The Sesquicentennial Journey
I traveled for four years through a dozen states touched by the American Civil War. Even before this journey began I suspected that the legacy of the war was still with us. It seemed to me that the specter of this epic conflict has continued to reverberate through time and even 150 years on the past was somehow still present on the wars’ battlefields. I discovered that this was true in more ways than one.
It had occurred and intrigued me early on that Civil War battlefields were like 19th century landscapes in our midst. Set aside and preserved by veterans in the 19th century and now administered by the National Park Service, Civil War Battlefields have remained in many ways unchanged. In a sense walking these battlefields today is like stepping back in time.
It also seems an irony and paradox of history that in the 150 years since the war ended many of the old battlegrounds have become public parks and serve as quiet bucolic havens from modernity.
But it was on the Battlefield at Manassas Virginia in 2011 that I first recognized more than just a battleground frozen in time but a nexus of history, people and place occurring over the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Twenty first century Americans, descendants of the veterans of the Civil War, were inspired to return to the wars’ battlefields one hundred and fifty years later to commemorate the role of their ancestors’ in the most important event in American history.
Not only were the descendants returning to the wars’ many battlefields some would arrive in the impression of their great great grandfathers; donning the uniform of a Union or Confederate soldier. This created a visual confluence of history, culture and landscape that seemed to transcend time.
This nexus of landscape, history and culture also led me to photograph, along with the war’s battlefields, Civil War reenactments and to eventually becoming a re-enactor myself.
At the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh I stood on the sidelines in amazement as thousands of re-enactors camped and fought in the wilderness of western Tennessee. What I was witnessing and what I knew would be captured by the pinhole camera, was a poetic and thankfully bloodless visualization of 19th century combat. But I needed to get closer.
Afterward, dressed in the impression of a 19th century photographer, following the re-enactors into the battles, I gained the soldiers’ perspective in this 21st century Civil War panorama.
I found that the smoke-filled pinhole camera images of the reenactments placed alongside the quieter more somber images of the war’s battlefields began to illuminate this subject. A central theme began to emerge through this visual narrative. When it comes to the American Civil War – the past is indeed present.
Following the sesquicentennial timeline I’ve managed to explore and illustrate over twenty pivotal battles of the war. Years of research and traveling has taught me a lot about this epoch and its’ remnants. America’s Civil War landscape is still with us today.
Why the Civil War?
What first compelled me to attempt this sesquicentennial journey was the inspiration gained from reading from some of the most celebrated authors in America. The American Civil War is still the most published subject in the country today and among the tens of thousands of titles acclaimed authors like the late Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote and their contemporaries in James McPherson and Doris Kearns Goodwin among others continue to offer thoughtful analysis and deep insight to a complex and crucial period in American history.
Alongside these acclaimed authors exists a countless and fascinating array of memoirs and journals published by the surviving veterans of the Civil War.
This deep well of literature inspired an alluring challenge in me to see what still exists from the period today, to somehow try to illustrate this seminal time in American history and to lend breath and life to this century and a half old story.
It seems any American who reads for instance, Michael Shaara’s pulitzer prize-winning novel, “The Killer Angels”, harbors an insatiable desire to visit the Battlefield at Gettysburg…it was like that for me.
But some of the most insightful writing on the Civil War can be found in the voices of the veterans themselves. War authors like Ambrose Bierce or the postwar narrative “Company Aytch” penned by Confederate Private Sam Watkins to the memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman leave us with a treasure-trove of visuals of what the country looked and felt like during this period. These sources among others, many times the words of the soldiers themselves, served as my guide in this modern-day search for America’s Civil War landscape.
My interest in the Civil War and its personalities actually started in childhood. Rummaging around my mother’s house recently I came across a book report I wrote in second grade on Robert E. Lee. The report explained that “Lee was a great general but fought against the United States” to quote my eight-year-old self. It seems from an early age I was introduced to the complexities and ironies of America’s Civil War. That interest continued into my adulthood and led to this personal project.
I was born on Staten Island in New York City and my family as far as I know has no ancestral connection to the American Civil War. My father’s father arrived at Ellis Island from Italy in 1914 my mother’s family originates from British Columbia. My clans fought America’s 20th century wars.
My initial interest and fascination in the Civil War stemmed more from the fact that these incredibly dramatic battles of the war happened right here, in our backyard so to speak, and that I, or anyone else for that matter, can freely visit and explore America’s historic Civil War battlefields.
Battlefields and Reenactments
There is nothing like exploring a Civil War battlefield if you know the history or have a soldiers’ memoir in hand. Time can sometimes seem to fold over, the past and the present meeting like some time-traveling Möbius strip. Walking the terrain you smell the air you feel the wind as it moves through the grass and trees. The sensation is visceral…
Even the weather seemed to cooperate in uncanny ways during this four-year battlefield to battlefield journey .
Mimicking the conditions in December 1862 I had the privilege of seeing the old city and battlefield at Fredericksburg, Virginia in misty rain on its’ 150th anniversary.
In the damp misty air reenactors as Union cannoneers inexplicably began their barrage from the opposite bank of the Rappahannock River echoing the notorious bombardment unleashed on the old dominion city 150 years ago. With the help of the Army Corps of Engineers reenactors would later cross the river into Fredericksburg via pontoon bridge myself joining one of the last units making that sesquicentennial crossing.
Another example of this weather related deja vu was seeing a fog shrouded tree line at dawn opposite the Confederate trenches on the Battlefield at Spotsylvania. One hundred and fifty years ago that same misty tree line hid twenty thousand Union soldiers who attacked out of an identical mist and endured along with their adversaries the longest continuous battle of the Civil War.
The Battlefield at Spotsylvania has weathered some, the trenches have worn down considerably, but the distances remain the same. The distance from trench to tree line is close, human scale and in that misty foggy dawn seemed almost menacing and otherworldly.
Civil War battles, like all warfare, were very complex events. There is no alternative to the understanding that comes from walking and exploring the battlegrounds.
In battles of the 19th century the physical terrain dictated nearly every decision and the manner in which the armies fought. Walk the battlefields today and you’ll have a better understanding of why the battle unfolded the way it did or get a glimpse into how the landscape shaped the engagement.
There is also a palatable sensation that still emanates from many of these old battlegrounds. Walk through the Wilderness in Virginia, the mountains of western Georgia or along the sand swept beaches of Morris Island – you’ll feel it. Explore the Devil’s Den and the heights of Little Round Top at Gettysburg or walk through the Cornfield at Antietam…something continues to linger in these landscapes.
Certainly the physical exertions required in exploring these battlefields with the tripod, film holders and multiple pinhole cameras was a constant revelation. From the very beginning of this project I began to empathize with soldiers of the 19th century.
Hiking up the mountains, skirting deep swamps, marveling at tangled primal forests and meandering along countless creeks and rivers has been a profound education. Even the casual historian can still make revealing discoveries while exploring these century and half old battlefields.
An occurrence in 2012 at Shiloh National Battlefield in Tennessee illustrated to me early on just how revealing these old battlegrounds can be.
I was walking a trail along the river when I noticed something out-of-place on the ground. Picking it up I was amazed to find that I was holding the shattered remains of an artillery shell fired during the battle in 1862.
Discovering physical relics on Civil War battlefields today is a pretty rare occurrence. Besides being against the law to remove artifacts from the military parks today most of the battlefields were combed over in the 1860s by the victors of these battles and whatever was left looted by locals in the days and weeks after the battles ended. Any artifacts that might remain are long-buried.
That is why you see signs posted around these military parks prohibiting the use of metal detectors and why my humble discovery along the banks of the Tennessee River, at Pittsburg Landing just below what is now Shiloh National Cemetery, was so remarkable.
The shell fragment seemed to shake in my hand and I flinched for a second as if I could hear the report of the gun firing it. As I considered its’ trajectory and how it had come to be there the past came rushing to the present. The Battlefield at Shiloh, one hundred and fifty years later, was still in a way bleeding out.
It was a strange feeling that came over me holding that random piece of rusted metal. The elation of discovery was quickly replaced with a gut feeling that it was taboo for this relic to be seeing the light of day. My only thought while I quickly reburied the artifact was holy shhh… the Past is so Present here at Shiloh.
Many other battlefield epiphanies occurred on this journey but it was at the battle reenactments that the visuals of the Civil War seemed to truly come alive.
Attending Civil War reenactments and becoming a reenactor myself introduced me to a vast and dedicated community of living historians. Made up of Americans from all walks of life among the cadre you’ll find the casual hobbyist to hardcore campaigners and a good number of veterans who take up reenacting as soldier historians or to continue some of the camaraderie they experience in the Armed Forces.
Joining these dedicated hobbyists I assumed the guise of a 19th century civilian/photographer. In this portrayal I was walking a fine line when it came to the typical “period correct” impression. I wouldn’t be carrying a rifle or choosing a side which made my participation at the reenactments unique. I soon found that dressing as a reenactor and carrying the pinhole camera was no guarantee to gaining access to these events.
The Civil War reenactment community is made up of many individual organizations throughout the country. Depending on the state or the location of the event my access would vary but overall the longer I worked on the project, the more contacts I made within the reenactment community, the better my access became.
Spectators and reactors alike would frequently ask, “what kind of camera do you have inside that box?” Hiding a modern camera inside a wooden box is one way photographers have been able to capture these events. But I would open the back and show them it was empty and they would begin scratching their heads…a pinhole camera?
The funny thing is that in my career as a photojournalist I spent years trying to “disappear” in a story. As a journalist you want to be present but more like a fly on the wall. Donning clothing from the 19th century in the 21st and you tend to stand out and it would irk me a bit when I would arrive at the reenactments and people would start taking pictures of me. In that case it wasn’t until I was in-the-field with the other reenactors that I was able to disappear again.
Many of the locations I traveled to for the project were unfamiliar so I’d spend a number of days exploring and getting to know the battlefields and surrounding landscape before attending a local reenactment.
It didn’t matter where the reenactment was, Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, I would always know at least a few of the participants and so going to these events became familiar and despite the constant hurdles it was always exciting and challenging to photograph them. It was with the help of my fellow reenactors that I was eventually able to get close to the action.
While at Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary I struck up a conversation with a spectator who was a visiting professor from Australia. She described Civil War reenacting as the ultimate in performance art. Later in the day while pondering that I happened upon scene that appeared to illustrate her point of view.
Confederate reenactors were preparing for the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge. Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd 1863 was the final clash between the armies in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. It was a devastating Confederate defeat. In 2013, bivouacked in a forest glade, groups of men in Confederate grey gathered, cleaned their weapons and readied themselves to commemorate this final act.
Amongst the crowd I noticed one group with a rather grizzled looking reenactor unfurling a worn Confederate battle flag. Far from the eyes of spectators the officer in charge of these men in the impression of the 14th Tennessee Regiment explained, as if it were 1863, how that battle flag had seen many fights before, many of their comrades had fallen under its folds and it was their duty to honor those fallen comrades in the coming attack.
Switching to his 21 century voice the officer then explained that the great great grandson of the original flag bearer for the 14th Tennessee was with them and would carry the ensign in the battle reenactment. The regiments flag bearer in 1863 was wounded in Pickett’s Charge but the officer explained that the great great-grandson of the soldier who picked up the flag from that wounded flag bearer was with them today as well. With thousands participating in mock battle these two reenactors would play out this ancestral drama unbeknownst to even their fellow reenactors.
Waiting for the battle to begin tears filled the eyes of these men as they contemplated the 150 year old tragedy where more than half their number would not return…knowing the history of this attack I couldn’t help sharing some of those tears.
During a reenactment of the Seven Days Battles in 2012 I had my first opportunity at working alongside the campaigners. Photographing these dedicated reenactors was a revelation and their efforts made this event an education.
For instance a group of these reenactors decided months beforehand that they would collectively take the impression of the Louisiana Tigers. The Tigers were formed in 1862 by a group of Confederates from New Orleans who fought in the Seven Days Battles and dressed in the popular and colorful Zouave type uniform. This required the reenactors to sew their own new uniforms before the event exchanging the clothing patterns with their fellow Tigers via email.
The reenactment took place on a farm in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania that afforded a combination of undulating fields broken by tracks of forest that would provide a perfect backdrop for the battle scenarios planned for the sesquicentennial non-spectator event.
Before the mock battles began unit officers handed out scraps of paper to each reenactor which determined their fate in the upcoming scenario. These would read, “belly wound”, “leg wound” or “dead in the field” etc.
Marching into battle with the 1st Virginia regiment we cleared a rise in the field and were suddenly fired on by ranks of Union reenactors arrayed behind a long cross-rail fence. The 1st Virginia just disintegrated under that devastating volley of musketry… I was the only one left standing…with soldiers’ memoirs swimming in my head, seeing my weekend comrades “wounded” and wreathing on the ground was a profound period moment. Their performance shook me to the core…
There were moments like that during this project where I found myself completely and delightfully surrounded and immersed in the 19th century.
In 2012 I visited the town of Raymond, Mississippi where reenactors gathered to commemorate the fighting during the Vicksburg Campaign. The Battle of Raymond on May 12th 1863 occurred along the meandering Fourteen Mile Creek. That creek still bisects the town today and is now part of a preserved Civil War battleground held in private hands by the Friends of Raymond Battlefield.
As the two sides confronted each other again across Fourteen Mile Creek I scrambled to get my tripod set up in the ravine and soon found myself surrounded by gun smoke. As the sun backlit the acrid pall all I could see huddled down deep in the creek were the flash of musket fire as the fighting raged. Bristling from either side of the ravine long lines of rifles discharged clouds of gun smoke and I marveled as the old battleground seemed to be shrouded to the point of time travel…
On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam I had the privilege of seeing that battlefield at sunrise again shrouded in gun smoke as volunteer living historians formed a skirmish line and proceeded to march and fire their muskets through the battleground’s infamous Cornfield. Arguably America’s most beautiful Civil War battlefield, the Battle at Antietam still retains the infamous moniker of being the bloodiest day in American history.
That day was September 17th 1862 and exactly 150 years to the minute I found myself walking amongst the corn as the sun rose through clouds of gun smoke. I had the honor of photographing a group of reenactors in the impression of the Wisconsin Black Hats one of the units that fought in the cornfield on that fateful day.
As I set up the pinhole camera amongst the corn stalks the reenactors, without prompting, fixed bayonets and came to attention. The moment seemed somber but at the same time exhilarating. As the rising sun poured into the scene I took one six-second exposure and marveled in that short span of time of where I was standing and the sesquicentennial moment I was capturing.
Early on in the project I tended to gravitate toward the Confederate reenactors. Being born in New York City, a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee as I would be regularly reminded, the southern living historians seemed to have a mystic about them and their flaunting of the Confederate battle flag would frequently draw me in.
Some of these southern reenactors seem incredibly authentic and even slightly intimidating at first. At the Shiloh reenactment I initially skirted the unsmiling men on horseback with long straggly beards, bristling with weaponry and fitted into dirty butternut uniforms.
Approaching with the pinhole camera for a closer look I was addressed with a wink as “Mr. Brady”, the famous period photographer. With a big smile the leader of this rough neck group asked if I would like to make a photograph of his hardcore crew. I was instantly put at ease and I began to see these gentlemen as their 21st century selves. Although convincingly dressed in the likeness of their Confederate forefathers in their normal lives these southerners are truck drivers, mechanical engineers and construction managers.
Marching through the Tennessee wilderness with now hundreds of these southern reenactors one of the soldiers began to sing the old wartime tune “Dixie” with the entire company of soldiers joining in. With the battle already underway the muffled sounds of cannon fire served as the background track as the cadence of their march and their booming voices rebounded in the forest. I experience a chill as I watched these men march into battle.
Over time, working amongst these men, I began to understand their reverence for the Stars and Bars. Many of these reenactors are descendants of the soldiers who fought these battles one hundred and fifty years ago. They feel an ancestral pull to this period and see that now notorious flag as it was originally intended, as a battle ensign.
Their southern ancestors fought and died under that banner and regardless of what it has come to signify feel an obligation to honor and fly it proudly. They will tell you that on the battlefield, when the minié balls where flying thick as rain, the soldiers weren’t fighting for a cause, they were fighting for each other.
Driving through the south encountering the Confederate battle flag is ubiquitous. You see it on bumper stickers and license plates, flown from pickup trucks, decorating roadside attractions and in Columbia, South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union in 1861, the battle flag still had its’ place at the State’s Capital.
Since the end of the Civil War the Confederate battle flag has come to mean something other than the honorable 19th century southern soldier.
In the last century the banner had come to represent organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and has been adopted by a whole host of white supremacist groups.
For many today the flags’ symbolism has evolved to embrace everything from William Faulkner to NASCAR and has come to represent southern exceptionalism and heritage.
Events in June 2015 seem to have changed all that. The massacre of nine African-Americans in Charleston during a bible study class by a young white neoconfederate seems to have forever altered Americans’ view toward the Stars and Bars. The massacre seems to have been the tipping point in the long controversy over this Civil War era symbol.
In the days after the massacre South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in reference to removing the flag from state grounds, “A hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the time has come..”
During the eulogy for those slain in the massacre President Barack Obama had a chance to address how the lingering issues and effects of the Civil War period are still with us today.
“For too long,” Mr. Obama said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now.”
“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”
On July 10th 2015 the Stars and Bars was officially removed from the Confederate memorial opposite the South Carolina State House. You can’t hide the symbolism and ironies of this moment. Mirroring the events of 1865 taking down that flag one hundred and fifty years after the end of the war seems a fitting and historic conclusion to the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
In my view because of what the Confederate battle flag has come to represent its removal from state government grounds in 2015 is warranted and is an important and symbolic step for the south and the country. As for removing war memorials or statues of famous Confederates, I’m hesitant. America has always been a laboratory for democracy – the Confederacy being its most notable failed experiment. But we Americans as good scientists shouldn’t erase our laboratory failures; we should learn from them.
The past is ever present.