Photographic Portraits: Cadets Identified, Girl Unknown

“Those are cadet uniforms,” I thought while sorting through thumbnail files of digitized Civil War images on Library of Congress’s website. It was not at all what I was looking for at the moment, but I bookmarked the page to come back after work hours.

Where they Virginia Military Institute (VMI) uniforms or another military academy? And who was the girl? I didn’t remember seeing the photos when I had been looking for photos for Call Out The Cadets, so I couldn’t wait to find out if they were “New Market Cadets.”

According to the records the cadets were from VMI, and they are Cadet Privates John James Audubon Powell and Van Franklin Garrett. They marched in Company B of the Corps of Cadets, and both were on the field at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864.

John James Audubon Powell, born on September 23, 1846, was seventeen at the time of the battle and grew up in Henrico County, near Yellow Tavern. Prior to his enrollment at VMI, Powell had attended Roanoke College and volunteered to guard New River Bridge which was an important point on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. He arrived at VMI on February 19, 1864 and stayed with the corps of cadets until February 22, 1865. Powell joined Mosby’s Rangers for the final weeks of the Civil War. In the post-war years, he practiced law and eventually became mayor of Wytheville, Virginia. Powell married Annie S. Jones in 1871 and had six children. He died on October 24, 1930.

Van Franklin Garrett arrived at VMI on April 22, 1863, joining his older brother, Henry Winder Garrett, at the military academy. Van Franklin was born on July 31, 1846, and grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. He stayed with the Corps of Cadets until his resignation on January 25, 1865, when he left to join a Confederate field unit. After the war, Garrett studied medicine and natural sciences, working as a doctor and later teaching chemistry at the College of William and Mary until his death on November 19, 1932. He married Harriet Guion and they had four children.

In the popular battle primary sources, Powell and Garrett’s names don’t appear conspicuously, though Henry Garrett (older brother) was credited with saving Cadet Hanna’s life. They seem to have escape New Market without wounds, or at least with unreported injuries.

Garrett left a mention of New Market and Confederate General John C. Breckinridge in a 1909 letter:

And when I passed through Greensboro, N.C. [after the fall of Richmond in 1865], I hear that President Davis and General Breckinridge had their headquarters there. And I called on General Breckinridge to ask his advice and assistance as to what I should do. When I told him that I was a cadet and had been under his command at New Market, he was very kind and fatherly to me, and in parting with me said, “give my thanks to your fellow-cadets wherever you meet them and tell them from me that they won the day for us at New Market.”

So the young men are cadets in VMI uniforms, and they fought at the Battle of New Market. It’s probably that their portrait was created in 1864. But who is the girl?

She is listed as unidentified in the library’s notes. I think she might be the sister of the cadet on the left? There’s a similarity in their facial features that looks like they might be family.

According to the 1860 Census, Powell had a sister named Blanche who would have been about fifteen in 1864. I would guess that the girl is in her mid-teens, so there’s some possibility there.

The Garrett brothers had some sisters, too. Charlotte, Mary, and Susan are listed on the 1860 census, and in 1864, they would have been around fifteen, thirteen, and eleven, respectively. Could it be Charlotte?

Of course, there’s no indication or guarantee that the girl is one of the cadets’ sisters. It might be a cousin or a sweetheart. I’ve tried searching both fifteen-year-old sisters on to see if other photos came up easily. No luck thus far and with the time I had to invest in the project at the moment.

I’m thrilled to find an image with two more identified cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market and a little disappointed I missed them until now. (Maybe it’s the search algorithm in that searchable catalog.) The unidentified young woman reminds me of the constant challenge of researching civilians. Parts of the young men’s stories are traceable, but even her name is still unknown.

It’s a little reminder that everyone has a name and story. We just might not know the details yet.



Couper, Col. William. edited by Col. Keith E. Gibson. The Corps Forward: Biographical Sketches of the VMI Cadets who Fought in the Battle of New Market. The Virginia Military Institute Museum, 2005.

10 Responses to Photographic Portraits: Cadets Identified, Girl Unknown

  1. Please note that the cadets have two different but virtually identical jackets. Note the lower collar height on the jacket on the right. Believe it or not that feature dates his uniform ca. 1863-65. The cadet left in the picture has a ca. 1862 and earlier jacket. God love ya! Philip

    1. Philip, I would like to see your research evidence for the two coatee variations and their being worn 1863-1865. Considering the Superintendent of VMI issued an order on May 30th 1861 “XI. A new and cheap uniform will be prescribed for the corps, and no more new cadet uniforms of the old style will be allowed.”

      1. Very interesting 1861 order but I think this may refer to giving the cadets Confederate Army style shell jackets aka “battle dress”? Perhaps jackets from the Dublin VA Depot? At the battle of New Market the cadets were wearing battle dress! The jackets you see in the picture above are parade or “walking out” dress. I owned, but sold, about 4 years back, one of the later, that is, a Civil War “parade dress” jacket. This was EXACTLY like the one you see on the left in the picture with the SHORTER COLLAR-not much of an expense saver. Shorter collars were “universally” adapted in1858 in the US Army. High collared coats both Northern and Southern would GENERALLY indicate manufacture BEFORE 1858. My “full dress” jacket was Civil War period and the buttons were VMIs made by Robinson. The jacket was Identified to a cadet who graduated in 1866, if memory serves, but his name escapes me now. And yes the jacket was entirely hand sewn with un-mercerized thread. My credential are a collector since 1961 and I have an MA in Museology and a good eye! If anyone interested I can email a picture of a typical CS DEPOT SHELL JACKET in my collection-

      2. Philip, I sent you an email. I disagree with your information above and have provided corrections.

      3. Sir great info. in your email! OK so the picture is pre-war ca. 1861 this I accept. We see that the cadet on the left has a pre-1858 jacket while the lad on the right has a post 1858 jacket which makes me regret selling my jacket because it was Anti-bellum, ah nuts!

      4. Considering the Institute had their uniforms produced locally, and were under the State of Virginia, they wouldn’t necessarily be following the US Army regulations in 1858 as the USMA. I’m unsure why you keep referring to that, but I do agree there is variance in the height of the collars, which likely indicates the coatees were made at different times. It could indicate they were in different classes, or one was a secondhand uniform item either given by another cadet or purchased secondhand.

      5. I’m learning some great details about uniforms. There will probably be a follow up blog post in the next week or two. I suppose it’s the dangers of going with the names listed in the archive, aye? Always learning something new…

      6. Yes you see the difference because the uniform on the left is post-1858. That is an objective fact! The lad on the left got his jacket earlier. What was VMI “beyond the Pale” so there was no awareness of the change in fashion? Let me tell you that if one comes across a Confederate uniform made after 1861 and it has a pre-1858 collar, that is a high collar, it will be rejected by “those who know” as fake at worst and pre-1858 militia at best. Now I dwell on this only because it is an objective truth and to make you aware that that picture was taken AFTER 1858. And because the lad on the left has an earlier, not provincially made, uniform we can say that a good date on that picture would be 1861.

    1. Certainly a possibility! The mysteries continue, but the important starting point is a conversation. Who knows where the research trails will lead next with her photo? šŸ™‚

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