Gettysburg, 150 years on
By Mark Makela
For the past year, I embraced a fervor of the 1860’s that threaded itself from the 149th through to the 150th Gettysburg reenactments. I traversed thousands of miles across the country, documenting a sub-culture of “hardcore authentics,” Civil War re-enactors who honor the importance of the living history as though the war still rages. They took me in, enlightened me as to what once was, and allowed me to experience the mid-19th century world, set amid a contemporary landscape but transformed by a strict semblance of history.
Even before commencing this long term project, it was clear that all paths pointed towards the Gettysburg 150th anniversary. Thus, I loved the opportunity to cover the finale of the Blue Gray Alliance reenactment for Reuters. As my camera got waterlogged by the rain on Saturday night, I was down to one for Sunday, ultimately making the day that much more memorable. Often I find it’s a boon shooting with only one body. One must at least attempt to envision more of what the situation may be and make many decisions beforehand so as not to be changing lenses during opportune photographic moments. “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera,” Lewis Hine famously quipped, but only having one does save wear and tear on your shoulder.
I have always been inspired by the beauty, stillness, and haunting quality of Civil War era wet plate photography, namely that of Alex Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Mathew Brady. It’s a fascinating, reflective phenomenon to be documenting the enduring Civil War culture via living historians not only as a tribute to our American past, but also to the birthplace of documentary photography. A further parallel is that these 1860s photographs are the very imagery and documentary source material which has inspired the “hardcore” practice of honoring the past and instilling the importance of the Civil War to future generations.
As is the case with many re-enactors, a deeper resonance and personal impetus to delve into the Civil War originates from my own family history. Both of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side fought for the South, one enlisting as a 17-year-old Private in Company A of the 17th Alabama Infantry, who spent the last years of war in a prisoner of war camp, and the other, as a 24-year-old Corporal, who stormed up Little Round Top with the 4th Alabama Infantry and survived. A distant cousin of my grandfather was General George Meade, the commanding Union General of the Army of the Potomac during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Spend enough time around these re-enactors and you’ll hear an oft-stated acronym FARB, derived from “far be it from authentic”. It’s only a four letter word but it is the ultimate measuring rod of authenticity in the varying degrees of Civil War soldier interpretation from the ‘hardcore’ to the more ‘mainstream.’ There are others that consider themselves ‘progressives,’ who strive for authenticity and are vigilant in their historical research, but acquiesce that purity is unrealistic.
Whenever possible I try to locate areas for photo editing that afford a lookout, not only for inclinations towards scenic vistas but also to scope out additional photo opportunities. A perfect example was when my car was parked on the high ground of the scene, above the battle site, hours after the reenactment finale. I looked up from editing on my laptop to see a son aiding his hobbling father with a makeshift crutch of a brogan shoe and rifle. Jim Jones, 65, a Union 1st Wisconsin Raider, from Crawford County, Wisconsin, had sustained a grievous foot injury during battle. It was brutal and bloody and hoodwinked me for sure. Long after nearly all traces of period clothes had disappeared from the remaining reenactors still milling about the area, this bearded wonder was still enmeshed in his historical interpretation, a quintessential display of the passion on display.
On the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg’s sesquicentennial commemoration, the National Park Service organized a staggering display during a memorial lantern service at Soldier’s National Cemetery, once the heart of the Union front lines and the location of Abraham Lincoln’s immortal 272 word Gettysburg Address. Thousands of visitors strode by candle light to the Soldier’s Cemetery for a moving night scene where thousands of candles marked each grave. In an harmonious analogy uniting old and new, past and present, both tourists with their smartphones flash light apps, and living historians in period clothes with dangling lanterns, payed their respects.