A Union Officer, A Dublin Backmark Trans-Atlantic sleuthing finally yields identity of Irishman in photo

Courtesy of Michael Hammerson

by Michael Hammerson

LONDON -- As an English student of the American Civil War for many years, I am always careful to check our ephemera and photgraph fairs for the occasional Civil War item which turns up here. However, when, in 1996, a dealer showed me a carte de visite (CDV) that he thought might interest me, I was cautious. The soldier was wearing what was evidently a Northern Civil War officer's uniform; but on his breast were two clearly un-American medals, and the backmark was of a Dublin photographer, which I judged to be of the 1870s. The CDV was cheap -- but I decided to leave it.

Several months later, my copy of Military Images magazine arrived, with an article about research into a CDV of a Confederate officer killed at Murfreesboro, with a post-war Scottish backmark; research showed that it had been produced by the officer's Scottish brother for the dedication of his memorial. I suddenly saw the Irish CDV in a new light; fortunately, it was still unsold.

I took it with me on my trip to the Fairfax Civil War show, where two photo specialists suggested that the medals might be Papal awards. Thus it seemed possible that he could be an Irish Brigade officer who had served in the Papal Armies.

A visit to Spink's, London's leading medal dealers, confirmed that the left-hand medal was the Order of Pius IX, and that on the right the Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede - the general campaign medal awarded for officers who had served in the Papal Armies during the period 1860-1867. But -- had our man received his medals prior to 1861, and gone on to serve in the Civil War; or had he fought in America, and then enlisted to serve the Pope? The fact that the CDV was probably produced in about 1870 made both alternatives possible.

Courtesy of Michael Hammerson
A close up of the Papal medals on Coppinger's chest

The Vatican Archives were unable to help; there were no compiled lists of men to whom the Papal Medals were awarded. An Irish friend, deeply into both Irish history and the Civil War, came up with several candidates, including one who seemed to fit perfectly: Captain John Dillon Mulhall, who was awarded the Order of St. Sebastian and the campaign medal by the Pope, and then went on to serve with the Irish Brigade from Chancellorsville to the end of the War. My friend was, however, puzzled by the post-war Dublin backmark; if he was an Irish Brigade soldier, with Papal Awards, he might well be a Fenian, in which case, to have such a photograph of oneself produced in Dublin in the 1870s would have carried no small risk, both for the subject and the photographer.

Even more intriguingly, I had noticed that the soldier's left arm, just below the shoulder, seemed exceptionally thin and straight, with the hand hidden behind the sword hilt in an awkward fashion; and that his left leg was bent forward - not "jauntily", in a fashionable pose, but awkwardly, as if he was trying to avoid putting weight on it. Mulhall was wounded twice! It seemed that all I needed to do was to find an identified photo of him to confirm that this was our man.

Subsequent enquiries got me no further. It was left to The Wild Geese Today Producer Gerry Regan to suggest that I should try Brian Pohanka, a familiar name in the field of Civil War photography. Brian's immediate response was a virtual certainty that our man was John Joseph Coppinger, perhaps the most distinguished of the Irish-born Civil War officers to have served the Pope.

Library of Congress, with photo details by Brian Pohanka
Gen. Torbert and his staff. Coppinger, with his long 'Dundreary' whiskers, is seated to the left. Also of interest: The clean-shaven officer seated on the bottom step, third from the right (in profile), gauntlets on knee, wearing a kepi, is Captain Marcus A. Reno, later famous (or infamous) for his role in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn.

Comparison with other photographs -- in particular, of the dashing young man seated at the left of the photo of General A.T.A.Torbert's staff, in Vol III, p.167 of Miller's "Photographic History of the Civil War" - confirmed that this was our man. It is possible that the photograph is a wartime one - perhaps late in the war, since he looks more battle-weary and less "jaunty" than the youth in Miller's photo - and that copies were made when Coppinger visited Ireland to see his sisters during his 1871 army leave.

What of my thoughts about the possible wounds inferred from the photograph? It appears that Coppinger, too, was wounded twice -- one, a serious neck wound at 2nd Bull Run, the other a slight wound near the end of the war!

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com

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Tags: American, Brian, Civil, Coppinger, Photography, Pohanka, Sleuthing, War

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