Much as once a week I like to take time off to cover warships (Wednesdays), on Sundays (when I feel like working), I like to cover military art and the painters, illustrators, sculptors, photographers and the like that produced them.
With that, I give you:
Combat Gallery Sunday: The intel of Captain C.F. O’Keefe, shutterbug
You don’t have to be a Jack White fan to know about the Soldiers of the Eight-Nation Alliance, formed to suppress China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Encompassing sea and land forces from Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the U.S., Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary, the force was originally named after the 409 soldiers from eight countries that helped defend the Peking legation area when things went sideways in August 1900.
Eventually, relief columns landed and marched into Manchuria would account for more than 50,000 Allied troops and set the stage for the Russo-Japanese War that followed in its wake and continuing outside military intervention in China through 1949.
But we are focused on one Capt. Cornelius Francis O’Keefe of the 36th U.S. Volunteer Infantry (formerly a lieutenant in the 1st Colorado Infantry Regiment) who accompanied the U.S. expedition under Maj. Gen Ada Chaffee to China. Attached to Chaffee’s staff, O’Keefe, who before the rebellion was part of the Engineer office in Manila as a photographer, took notes and photographs at the Taku forts and ashore, moving through the Chinese arsenals at Tientsin and points West.
Accompanied by a Sgt. Hurtt and “three privates equipped for sketching,” the hardy volunteer field officer lugged his camera equipment around the front and rear lines of the expedition. As such, he took advantage of close interaction with foreign troops who could be future adversaries to extensively photograph their uniforms and gear from all angles.
You can see his U.S. Army Engineers logo on most and Signal Corps photo numbers as well.
As for O’Keefe in 1901, he returned to the Philippines and presented himself to Maj. Clifton Sears of the Corps of Engineers to resume his role as photographer for the Manila-based outfit for the remainder of his hitch. The 36th Volunteers were mustered out in July 1902 and from what I can tell, O’Keefe hung up his uniform with it.
His photography from the exotic region, including taken in the Forbidden City, graced Harper’s Weekly (especially Harper’s Pictorial History of the War with Spain) and was shown as part of the “Mysterious Asia” exhibition at St. Louis’ Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
At various times, he maintained private studios in Detriot, Iowa, and Colorado.
He died in 1939, aged 74.
A collection of some 170 O’Keefe images, formerly owned by Capt. Harley B. Ferguson, the Chief Engineer of the China Relief Expedition, appeared at auction in 2015 while hundreds of others, as exhibited above, are in various U.S. institutions to include the National Archives, NHHC and the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Another 85 images from his time in the PI with the 1st Colorado are in the collection of Colorado’s Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center while the NYPL has its own, smaller, dossier.
Thank you for your work, sir.