the collection Liljenquist has built with his family over 16 years.

Like any hunter or angler, Liljenquist has stories about the prizes that got away. But he doesn’t like to dwell on them. Instead, he focuses on the freckled soldier and the one beside that photo—a fellow Union man named Raymond Gause who died in Georgia’s Andersonville prison a week before the Civil War ended.

Unlike Gause, most of the men in the photos are unidentified. Liljenquist hunts for clues to their identities in the insignia on their belt buckles and in the shape of their hats. (“This one looks like a Whipple,” he says, assessing another soldier’s brimmed hat. But it’s actually a Havelock, a hat issued to early Pennsylvania volunteers.)

Even if they remain anonymous, their faces are recognizable: husbands, fathers and sons.

Liljenquist grew up in Arlington without much interest in Civil War history. He majored in political science at the University of Utah and considered law school. But his career plans shifted the summer before his senior year, when he opened a shop on the Ocean City, Md., boardwalk, selling the Indian-style jewelry he’d learned to make out west. After college, he went into the jewelry business in 1979 with partner Sid Beckstead, retailing items that were much more high-end than his boardwalk fare. He married and started a family.

In the summer of 1996, he was exploring Four Mile Run in Bluemont with two of his sons, Brandon and Jason. That’s when Brandon, who was nearly 3 at the time, discovered a whitish, thimble-sized object. They looked around and found two more.

Bullets.

“I didn’t know if we’d stumbled on an old murder scene or what,” Liljenquist recalls. “I got a chill.” When he found out the bullets dated back to the Civil War, he bought a metal detector. With it, the boys found more bullets—about 50 in all.

Soon after that, the family began collecting Civil War guns, swords and cannon shells. Then, in a store in Ellicott City, Md., they picked up their first ambrotype of a soldier.

“Over the next month or two, we realized if we were going to collect things, it didn’t make sense to collect guns or swords—anyone could do that,” Liljenquist says. “Every photograph we collected was unique.”

They started going to Civil War shows and antique shops and browsing the Internet for tintypes (early photographs on thin sheets of iron) and ambrotypes (images developed on glass). His youngest son, Christian, who was born soon after the family found those first bullets, proved adept at hitting the “bid” button at the right time on eBay. Now 15 and a student at Georgetown Prep, Christian says his early memories are of sitting on his father’s lap at the computer, waiting to place a last-minute bid.

Jason, now 20 and a junior at Stanford (Brandon, 18, is a freshman at the University of Southern California), at first thought the photographs seemed a little dull. But as his dad began speaking about them at local elementary, middle and high schools, he says, “I developed a strong appreciation for the images, which put emotion behind the wartime statistics.” Some frames came with locks of hair, letters or poems.

The collection became a family passion and a family bond—and then a family gift to the nation.

Helena Zinkham, chief of the Library of Congress Print and Photograph Division and an Arlington resident, says The Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, which now contains more than 1,000 images, fills an important gap in the library’s archives. The library already had images of officers, battles and ships, she says. “But these were portraits of the common soldier. They were personal, intimate pictures.”

It’s rare for someone as young as Liljenquist (he’s 60) to relinquish such a collection, Zinkham says. (In order for a collection to be housed at the Library of Congress, it normally must be donated.) But Liljenquist feels it’s important history to share with the public. And, with a keen eye for interesting compositions and expressions, he’s adding to it.

The images have cost him anywhere from $250 for a cracked ambrotype of a young soldier to $19,000 for a well-known portrait of an African-American soldier with his family. “It just seems like a really worthwhile thing to do,” he says.

More than 300,000 people visited the Library of Congress in 2010 to see an exhibit of the original photographs. Thousands more view the collection online (www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lilj/) each month. The photographs also have found their way into books, magazines and poignant history lessons for high school students. The cracked ambrotype even appeared on the cover of National Geographic’s May 2012 issue.

People tend to choose their own favorites: A man with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. A young girl in a mourning dress. Union and confederate soldiers, the age of Liljenquist’s own kids, with playing cards, a flag, knives.

“I don’t see a difference between the kids in the South and the kids in the North,” Liljenquist says, poring through the collection. “Their uniforms are different—but their faces are all the same.”

Freelance writer and children’s book author Madelyn Rosenberg lives with her family in Arlington.

Categories: People
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