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.