Housed in the Georgetown Neighborhood Library’s Peabody Room is an unusual art collection consisting of portraits of 19th century Georgetown residents and 20th century Georgetown landscapes. All of these works suffered water damage that occurred during the April 30, 2007 library fire but have since been fully conserved with funds donated to the DC Public Library Foundation.
One of the Peabody Room’s more unusual pieces of art is a 10" H x 16" W graphite and opaque watercolor on paper by Johannes Adams Oertel titled "Cavalry Officer at Pleasant Valley, Maryland October 24, 1862." The study depicts a Union officer reading while sitting on a barrel alongside what appears to be a lean to tent. A saddle and other gear are hanging from a wooden beam and horses are visible in the background. The watercolor was donated to the Peabody Room by Mr. Oertel's granddaughter, Harriet, who lived at 1675 32nd Street, NW.
Oertel (1823-1909) was a German-American Episcopal clergyman and artist whose most famous religious work was “Rock of Ages” (c. 1867). This popular representation of Christian faith was reproduced in the millions through photographs and chromolithographs during the 1870s and 1880s. The image depicted a maiden clutching a stone cross while surrounded by a wave-tossed sea.
According to the 1917 biography “A Vision Realized: A Life Story of Rev. J.A. Oertel, D.D., Artist, Priest, Missionary” (available on-line at http://tinyurl.com/8k9wwvh), Oertel’s friends urged him during the Civil War to “go to the scene of the conflict and make studies, as in their opinion when the time of peace came around every record of the strife would be of interest.”
Oertel set out for the front from Washington, DC on October 3, 1862 and joined the 6th Regiment, New York Cavalry under the command of General Ambrose Burnside at Pleasant Valley, MD. Twenty-one days later Oertel captured this candid "moment in time" of a bivouacking Civil War officer that took place 150 years ago.
Desiring to learn more about the watercolor and perhaps the circumstances surrounding the depicted moment, I conducted a search on Google Images using the search term “Pleasant Valley, Maryland 1862.” Hundreds of Civil War archival images came up and as I continued to scroll through them I came across a thumbnail of what looked like the Peabody Room watercolor. My immediate thought was that this was impossible as this artwork had never been photographed. With one click I soon found out what was being depicted.
What at first appeared to be the Peabody watercolor study was in reality a finished 11½” H x 18 ½” W oil on board version of the same scene done by Oertel in 1883. The painting was being offered for sale by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery in Charleston, SC and titled “Sergeant Peck’s Establishment / Md. 1862 / J.A. Oertel 1883.” Here was a name ascribed to the Union cavalry officer depicted reading in the sketch!
Excitedly I consulted the National Park Service’s on-line “Soldiers and Sailors” database (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm). Using the search terms “Peck” (Last Name), “Union” (By Side), “New York” (By State), and “Cavalry” (By Function) resulted in the names of 61 soldiers. Of those 61 names only four served in the 6th Regiment, and of those four only one had the rank of sergeant, Hiram Augustus Peck.
By utilizing http://www.ancestry.com it took me mere minutes to locate an amazing paper trail of Mr. Peck’s life. Born November 15, 1836 in Saratoga Springs, NY, Hiram enlisted on October 21, 1861 in New York City where his occupation was listed as coachman. He was noted as having brown eyes, a dark complexion, and standing 5’ 4” tall. One week later he was mustered into service as a sergeant. He was discharged at Culpepper, VA on December 16, 1863 and immediately reenlisted for a second tour of duty serving as a private until August 17, 1865.
The 1900 US Census listed Peck as living in Lee, MA with Sabrina, his wife of 33 years. The Pecks had no children. On August 22, 1901 Peck, by then noted as being a widower, moved to the US National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton, OH. His monthly pension was $8.00.
Mr. Peck died on June 15, 1903 at the age of 64. His nearest relative listed in the home’s logbook was the Scott Bradley Post #177, Grand Army of the Republic, Lee, MA. He is buried in Section N, Row 22, Site 2 of the Dayton National Cemetery, located at 4100 W. Third Street, Dayton, OH.
I feel so fortunate for serendipitously discovering the identification of this individual who served our country 150 years ago. Please visit the Peabody Room where Mr. Peck will be only display until Saturday, November 10, 2012. If anyone can translate the German inscription, please contact the Peabody Room librarian at 202.727.0233 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.