Peace to his Ashes - by John Murray
Most readers of Crossfire will, in the context of Civil War photography, be familiar with the names of Brady, Gardner and O’Sullivan. Many will also be aware of the images made by A. J. Russell and George N. Barnard. The latter took memorable photographs as he followed Sherman’s army in the 1864 Atlanta campaign and on its March to the Sea. Barnard did not, however, accompany Sherman’s army after it left Savannah, Georgia, early in 1865 and marched north through the Carolinas. Thus, Barnard was not present when Sherman’s forces entered Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina. On 17 February 1865 much of Columbia was burned. (There is still controversy as to who was responsible for the conflagration, Union or Confederate forces.) A local and prominent photographer, Richard Wearn, was present and shortly after the war, probably in May 1865, he took 19 carte de visite images of the destroyed city.
Richard Wearn’s name and examples of his work appear in several books on Civil War photography such as Harvey S. Teal’s Partners with the Sun: South Carolina Photographers, 1840 – 1940 and Richard B. McCaslin’s A Photographic History of South Carolina in the War. Several originals of Wearn’s photographs of the destruction of Columbia are held by the South Carolina Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia. Some of these photographs are reproduced in the second volume of The Civil War Times Illustrated Photographic History of the Civil War – Vicksburg to Appomattox, edited by William C. Davis and Bell I. Wiley (at pages 1049 – 1052). These include the images of the South Carolina Rail Road offices, Hunt’s Hotel, the South Carolina freight depot, the bridge of the Congaree river, the Presbyterian Lecture Room, Evans and Cogswell’s printing establishment on West Gervais Street and the State Armory on Arsenal Hill. Reputedly depicted in the foreground of the last photograph is Richard Wearn himself. Evans and Cogswell were responsible for printing much of the Confederacy’s paper money and, after Sherman’s visit, the printing premises were worth just about as much as the Confederate scrip. Wearn’s own premises were ‘Shermanized’ on 17 February 1865.
Richard Wearn was born on the Isle of Man on 23 October 1826. His father, also called Richard, was a Cornishman, a tin miner, who had moved to a tin mining area in Scotland where he met and, on 25 November 1822, married Henrietta Thompson. It is not known when exactly Richard and Henrietta moved to the Isle of Man but Richard senior probably continued working as a miner. His son was baptised in Rushen parish on 5 November 1826 and the nearest working mines would probably have been at Bradda near Port Erin. (Joseph Lindsey, late of the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, a resident of Port Erin, and the subject of an article in the December 2013 issue of Crossfire (No. 103), is buried in Rushen churchyard. By another coincidence, Manx-born Edward Corrin’s regiment, the 15th Iowa, was present in Columbia at the time of the burning.)
Richard Wearn senior, his wife and child emigrated to America and by 1831 had settled in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, an area noted at the time for gold mining. Richard junior became an ‘itinerant’ photographer working in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Newberry and Anderson, South Carolina, before setting up in business in the Palmetto state’s capital in 1859. Wearn was joined by William P. Hix and together Wearn and Hix established a profitable photography business focusing principally on making portraits and taking landscape images.
Throughout the conflict, Wearn took carte de visite images of Confederate soldiers based at nearby Camp Hamilton and Camp Lightwood Knot Springs. Two examples of Wearn’s military portraits can be seen on Ron Field’s website ‘Palmetto Faces’: https://militaryimages.atavist.com/palmetto-faces-autumn-2015. The two Wearn images are a sixth plate (i.e. 3 ½ x 2 ¼ inches) ambrotype of an unidentified 2nd Lieutenant and a carte de visite of William Albert Williams in a state militia uniform. (Field spoils the website somewhat by asserting that Wearn was born on the Isle of Wight!) Another example of a Wearn carte de visite is that of 2nd Lieutenant Albert R. Elmore of the South Carolina Hampton Legion cavalry (cowanauctions.com/auctions/item.aspx?id=144387.)
During the war years, photographs were attributed solely to Wearn and one writer has suggested that Hix left the business to serve in the military. On 7 September 1865, Wearn announced to ‘friends and patrons’ that he was pleased to re-open his gallery on Assembly Street. He went back into business with Hix. Although the premises burned down again in 1869, they were re-opened in 1870. According to McCaslin, the 1870 census showed the married Wearn to be a prosperous man living in Main Street, with three (other sources state five) children, and employing black servants. Apart from running a successful business, Wearn took time to serve as an Alderman of Columbia. Then tragedy struck.
The Palmetto Armory after being “Shermanized”
On 9 January 1874, Wearn committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a derringer pistol. News of Wearn’s death spread far and wide – and quickly. For example, the front page of the 10 January 1874 edition of The Dallas Daily Herald carried the following:
“Telegraphic Midnight Despatches Columbia, S. C., January 9…
Richard Wearn, a photographer, while in a fit of insanity, suicided with a pistol”.
The Columbia Phoenix recorded in its obituary of Wearn that the family had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, from the Isle of Man, when Wearn was a boy and that up until his death he had been an ‘enthusiastic’ photographer. Wearn was buried in the First Baptist Church cemetery. (The church hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention in December 1860 and was where the Declaration of Secession was signed.)
On 15 January 1874, The Intelligencer of Anderson, South Carolina, commented upon Wearn’s death:
“Death of Mr Richard Wearn
The Columbia papers chronicle the death of Mr Richard Wearn, the well-known photographer of that city, who committed suicide on Friday morning last, by shooting himself through the head, while laboring under a temporary fit of insanity. The circumstances of his death are truly mournful, and awake the sympathies of a large circle of friends throughout the State for his deeply afflicted family. Mr Wearn was a resident of Anderson for several years when he was a young man, and always maintained the respect and confidence of our people. He was kind and generous in his disposition, and possessed the power of making friends innumerable wherever he went. He was a native of the Isle of Man and was about forty-five (sic, actually 47) years of age. Peace to his Ashes.”