Descendants salute Civil War brothers by helping restore portrait

PITTSBURGH (AP) – A 116-year-old photograph of four brothers who served in the Civil War that had become too fragile to display in a Pittsburgh military museum has been restored through a public/private partnership.

The 44-inch by 36-inch portrait of the McGrath brothers of Pittsburgh is now on display on the third floor of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

“It was, quite frankly, in pretty bad shape. It was one of those things you don’t want to move,” said Michael Kraus, the museum’s curator.

The edges of the print had turned brown and were torn along the left and right sides and the top. Small tears appear in the trousers of one brother.

“It was incredibly fragile. It had no structural integrity,” said Wendy Bennett, a fine art paper conservator who worked on the project from November of last year until September.

The “photographic print, enhanced with charcoal and white chalk,” was so delicate that it took hours of planning just to work out a way to move it to her studio about a mile away, Bennett said. A shallow tray was constructed with an opening on one side to house the print for transport.

The portrait was presented to Soldiers & Sailors in 1911 and hung for many years unknowingly exposed to sun and temperature conditions that were not optimal for its preservation.

Originally titled Five Brothers in the Civil War, the portrait was taken in 1894 of the McGrath brothers – Thomas, Bernard, Lawrence and Francis – surrounding a vacant chair, a metaphor for a departed family member – the fifth brother, John, who was killed at Chickamauga, Ga., in 1863. In a later version of the print, a photo of John was added.

The five brothers served in three different regiments.

John D. McGrath served as a 2nd lieutenant and later captain of Company A, 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry; Thomas J. McGrath enlisted in August 1861 as a corporal in Company K, 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry; Bernard F. McGrath enlisted on April 22, 1861, in one of the first regiments, Company F, 7th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry; Lawrence T. McGrath served in Company F, 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry; and Francis C. McGrath enlisted for 100 days in Company E of the 193rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in July 1864 at the age of 18.

Grace Ridgeley of Harwick, a descendent of the McGrath brothers, remembered the portrait and asked the museum one day if it could still be displayed. Told that it couldn’t, she headed a family fund drive to raise the money needed to restore it.

Nearly 30 family members and friends responded from across the country, raising the $5,000 needed to restore the work.

“We hated to see it not be shown. It is an interesting piece,” said Ridgeley, 65, of Springdale Township, a history buff and the family historian. Her great-great-grandmother, Eleanor McGrath Camp, was a sister of the brothers.

Without the funds from the family, museum officials said, the portrait likely would have been confined to a storage room until the museum could pay for its restoration – something Kraus said wasn’t a high priority.

The portrait was returned to display Oct. 9, the same day Soldiers & Sailors celebrated its 100th anniversary.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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