Civil War photo-3

An old photo shows William P. Davis, a New Albany resident who served in the Civil War.

In late August 2020, I cold-called the News and Tribune in New Albany about an old photo I had of a man named William P. Davis. A week later, a story appeared that bounced around Indiana and beyond. Since then I have heard from dozens of people in Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., who sent me tips, comments, and questions. Thank you, all.

Before I tell you what I learned, and the fate of the photo, I would like to particularly acknowledge the helpful information and advice provided by Rex Sims, Justin Endres, Dave Barkdale, Kraig McNutt, LuAnn Williams, Bill Adams, Karen Shafer, and Eileen Yanoviak. Thanks also to Brooke McAfee and Susan Duncan at the News and Tribune, who publicized a story that brought so many together at a time when we seem so divided.

William P. Davis was born Jan. 24, 1835, in Troy, Ohio, the son of John Steele Davis and Elizabeth (Stone) Davis. His father was a successful lawyer and state representative in Indiana, as well as a Circuit Court judge. William’s grandfather, John Davis, was a merchant who served with General Anthony Wayne in the Ohio Territory. And his great-grandfather, Captain Joseph Davis, fought in the Revolutionary War with the Fifth Battalion of the Berks County (PA) militia, and lost a leg during the battle of Princeton, N.J.

William P. Davis grew up and went to school in New Albany, where his father practiced law. He attended Wabash College for a short time, probably around 1853, when the photo was taken. In 1857, at age 22, he married Lucy M. Hale. They had two daughters, Mary Kathleen and Marian. Prior to the Civil War, Mr. Davis was engaged in the manufacture of cement and woolen goods at the Falls of Ohio, near New Albany.

In June 1861, he assisted in raising the 23rd Indiana Infantry Regiment, which had more than 1,000 men from Floyd, Clark, Harrison, and Crawford counties. He was commissioned on July 27, 1861, as a Captain but was soon promoted to Major and then, on Oct. 22, 1862, to Lieutenant Colonel. The 23rd served under General Lew Wallace, who also wrote the famous book Ben-Hur.

Lt. Col. Davis and the soldiers of the 23rd were in the thick of many battles and distinguished themselves at Vicksburg, among other places. On June 4, 1863, Lt. Col. Davis wrote a letter documenting several of the 23rd’s battles and skirmishes, including at Champion Hill. As an indication of the important role he played leading the 23rd at Vicksburg, Lt. Col. Davis’ name is emblazoned on a plaque at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

In 1862, when the 23rd was in Tennessee, an emancipated slave named Lucy Higgs joined the unit and served with distinction — and without pay — as a nurse and cook. Mrs. Higgs also cared for her young daughter, who died in 1863 during the Vicksburg battle and was buried alongside Union soldiers. But “Aunt Lucy” stayed with the unit until the end of the war and later became the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was the fraternal order of Union veterans. She settled in the New Albany area after the war and married a man named Nichols.

Lt. Col. Davis mustered out on Aug. 1, 1864, after three years of continuous duty. His younger brother, John S. Davis, had also joined the 23rd Infantry in 1861 as a First Lieutenant. He was later promoted to Captain and served under General Ambrose Burnside in the Cumberland Mountains, where in 1864 he died of disease.

After Col. Davis’ first wife, Lucy, died in 1879, he married Isabella Davis. Around 1880, Mr. and Mrs. Davis moved to Danville, Illinois, where he managed the Grape Creek Coal and Coke Company. In 1883, they had a son, Donald Hall Davis. Then, in July 1885, the New Albany Ledger reported that General J.C. Black, U.S. Commissioner of Pensions, appointed Col. Davis to the position of Chief in the Pensions Bureau in Washington, D.C., which was a forerunner of today’s Department of Veterans Affairs. Col. Davis died on Oct. 13, 1912, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

So how did an 1853 photo of 18-year-old William P. Davis end up in San Francisco, California, more than 150 years later? My best guess is that Col. Davis’ son, Donald Hall Davis, brought it here. He moved to Oakland, California, in 1910 and, at some point, married Anna Grove. Mr. Davis was an engineer for the County of Alameda and his wife worked for the Veterans Administration. The Davises moved to Washington, D.C., in 1959; he died in 1968 and his wife followed him in 1987. Their daughter, Martha, born in 1912, got married in 1932 and again in 1947. She lived in Oakland until her death in 1995.

Somehow that photo of William P. Davis ended up in the hands of my friend, Archibald “Arch” Wilson, who served in the U.S. Army in the European and Pacific theaters in World War II. Arch settled in San Francisco a decade after the war and in the 1970s purchased a beautiful 1885 Victorian home, which he restored to its past glory, even reinstalling gas lighting. He collected Victorian antiques, including etched-glass light fixtures and ornate doorknobs and hinges. He also had several dozen Daguerreotypes, including the one of William P. Davis, which he gave me a few years before he died, in 2011. I’ve been its caretaker since then.

Now, some 167 years after he sat for that photo, William P. Davis is coming home, again, to New Albany, to become part of the collection of the Carnegie Center of Art and History. His photo is a small object, something you can slip into your pocket, but it carries great significance as a reminder of the proud history of the New Albany area.

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