Portrait of John F. P. Robie

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Portrait of John F. P. Robie
c. 1861
Ambrotype in brass mat and paperboard case
Image 3¼ x 2¾ in., Case 3½ x 3 1/8 in.
Chicago History Museum

Look at this photograph taken during the early years of the Civil War. Even though the image is faint, it still makes a strong impression. Notice the delicate brass frame that holds it in its paper case. Perhaps it belonged to the mother of the young man shown here. John F. P. Robie, featured wearing his uniform and carrying a snare drum, was only thirteen years old when he joined a New Hampshire Infantry Regiment, and he was not alone. He was one of more than 1,500 boys under the age of fourteen to go to war! In addition to helping soldiers march in rhythm, drummer boys like Robie used various drum calls to send messages and signals to the troops. Some were wounded in the course of these duties.

This photograph is an ambrotype, made on a glass plate, which makes it somewhat fragile. Photographs from this period often had elaborately decorated cases that were beautiful but also protected the image. This photograph might have been made right before John Robie left home. Portrait photography was a thriving business during the Civil War. Many soldiers had themselves photographed in their new uniforms before heading off to battle. Others had their pictures taken near their military camps by traveling photographers who set up temporary studios. Although this photograph is meant to show the dignity of the war, it is also a chilling reminder that even children were caught up in the Civil War effort.

1. Though it is hard to imagine sending a thirteen-year old to war today, it was not unheard of during John Robie’s time. What do you think made John Robie and young boys like him want to enlist in the war effort?

2. Describe the expression on this boy’s face. How do you think he was feeling? What kind of impression do you think he wanted to make with this photograph?

3. What about the photograph’s case suggests that this was a valuable keepsake?

Further reading:
Library of Congress. “The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection.” Library of Congress. http://myloc.gov/exhibitions/civilwarphotographs/pages/default.aspx.

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