The Mystery of the Autograph Book

Autographs of federal soldiers in the confederate prison at Portsmouth, Virginia, via the State Library of Ohio Digital Collection on Ohio Memory.
Autographs of soldiers in the Confederate prison at Portsmouth, VA, via the State Library of Ohio Digital Collection.
Inscription inside the cover of the autograph book.
Inscription inside the cover of the autograph book.


As our readers know, most of our blog entries highlight events or items relevant to Ohio history. We are, after all, Ohio Memory, and Ohio history is our specialty. This time, however, we’d love to ask our readers for a bit of assistance.

The State Library holds in our collection a lovely autograph book. Highly popular in the 19th century, with their popularity peaking during the Civil War, autograph books typically hold poems, artwork, quotes, and (of course) autographs.This autograph book is fairly typical in that it holds all of these. What makes this item special, however, is that it is full of autographs of Federal prisoners in a Confederate prison camp in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Here’s where your help comes in: we have searched high and low but can find no reference to a Confederate camp for imprisoned Federal soldiers in Portsmouth, Virginia. We have found camps which held Confederate prisoners in both Portsmouth, Ohio, and in Portsmouth, Maine. Neither of these, however, are the Portsmouth which we seek. We were able to locate Portsmouth, Virginia, but found no camp nearby. Basically, we’ve hit a wall.

Is this a map of the prison in Portsmouth?
Is this a map of the prison in Portsmouth?


The original owner of our autograph book has left us clues. First, we can look to individuals whose autographs are included in the book: Brigadier General John C. Robinson, Aaron Seeley, J.J. Van Rensselaer, and many others. The owner also doodled in his book, sketching maps of the area and other drawings. He also has a list of “subscribers” and their addresses, but it is unclear to what they are subscribing. Unfortunately, the most useful piece of information—-the original owner’s name—-is lost to us. Perhaps it is included in the book, or maybe he never wrote it at all. We simply can’t say.

The nature of history is that, too often, we simply cannot find the answers we seek. The participants in Ohio Memory hope to alleviate the loss of information by preserving images of the items we hold in our collections and then making those images available to you, our audience. In this case, however, we hope you’ll join us and become participants yourselves! We may never identify this prison camp or the original owner of this autograph book, but you might hold the key to unlock some of the mysteries this book holds. Can you help us?


Thank you to Shannon Kupfer, Digital/Tangible Media Cataloger at the State Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!


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