Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan pulled an impressive and enviable media coup on May 21, 1864. From the balcony of Massaponax Church in Spotsylvania County, O’Sullivan recorded three of the most famous images of the Civil War. This series of photographs focuses on Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade during a rest along the march from the battlefield of Spotsylvania Court House to the North Anna River.
Pictured above are two of the three photographs taken by O’Sullivan that afternoon. Gathered in the pews outside the church are the two generals, members of their staffs and others traveling with army headquarters. (I have identified General Grant in each image by a red mark.) In the first photo he is seen leaning over a pew conferring with General Meade, while the second photo shows him seated and presumably drafting an order or dispatch. Visible in the background can be seen the blurred wagon train of the Fifth Army Corps, as it passes the church and continues south.
Many of those who encountered this gathering paused to gaze upon the army’s leaders. One passerby wrote:
“Under the shade of some noble trees in front of Massaponax church, I was permitted to look upon a number of our generals in council, consulting some maps of the region through which we were moving. A crowd of curious eyes gathered around to look upon the noted faces for a moment, while from the gallery windows of the church I observed a photographic instrument seizing the rare chance. I quietly studied the faces of those men, whom the generations will delight to honor, and having photographed them for private use, passed on, leaving the chiefs in council.” - Anonymous, “Notes of a Visit to the Army of the Potomac,” in The Huntingdon [Penn.] Globe, June 29, 1864
The third photo, below, presents the clearest image of the famous generals and prominent members of their staffs .
There is yet another man of note in this photo. He was neither a general, nor a member of the headquarters entourage. A mere teenage private lurking in the background, he undoubtedly elicited no notice. He was destined, however, to become a highly respected soldier and recipient of the country’s highest military honor.
In the August 12, 1897 issue of The National Tribune, the primary organ for Union veterans, appeared the following letter written by Leander Herron of St. Paul, Nebraska:
“At Bethesda Church, about June 1, 1864, Gen. Grant and staff had their photographs taken while sitting in front of the church. The camera was in the second-story window. At this time I was returning to my regiment, having been overcome by heat and placed in an ambulance. I was but 15 years old. The assemblage attracted my attention. The photograph was taken while I was looking at the crowd just back of the two trees, and to the rear of Gen. Grant. My picture shows me with my knapsack on, and partly a side view.”
Leander Herron, formerly a private in Company C, 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, claimed to be visible in one of the three photographs. Obviously, some of Herron’s information is incorrect. The photo is not Bethesda Church in Hanover County, but is Massaponax Church. It was not taken on June 1, 1864 but was taken May 21. While widely published now, these images were not nearly as famous in the late 19th century. A woodcut of the third photo that appeared as an illustration in a Century Magazine article is likely what Herron saw. Published in 1887, the caption for the woodcut contains the same erroneous information.
Writing thirty years after the event, perhaps Herron can be excused for forgetting some of the details. The individual he claims to be in the image is easier to see in the photo. As described in his letter, Herron presents a profile view and is carrying his knapsack.
As a member of the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, Herron fought with the Fifth Corps, which is the organization passing Massaponax Church at the time O’Sullivan exposed the plates. There is nothing exceptional about Herron’s wartime service, outside of his survival. He enlisted on December 10, 1863 in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, served through the war and mustered out on June 28, 1865. Herron’s notoriety as a soldier came after the Civil War.
Not content with civilian life in Pennsylvania, Herron re-enlisted and headed west to the frontier. He held the rank of corporal in Company A, 3rd United States Infantry. On September 1, 1868, Leander was stationed at Fort Larned, Kansas. Herron left the fort that evening to deliver mail and dispatches to Fort Dodge, a distance of about 75 miles. On his way, he passed a fatigue detail of four soldiers gathering wood for the fort. The following day, Leander was scheduled to make the return trip to Fort Larned. Corporal Patrick Boyle of the 7th United States Cavalry rode with Herron. The two men left Fort Dodge. About 12 miles out the trail they heard the sound of gunfire. The fatigue party Herron encountered the night before was being attacked by Indians. With pistols drawn, Herron and Boyle rode directly through the attackers and reached the besieged wood detail. Herron took control of the detail and the six men fought from behind a wagon. The mules having been killed rendered the detail immobile. The party faced an estimated force of fifty Indians. Herron decided that someone needed to ride back to Fort Dodge for help. Since Boyle had the fastest mount, he drew the assignment. Reduced to a party of five, Herron and the other soldiers held off repeated attacks through the night. While the night wore on, ammunition grew low and the casualties mounted. As dawn approached, only Herron remained unharmed. Finally, as the defenders prepared to receive a likely final attack, Boyle and the Fort Dodge reinforcements arrived. The attackers fled and the fatigue party rescued. For his courage and decisivenes, Herron received the Medal of Honor in 1919. Herron’s citation reads:
“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Corporal Leander Herron, United States Army, for on 2 September 1868, while serving with Company A, 3d U.S. Infantry, in action at Fort Dodge, Kansas. While detailed as mail courier from the fort, Corporal Herron voluntarily went to the assistance of a party of four enlisted men, who were attacked by about 50 Indians at some distance from the fort and remained with them until the party was relieved.”
Upon the expiration of his term of enlistment in 1870, Herron left the army and returned to Pennsylvania. Over the following years, he bounced between his home state and the west, as he tried his hand at farming and working in the oil fields. Finally, Herron and his family settled in St. Paul, Nebraska where they made their home. On April 5, 1937, Herron passed away and is buried in St. Paul’s Elmwood Cemetery.
O’Sullivan captured quite a few historical figures in his Massaponax series. His subjects were the men making history. Behind the gold and gilt gathered around the pews, a straggling teenager destined to make his mark in the army went unnoticed in the background.
Thanks to John Cummings for pointing out the potential connection with the Century Magazine engraving.
Eric J. Mink