Win tickets to see the smash hit musical Mamma Mia at the Roanoke Civic Center. Two winners will each receive four tickets!
Clate Dolinger says three men in an 1863 picture are ancestors, but not everyone agrees.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Clate Dolinger holds a print of a photograph used by the postal service in front of his barber shop in Pembroke. Dolinger, 73, believes that some of his relatives are pictured in the photograph, and featured in a new Civil War series postage stamp package.
This photo attributed to Civil War photographer Mathew Brady shows three Confederate prisoners of war on Seminary Ridge at the Gettysburg battlefield.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Pembroke barber Clate Dolinger, 73, cuts Hassel Miller’s hair.
Friday, June 21, 2013
A U.S. Postal Service dedication ceremony set for Saturday to celebrate a new series of Civil War stamps will feature a Pembroke man, who claims his family has ties to a famous photo from the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.
Clate Dolinger, 73, a Pembroke barber, claims that according to his family’s oral tradition and his own research, three unnamed Confederate prisoners of war photographed after the battle of Gettysburg are his family members. He is scheduled to tell his story at 8:30 a.m. at the Pembroke Post Office.
The Pembroke ceremony follows a much larger celebration of the new stamp series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War that was held May 23 at Gettysburg. Dolinger was set to tell his story there, but at the last minute was taken off the speaker list, he said.
According to a spokeswoman for the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with the National Park Service to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield and its history, the Dolinger family story may be nothing more than a family legend.
The photo, thought to have been taken by famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady on July 15, 1863, has become an iconic image often used to illustrate histories, stories and films about the conflict that threatened to tear America apart. The photo of the Confederate POWs appears on the back of the Postal Service’s Civil War 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and Battle of Vicksburg Forever stamp sheet.
No official identification of the men in the photo has been found. But since he was a little boy in the late 1940s, Dolinger said, his grandmother, Molly Baldwin Dolinger, told him stories about the men, who posed for the camera on Seminary Ridge .
According to her, they were little Clate’s ancestors Andrew Zeke Blevins, who served with the North Carolina 30th Infantry Regiment; John Baldwin, who served with the Virginia 50th Infantry Regiment; and Ephraim Blevins, who served with North Carolina’s 37th Infantry Regiment.
Using what Clate Dolinger described as a postcard copy of the photo, his grandmother told him stories about each man: his service, his injuries, his time as a POW and his long walk home from Richmond after Lee’s surrender. According to the stories, all three men were captured together after the battle, and likely helped bury the dead .
Dolinger also points to what looks like a necklace or brooch worn by the third man in the photo, and shows a similar looking necklace or brooch worn in a 1907 photo of Andrew Blevins’ daughter, Nancy. Dolinger said according to his grandmother, it’s the same piece of jewelry.
Records that would back up the claim, including the postcard photo Molly Dolinger used to narrate the stories, were lost in a house fire in 1951, Clate Dolinger said.
A stamp collector and Civil War history buff, Dolinger told his story about the Mathew Brady photo to the Pembroke p ostmaster, who passed it on to the main postal service office in Washington, D.C.
Dolinger said his son, Michael Dolinger, faxed some of the family’s documentation to the postal service, which then invited them to Gettysburg in May for the unveiling of the Civil War stamp series.
On a souvenir program he produced, Dolinger is listed as a speaker at that event, which is called a “first day of issue ceremony.” But Dolinger said that at the last minute he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to give his remarks.
After the ceremony, Dolinger said, Mark Saunders of the postal service corporate relations office directed him to media outlets covering the event.
He told them his story, and it was picked up by several newspapers and blogs devoted to Civil War history. The postal service also issued a press release that detailed Dolinger’s claims and promoted the upcoming ceremony in Pembroke.
Saunders said in a phone interview this week that he looked over Dolinger’s information and found the story compelling.
“I trust him,” Saunders said.
But according to Gettysburg Foundation spokeswoman Cindy Small, a National Park Service historian who looked into Dolinger’s claims found no reason to believe the family’s ancestors were the prisoners of war depicted in the photograph.
According to an email from Small, “Andrew Blevins, 30th NC, died of wounds received at Chancellorsville and was not present at Gettysburg.
“Ephraim Blevins, 37th NC, was captured on July 3 at Gettysburg and is reported as a POW at Fort Delaware that same day, which is of course impossible, but it does indicate that Ephraim was quickly moved from Gettysburg to Fort Delaware and was not still in the Gettysburg area around July 15 when Brady took this image.
“John Baldwin, 50th Virginia, was also captured on July 3 and was reported at Fort McHenry prison on July 6,” she wrote.
Furthermore, Small wrote that Saunders, not the Gettysburg Foundation, invited Dolinger to the event and “made him a central focus of the media.”
Saunders could not be reached Thursday to comment on the information provided by the Gettysburg Foundation.
The Dolinger family claim — like countless other oral histories — raises the question of what can be known for certain about the Civil War, given sometimes inaccurate or incomplete records.
Retired Virginia Tech history professor and Civil War expert James “Bud” Robertson has labored for decades sorting through those stories to find both facts and meaning. He has also examined the Dolinger family’s claim.
Robertson said that a few years before retiring from Tech in 2011, he remembers reviewing a set of photographs and service records to confirm a similar claim, that the famous photo of three captured Confederates came from a local family.
Clate Dolinger said it was his brother who presented the information to Robertson.
Robertson said the documentation he reviewed made a good case, but as with many claims of this sort, it could be hard to prove definitively.
A family’s oral history combined with “faded photos can cause descendants to jump to desired conclusions,” Robertson said.
As an example, Robertson related a story about the publication of his most recent book, “The Untold Civil War.”
“We used as a dust jacket an obscure, never-used photo of six soldiers. The idea was to complement untold war stories with unidentifiable soldiers,” Robertson said. “A month after the book appeared, I received an email from a Colorado lady who was excited at seeing her great-uncle on the cover. He was a member of the 53rd Tennessee.
“A week later came an email from a man equally happy that his great-grandfather was in the photo. Said ancestor was a member of the 86th Pennsylvania,” Robertson said. “If both writers are correct, the illustration marks the only time in the war when the men stopped fighting to have a group photograph made.”
For Clate Dolinger’s part, the debate about his ancestors and the photo are “no big deal,” he said.
“I believe what my grandma told me,” Dolinger said. “She had no reason to lie.”
Weather JournalStorm track isn't very snowy for us