Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Truly Handsome Publication: A Book on the Vermont Civil War Photographs of George Houghton

Many readers may have seen the article in the February 2012 issue of Civil War Times on the Civil War photographs of George Houghton from Brattleboro, Vermont.  Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O'Sullivan loom large in our collective memory, but in comparison few have heard Houghton's name or seen his photographs.  Houghton followed Vermont regiments during the first couple years of the war and and left us a priceless record of Union soldiers in camp and on campaign. 

I first came across Houghton's photographs at the McLean Community Center.  It turns out that Houghton stayed with the Vermont Brigade at Camp Griffin in what is now McLean, Virginia from October 1861 through early 1862.  (As readers of this blog know, I have an interest, bordering on obsession, with Camp Griffin!)  Houghton captured numerous images of the brigade's encampments and the surrounding countryside.  Some of these photographs grace the walls of the Community Center.  Imagine my delight when I discovered that the Vermont Historical Society has published, "A Very Fine Appearance":The Vermont Civil War Photographs of George Houghton by Donald W. Wickman.  Harold Hotlzer contributed the foreword on the Civil War in photography.

"A Very Fine Appearance" covers Houghton's three separate stays with Vermont regiments in the field: at Camp Griffin from 1861-62; during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign; and along the Occoquan River during the winter and spring of 1863.   The book presents full-page reproductions of Houghton's photographs; a caption and related quotation from a diary, newspaper, or other source are provided on the page opposite each photograph.

Camp of the 5th Vermont at Camp Griffin, Virginia (courtesy of Vermont Historical Society).  This photograph is featured on the cover of the companion book to Ken Burns' The Civil War.

Maj. Charles B. Stoughton, Col. Edwin Stoughton, and Lt. Col. Harry N. Worthen on the Peninsula, 1862 (courtesy of Vermont Historical Society).
Houghton had a way with subject and camera.  His images pull you in and transport you back 150 years.  I spent over an hour just glancing at one photo after another, and by the time I was finished, I felt that I had visited the men in the field.  Perhaps most powerful are the posed images of the soldiers and their officers in camp.  Study their expressions and body language, and you come away thinking you've met these men.  The book is filled with page after page of such photographs, from the lowliest private to generals like "Baldy" Smith and Winfield Scott Hancock.  Houghton's images of Union Army camps are alone valuable for what they tell us about how the soldiers organized and lived their lives when not on the march.  But Houghton has given us more.  He captured not just the look, but the feel, of the camps.  Some of his images of Camp Griffin, for instance, convey the starkness and loneliness of winter camp in a barren, distant countryside.

"A Very Fine Appearance" belongs in every Civil War enthusiast's library alongside other photographic collections.  Although the hardcover carries a rather hefty price tag, owning a copy of Houghton's masterful Civil War photography is well worth the cost.  "A Very Fine Appearance" is a handsome publication in its own right, and reminds us once again that there will always be room for "real" books in an age of e-readers.


Todd Berkoff said...

Hi Ron. Great blog. I work in McLean and I'm also an amateur historian on the War. Have you attempted to do a Frassanito-type comparison of "Then and Now" photographs of Camp Griffin? Is this even possible? I noticed the iconic photo of the 5th Vermont in camp shows massive boulders on the righthand side of the photo. Presumably these boulders still survive today. Have you been able to nail down an exact location of the photo. Feel free to shoot me an email at


Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Todd. I appreciate the compliment. I am still doing preliminary research on the general location of Camps Griffin and Pierpont. I plan to do a few posts when I have gathered more evidence. Just figuring out where things were in general is extremely difficult, so placing the exact location of the Houghton photographs is even more challenging. I am betting that some of the sites may never be pinpointed. However, it is funny that you mention the famous picture of the 5th Vermont. That is one place that can be found today, on Kurtz Road, not far from Salona. In fact, if I am not mistaken, the outcropping is largely covered by ivy and hard to see. Moreover, Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade hospital was at Benvenue, which survives today on Churchill Road. From some reading I have done, Hancock’s men were encamped not far from this building.

If I get any more info, I will send you an email. And maybe we can compare notes if you've done any research yourself.

Todd Berkoff said...

Thanks Ron. I wonder if that outcropping of rocks is part of Pimmit Bend Park and thus accessible to the public, as opposed to private property. It makes sense to have a camp near a water source like Pimmit Run. The outcropping looks a big as a house, so it shouldn't be hard to find if one knows the general area? Do you roughly know the cross street to Kurtz Road?

Ron Baumgarten said...

The outcropping isn't far from the park, but my understanding is that it is literally located in front of a private residence. I think I have found it, but need one of the long-time residents around here to confirm it for me. There is a contemporary photo of the outcropping compared to the original photo in Winslow Hatch’s book, Old Roads and New Insights ( Carole Herrick’s photographic history of McLean also mentions the rocks being in front of a private home on Kurtz Rd. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the closest cross street. I can shoot you an email when I get further information if you’d like. I also hope to post here at some point on the spot. By the way, you are right about Pimmit Run—most of the Vermont encampments were located along the stream south of current-day Rt. 123. This location is generally confirmed by a Southern Claims Commission file.

Anonymous said...

Just ordered a copy of the book. Major Charles B. Stoughton depicted in Houghton's photograph was my great great grandfather. Thrilling to see such a revealing image of him and my great great grand uncle.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Dan--Thanks for your comment, and I am glad to hear that you got the book. You won't be disappointed! It is one of my favorites out of all the Civil War books that I own. And what interesting family ties you have. So you are related to Edwin Stoughton? His name certainly has appeared around here a lot recently in connection with the Mosby Fairfax Raid!

GMHeller said...

Hi Ron, Todd, et al.:
Funny you should mention the McLean Community Center as I was there this evening on the ground floor and the famous Houghton photo of the Griffin encampment is there along with those tell-tale boulders, only in the photo at MCC only the left-hand set of boulders is visible and the photo is fairly standard width 8x10.
The photo you present on your blog is wider and displays both sets of boulders with the right-hand set cropped; your image is 640x460 relative size.
MCC's caption mentions Kurtz Rd. which is right nearby MCC and given that it was still light out, two of us went searching for boulders.
We found same at the intersection of Kurtz Rd. and Maugh Rd. in McLean sitting on private property looking like an old VW under a big pile of green ivy and not 15 feet from the northeasterly side of Kurtz Road.
These are the large set of boulders to the right in Houghton's photo.
To the left and further back from the road and not 30 feet away from the first set are the other set of boulders shown in Houghton's photo.
Today there's a big tree growing amongst them.
What's more, using Google Street Maps one can also get near the vantage point from where Houghton set up his camera to take his famous photograph.
There is a hill across the street (ramping up from near the northwest corner of the Kurtz and Maugh intersection).
Walk about 100 yards or so up Kurtz and on the left side of the street sit a line of houses.
The top of this hill appears to be where Houghton set up his camera with its panoramic lens.
I say panoramic because here is another interesting thing:
I was this evening shown a copy of the famous Houghton photograph only this version was much wider than the one you present on your blog; it was panoramic in width showing a number of feet of open space to the right side of the right-hand set of boulders -- something like 550x259 in relative size.
Use Google Street Maps and check out the view from across the street near where Houghton shot his photo (though admittedly the street is a bit lower in altitude) also noting the actual distance between the two sets of boulders.
Here's a link to Google Street Maps which plainly shows the pile of green ivy under which the right-hand boulders sit.
You can see the tree to the left rear under which lie the other set.
Flip the Google image compass 180 degrees to see the house on the hill from which vantage point Houghton likely stood.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment. It's nice to see another person excited about finding the exact location of this photograph. I actually wrote a post subsequent to this one, where I took a photo of the hidden rock outcropping and approximated the location of Houghton's camera. Here is the link:

Your Google map link is not working, but I provided a similar link on my post. As you say, it's interesting to play around with the street view to get an idea of where Houghton's camera stood.

I am interested in the panoramic shot that you saw. It seems that every photograph I have seen stops at the edge of the large outcropping. I will need to go back to the book and see if they replicate the entire picture.

I also find it fascinating that you located the other set of boulders. I will need to get over there and check it out. The accounts I have read neglect to mention that the second set of rocks survived the war.