Photographers' Blog

On the gruesome battlefield of Gettysburg

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

By Gary Cameron

The 150th anniversary and reenactment of the U.S. Civil War battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a story suggested months ago by Reuters Pictures Editor Mike Fiala. Lasting three days, it would include thousands of re-enactors dressed in blue & gray wool uniforms who would live in historically accurate camps with canvas tents, and include 400 horses for cavalry units, with over 200 cannons from both sides to effectively blast each other off the battlefield. Add thousands of rifles and side arms to the mix (all weaponry fires black powder but no shells or bullets in re-enactments), and you have the makings of one very loud display of history, carnage and destruction.

What I did not know is that NO re-enactment battles of Gettysburg would be played out on the actual “hallowed” ground of the 1863 conflict. Two separate re-enactment groups would have their own events, each with versions of the July 1, 2, and 3 battle days, on large nearby farms. Stadium seating similar to those used at professional golf tournaments would accommodate 10,000 fans and border the battlefields.

All of this would follow immediately after President Obama’s trip to Africa that fellow staff photographer Jason Reed and I were assigned to. While looking forward to the Gettysburg assignment, Africa (three countries in seven days with numerous events and time zones) would have to come first. And the temperatures experienced in Africa would break me in for the sweltering heat and humidity of 12 hour days in Pennsylvania. Not quite….

While warm in Africa, nothing came close to the 110 degree Fahrenheit battlefield temperatures in Gettysburg. Photographers lean towards beautiful light, and with most battle events held mid-day, I needed something else to add to my report. Getting out the door at 4:45AM would allow me to arrive at the soldiers’ camps as they woke up. “Cool” (around 80 degrees Farenheit) and dark, with nice light quality would soon drastically change within an hour or two to stark sunlight and oppressive heat. One morning, in the Confederate camp, I could literally feel the sun going up my back behind me as I moved around. But at least I wasn’t wearing thick, gray wool.

The first battle I covered, from a required photo stand, really left me feeling like I was reaching for images. The battlefield was immense, and even a Canon 200-400mm zoom lens with an internal 1.4 extender, seemed to be short of the mark. On day two, I received permission to hide in a forest on the far side of the field, and as long as I wore dark colors and stayed away from the battlefield edge, I could work. The forest was cooler too.

Gettysburg, 150 years on

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

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.

The last ten

By Jose Miguel Gomez

Some of these captives had been gone for 14 years, but as anxious as they must have been to return, they walked very slowly on the airport runway at Villavicencio. It seemed to me that they were carrying the weight of so many years of the horror they lived, hiking through the thick Colombian jungle, persecuted by the fear of being killed by their captors or by the bombing of the armed forces.

They landed exhausted. In their glances it seemed they were living a dream – one in which they returned to embrace their families, showing them that they were all still alive. Theirs was not an ending like some of their fellow captives, who were killed when the Army tried to free them. With their faces clearly aged, they returned with few possessions. Some of them brought jungle animals as pets. Their families awaited them in a private room of the airport because the government had decided not to show their first reunion to the press. We were upset, to say the least.

When Ingrid Betancourt and the 14 hostages were freed in Operation Checkmate, the government brought them to Bogota in a media show. This time the hostages were simple soldiers and policemen and the only thing they wanted to do was hug their children who had since grown into adults, and their spouses and parents affected by the years of suffering.

The heat of battle

When you live in Northern Virginia, only miles from Washington D.C., you are somewhat aware of the history all around you, yet it is a distant feeling, drowned out by suburban sprawl and ubiquitous strip malls. Today, it is difficult to form a picture of what happened in this countryside 150 years ago during the Civil War. Over half the Civil War battles were fought in the state of Virginia.

Appropriately, the first major battle of the Civil was at Manassas in Northern Virginia. The First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run on July 21, 1861, dashed hopes on both sides of the fight that war would be a quick affair. The rest, as they say, is history, and I will leave it to historians to tell that story.

For me, the 150th anniversary of this important battle was an opportunity to imagine what it may have been like. With my cameras in hand, I could share the experience with others through my pictures. Cameras of course have a great way of opening doors and allowing one to see what others do not. With the aid of my daughter’s teacher, Mark Stevens, who is not only from Manassas but is also a Civil War reenactor, I was graciously invited into the Confederate camp to spend a few days soaking in the sights and experiences of the reenactor. No, I did not put on the wool uniform and nor did I sleep in a tent. I did, however, get a good glimpse of the passion and dedication these reenactors take into an event. By the time they were ready for battle, I was already overwhelmed by what I had seen in the Confederate and Union camps. Talk about a feast for the eyes of a history buff.