Detective Work in the Archives

Group photo of Sons of Veterans of the United States of America C. O. Belden Camp #31 Litchfield, about 1881

Project Archivist Leith Johnson is working on creating and enhancing descriptive records for the Litchfield Historical Society Photograph Collection funded by a Connecticut Humanities SHARP grant. He contributed the piece below about this photograph, which had no identifying information written on it or with it, and required some investigation.

The photograph shows a group of youngish men in uniforms of a style from the Civil War, but not really Civil War uniforms, and it looks like it was taken after the Civil War, maybe 1870s-1890s. There is no identifying information anywhere on the front or back. Who are these men and why are they in these uniforms at this time? 

It’s easy to see that they all have similar medals and ribbons, and by using a magnifying glass, I saw that the ribbons said “In Memoriam, C. O. Belden, Camp No. 31.” I did some Googling, and after some false starts, I got a hit with “C. O. Belden Camp 31” that led me to the website of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. With some additional poking around, I learned that “in 1881 the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] formed the Sons of Veterans of the United States of America to carry on its traditions and memory long after the GAR had ceased to exist. Membership was open to any man who could prove ancestry to a member of the GAR or to a veteran eligible for membership in the GAR.” The SV continues to this day as the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War and is the official successor of the GAR.

The SV consisted of a number of local camps, and the website has a list of the camps, including C. O. Belden Camp #31 in Litchfield. With some additional searching, I was able to identify the uniforms and some of the medals. 

Charles O. Belden from

Charles Ogilvie Belden was born in 1827 in New York state. He moved to Litchfield in the late 1840s, where, during the 1850s, he practiced law and served in elected positions. He married Harriet Buel Webster in 1852. In 1860, he and his family were living in Brooklyn, NY, and in 1861 he enlisted there, rising to the rank of a major serving with New York troops during the Civil War. After the war, he returned to Litchfield and died in 1870 at age 43.

I believe the photograph shows what may be the first or at least an early meeting of the Sons of Veterans of the United States of America C. O. Belden Camp #31 in Litchfield, which no longer exists today, taken in 1881 or sometime a bit later. Belden had a son, also named Charles O. Belden, who was a doctor in Litchfield, and I suspect he is in the photograph.

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