They lay forgotten for several decades. Dusty, with a chip in one lens, these field glasses, the 19th century-name for binoculars, lack in the appearance department. However, appearances sometimes deceive. The glasses may provide the last remaining physical link to a crucial person in North Carolina history.
In 1967, a local resident donated the field glasses to the Museum of the Albemarle with the following story:
“Acquired by Mr. T.T. Whitcomb while a prisoner in Libby Prison during the Civil War. Mr. Whitcomb was a native of New York State near Watkins Glen. After the war he moved to Elizabeth City and became a friend of the Kramer family. They (the field glasses) had belonged to Colonel Lamb whose name is on the glasses.”
Physical evidence supports part of this story. The style of the glasses fit the time period. They carry a maker’s mark from Liverpool, England, a place noted for the production of fine optical equipment. They also have two enigmatic inscriptions on the opposing eyepieces: “E.C. Reid 1864” and “Col. Lamb Fort Fisher.”
Could this be Colonel William Lamb, commander of Fort Fisher near Wilmington? If so, how did Whitcomb come to own them? Who was this mysterious “E.C. Reid”? Did the date 1864 mean anything? One thing was certain. If real, the field glasses are the only artifact attributable to William Lamb still in existence.
Theophilus Tracey Whitcomb, served in the Union Army and spent time as a Confederate prisoner. A native of upstate New York, Whitcomb moved to Elizabeth City around 1872. He served as town mayor, roughly the same time as Lamb served as the mayor of Norfolk.
Both Whitcomb and Lamb shared similar political views; they were Republicans. Crucially, they also played leading roles in their respective veterans’ organizations. These groups, although they fought on opposite sides during the Civil War, often held joint meetings. Therefore, the possibility exists that Lamb gave Whitcomb the glasses as a gift long after the war.
The mystery of who was E.C. Reid finally came from a historic interpreter at Fort Fisher State Historic Site. He found several references to a Captain E.C. Reid that ran blockade runners out of the port of Wilmington. In 1864, while piloting the Lynx, Reid and his ship almost fell into the hands of Union warships. Timely aid of Fort Fisher’s guns saved Reid to sail another day.
Evidence was found that blockade-runners gave Confederate officers like Lamb gifts as a sign of appreciation. The lack of quality field glasses and other optical gear within the Confederacy made them prized objects, and great gifts. On a least one occasion, Lamb received a spyglass from a grateful blockade-runner captain.
The circumstantial evidence strongly supports the idea that William Lamb owned the field glasses, and that he received them as gift from Captain E.C. Reid in 1864. If you want to weigh the evidence for yourself, the field glasses go on display at Fort Fisher State Historic Site early next year.
Leonard Laneir is a collection assistant at Museum of the Albemarle.