Finding the Story Behind an Old Photo of a Man in Military Uniform

By Maureen A. Taylor

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old mystery photo of man in military uniform

Lost to time is the name of this man wearing a 19th-century military uniform and why he sat for this studio portrait. A picture like this, with carefully placed props, was taken with a particular purpose in mind. To tell a particular story.

The photo comes from the Caton family collection, showing a mix of 19th-century individuals. This man is in uniform, sitting at a table with pen in hand, surrounded by props including:

  • dress gloves (on the floor near his feet)
  • maps
  • plumed shako (dress head gear)
  • sword

props in old family photos


Clues in another old photo of the same man in military uniform

This man looks fairly important.  A more traditional portrait of him provides a closer look at his medal.

old photo of man in military uniform

It identifies him as a member of a Pennsylvania regiment, but the regiment number is unreadable.  It appears to be a single number.

medal in military photo

His shoulder epaulets look similar to those in images for late 19th-century officers of the 1st regiment. The sleeve design dates from after 1879. A good resource is Encyclopedia of United States Army Insignia and Uniforms by William K. Emerson (University of Oklahoma Press).

There is no photographer’s name on the larger image. The profile portrait is by J.R. Bairstow of Warren, Pa. This photographer appears in city directories from the 1880s through the early 20th century.  I estimate both of these images date from around 1890.


How does the mystery photo fit documented family history?

The problem, though, is that the photos don’t match the family history.  Two Caton men served in the Civil War, both from New York State. They mustered out after the war.

This means I’m looking for someone who served as an officer, from a related family from Pennsylvania. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Get Photo Detective Maureen A. Taylor’s guidebook to researching the identities of mystery people in your old family photos.