A photographer’s summer spent “shooting” on Civil War-era battlefields
story and photos by Roger Bailey
Kaboom! A report echoed up the gorge as fire and thick, white smoke rolled out from the business end of a long steel barrel. As a light breeze drifted my way, I picked up the scent of sulfur carried with it.
Was it Muzzleloader season for big game in Western New York? No. It was May in Letchworth State Park, and the report was from a Civil War-era cannon. A mock battle was about to commence!
Civil War “mock” battles or “sham” battles have been around since the Civil War itself, when battles were staged and reenacted as practice. They also served as entertainment for civilians of that era, and provided them a sense of what it was like to fight in the war.
Today, Civil War reenactments are big business. Many reenactors prefer to be called “living historians,” and can spend thousands of dollars on clothing, tents, weapons and wares. Some take on the persona of a citizen chosen from the 19th century, and do their best to replicate the manners and speech of the time. It’s imperative to these “historians” that the clothing and other articles used are as historically accurate as possible. One who pays attention to these details is considered a “Thread Counter” or “Stitch Counter.”
It was probably this attention to detail and subtle nuance that struck a chord with the photographer in me. Typically, my passion is photographing wildlife. But when I heard about the Civil War reenactment at Letchworth, I envisioned people in uniform, living in tents, the smoke, the fire, the action! I was determined to give it a try. But like a Stitch Counter, I soon learned that for historically-accurate images, as a photographer I had to be vigilant about what was within the frame. (I guess that makes me a “Pixel Counter.”)
A photographer’s battle
I arrived before the battle at Letchworth and walked through the encampment, capturing some candid shots. I quickly realized that I had to pick my shots carefully, or crop out unwanted objects, if possible. Because behind the encampment a chain-link fence hugged the edge of the gorge, and as the Confederates entered the battlefield, they passed by a modern-day playground. Behind a line of cannons was a blacktop road, and tire tracks from a modern-day vehicle were visible in the field. All of these modern-day markings would ruin the authenticity of my images. Still, it was a fun-filled day and I captured some pixels I was happy with.
In June, I was ready for another shot at it. There was more fire and smoke at the Battle of Lain’s Mill in the hills of Canisteo – and I was there, clicking away again. This was a better location, from a photographer’s perspective. The remote country hills and farmland left fewer unwanted objects to worry about. Sure, there were still some tire tracks in the field, and you could see some barbed wire. (Barbed wire was patented nearly 10 years after the Civil War.) But the closest thing to a playground at this site was a rope swing, which fit right in, but was not near the battle areas. (Not authentic to the time period, but much less obvious.)
In Canisteo, they fought under the canopy of the woods, which made for some interesting images as smoke lingered and meandered through leafed-out trees. And the darkness of the canopy increased the luminosity of the orange glow spewing from the black powder weapons.
I left those Southern Tier hills much happier with the images I had captured, compared to those from Letchworth.
In July, me and my pixel trap headed to the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford. Here I found some truth to the old cliché – the third time’s a charm. What better place to stage a Civil War battle than a 19th-century replica village?
The reconstructed village contains 68 historic structures on a 700-acre complex filled with artifacts including blacksmith, tinsmith and mercantile shops. To top it off, the village has its own “citizens,” dressed in threads to give them an era-appropriate vintage look. Some of this attire, as well as that worn by the Civil War reenactors, is several layers thick, creating quite a challenge when performing in July. (Some of the uniforms would keep one warm in near-freezing conditions. I give them a lot of credit – they must really love what they do.) It is often a family affair and you will see actors of all ages. It’s a great place to visit.
As far as being picture perfect? Well that is nearly impossible, being over 150 years after the fact, but as a photographer, I think it’s hard to come closer than this place does.
I’m no history teacher. (I have report cards from my school days to back that up.) My goal here was not to teach a history lesson. Instead, I hope my words and images inspire readers to experience a mock battle or visit the Genesee Country Village and Museum. It truly is a trip back in time.