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.