When Tim Smith was growing up during the 1950s and '60s, many Civil War veterans from the Dare and Seaford sections of York County still lived on in the memories of relatives, friends and neighbors who had known them and heard their stories.
Several members of his family fought in the war and survived to come home to the marine railway and boatyard they'd operated on Chisman Creek since 1842. Two railway employees returned from the conflict, too, and many of the tales they shared under a tall shade tree at lunch each day were passed on to Smith by his father and grandfather.
Not until he reached his 30s, however, did the stories of his youth combine into a purpose. That's when Smith began to hunt for wartime images of the men whose lives were being forgotten.
"It just seemed important to find them and preserve them so that all they went through during the war wouldn't be lost," he says.
"These images helped put faces on the stories I'd heard and grown up with — and they all deserved to be remembered."
Some of Smith's inspiration for his decades-long search came from a cousin — Frank Carmines — who had written on local history.
More came from former Peninsula resident Les Jensen — now an Army historian at West Point — who was conducting research for a history of the Peninsula's 32nd Virginia Infantry and had already started his own search for pictures.
Still more important were the relatives and neighbors who responded with their own family images and stories as well as tips about where to search for the descendants of other Civil War veterans.
"I had an extended group of people who were helping me find photographs and records. They were coming from all over," he says.
"Even some of the parents in Poquoson when I was the band director there heard about what I was doing and got in touch to help."
Since that time, Smith has located nearly three dozen images as well as scores of records and stories linked to the men of the 32nd as well as units from South Hampton Roads and Gloucester.
Among his most evocative finds is an 1860s Sunday school roll from Providence United Methodist Church in Dare, where the names of all the congregants who went away to war are accompanied by handwritten notes recounting what happened.
"A lot of them were killed and wounded at Sharpsburg," Smith says, describing the small western Maryland town near the bloody killing fields of the Sept. 17, 1862 Battle of Antietam.
"And some of the family names here ended with that battle."
Smith's other finds include a long-sought obituary for York County veteran John Presson, who was the last known living member of the 32nd.
As late as 1933, the long-bearded Confederate could be found sitting in a rocking chair and holding court at the Buzzard's Roost, a country story he opened after the war near the site of the Battle of Big Bethel.
"He was the last of them — and he was related to a lot of people around here. So there were a lot of stories about him," Smith says.
"But it wasn't until I visited somebody looking for something else that I finally found his obituary."
Many more leads remain to be followed up and checked out in a search that is far from being over.
Just recently a previously unknown image of Hampton-born Lt. Robert T. Willis — who died from a wound at Sharpsburg — showed up in the online collection of the Library of Congress.
"There are more images out there," says Smith, who provided most of the portraits ultimately used in Jensen's 32nd Virginia history as well as several other books about the Civil War on the Peninsula.
"I've just got to get out there and find them."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads History stories at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.