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Fake photo of Ulysses S. Grant has fooled people for a century

Many stories about the Civil War include accounts of General U.S. Grant’s Virginia headquarters at City Point (Now called Hopewell) during the siege of Richmond in 1864 and 1865. Quite often there is a picture accompanying the story showing Gen. Grant astride his horse, Cincinnati, inspecting his troops at City Point.

But hold it right there. The picture is not what it seems. As a matter of fact, it is a fake. While Photoshop made its debut in the 1980s, photographers in the 18th century had developed techniques to make photo montages. Historical archives are full of photos of two-headed people, or photos where individuals have been removed.

Reproduction No.  LC-USZ62-114700 (LOC)
Trick photography of Man with two heads.

Reproduction No. LC-USZ62-114700 (LOC)
Trick photography of Man with two heads.
Library of Congress


The discrepancies in the famous photograph were brought to the attention of the Library of Congress (LOC) in 2007 when a researcher contacted the LOC. The history detectives at LOC went to work, and over time, unlocked the real story behind the photograph, and it is a story all by itself.

The detectives go to work
Researchers started with “how and when” the image was created. The notation gave them a clue: “Copyright 1902 by L.C. Handy.” Handy was a nephew of Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady who is responsible for the many thousands of photographs we have of that time. When Brady died in 1896, Handy inherited a bunch of negatives from his studio and began “producing new prints from the negatives and licensing images to various publications,” according to NPR.org.

Handy also created “patriotic” images, blurring the line between fact and fiction for those veterans who wanted mementos of their war experience, much like soldiers do today, in fact. William B. Becker, creator of the online American Museum of Photography says, “it was only after Civil War veterans had enough distance from the death and devastation and the horrors of America’s deadliest war for the photographs to become commercially viable.”

What photographs did Handy use to create his fake image? Lets start with Grant’s head. The face in the picture is Grant’s, but it sits on the body at an odd angle, and if the image was made in 1864 or 1865, Grant would have been a three-star general, reflecting his rank as General-in-Chief for the union forces. In the fake photo, he has one star.

Two questions arose about the horse in the picture. Gen. Grant was a skilled horseman who took much pride in his horsemanship, and took good care of his mounts. If, the researchers surmised, the picture was taken at City Point in 1864, he would have been riding Cincinnati, his mount at that time. The horse in the picture has a “sock” (white hair) around his left hind ankle, but Cincinnati didn’t have any socks.

A quick search revealed Grant’s head came from a Brady photograph made at Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1864. In this picture, notice he has three stars showing his rank quite clearly.

Look closely at Grant s facial expression and then compare it to the City Point picture.

Look closely at Grant’s facial expression and then compare it to the City Point picture.
Library of Congress


But Handy just used the head. For the body on horseback, Handy found a photo of Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook on horseback, taken at Brightwood, in the Vicinity of Washington, D.C. in July 1864.

Major General Alexander McDowell McCook  full-length portrait seated on horseback  facing left.

Major General Alexander McDowell McCook, full-length portrait seated on horseback, facing left.
Library of Congress


LOC researchers had to broaden their search parameters to find the background photo Handy used to recreate City Point. It wasn’t City Point and the “soldiers” were not what they appeared to be. The picture Handy used was of Confederate prisoners captured at Fisher’s Hill, a battle, which took place in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in September 1864.

The Library of Congress website writes, “Union General Philip H. Sheridan outflanked Confederate General Jubal A. Early for further control of the valley, taking Confederate soldiers prisoner in the process. The Confederate soldiers had no connection to Grant and were nowhere near City Point, but their plight became a handy background to highlight Grant’s leadership nearly 40 years later.”

Confederate prisoners captured at the battle of Fisher s Hill  VA. Sent to the rear under guard of U...

Confederate prisoners captured at the battle of Fisher’s Hill, VA. Sent to the rear under guard of Union troops, 1864.
Library of Congress


Becker says. “The Handy composite shows nearby soldiers disrespectfully turning their backs on their commanding general. A sentry and groups of soldiers a short distance away gaze off towards nothing in particular or chat idly, rather than gathering around to watch the spectacle of a high-ranking military leader posing for posterity.”

The composite photograph tells us something. It admonishes us to not believe everything we see and to investigate what we aren’t quite sure is true. While the photo is a disappointment to Civil War buffs, it further creates skepticism in us when seeing photographs produced today. What is real, and what has been created to appear real?

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Written By

We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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