Thursday, December 20, 2012

Crossing the River: The Battle of Fredericksburg 150 years later

One week ago today marked both the 150th
anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg and the first day following the completion of my second semester of graduate school. The two coincided quite closely. The sesquicentennial commemoration at Fredericksburg began on Friday, December 7 and ended on December 15. My two final papers were due on December 11 and 12 respectively. It was quite a challenge to finish writing both papers and get them turned in in the midst of all the activity at Fredericksburg. I manged to do it though, and just found out that I ended the semester with an A in both classes. That is some pretty nice validation, especially since it was so difficult to get all of the work done amidst everything going on with Fredericksburg!

The events at Fredericksburg were very different from other sesquicentennial commemorations I have photographed. Much of the difference was due to the battlefield itself. The Park only owns the land directly surrounding the Confederate entrenchments, which means that much of the commemoration actually took place outside of park land and in the town of Fredericksburg. This worked very well in this instance since the battle was actually fought through the town itself. That was one of the significant firsts of Fredericksburg: the first time the two armies had made a town a battlefield.

I was down in Fredericksburg six different days and had to drive down to the park and back home each time. That was certainly tiring, but it did allow me to capture a wide range of different moments over the course of the week. 

These are three of my favorites:

Two young girls laying flowers on the historic stone wall to honor the fallen

A bagpiper playing "Amazing Grace" to close the commemoration ceremony

Three brothers standing next to the monument to their Great Great Grandfather: Confederate General Thomas R. R. Cobb, one of the heroes of the battle.

There was no shortage of people dressed in period attire as well. These are five of my favorite "moments out of time."

One of the highlights of the week was a procession that wound its way from the point at which the Union soldiers crossed the river all the way across their path of assault through the town and up to the Confederate defensive line on Marye's Heights.

In this picture you can see the modern fighting 69th New York  followed by the Union 69th New York, a delegation from the Irish Defense League, the 28th Massachusetts, and the 47th Virginia, all marching together and followed by the crowds.

Here are a couple close ups of the 28th Massachusetts and 47th Virginia

During the procession Union and Confederate reenactors fired a volley together to honor the fallen.

These are two of the most unique members of the procession: Irish Wolfhounds that accompanied the 69th New York.

The procession ended with a special ceremony on Marye's Heights that included a 21 gun salute by two modern howitzers

Another significant first of the Battle of Fredericksburg was the fact that the Union soldiers had to cross the river in order to get to the Confederate positions. This was the first amphibious assault under fire in US history.

Normally I do not get to see reenactments of the battles because I am busy taking pictures of NPS events while they occur. Fredericksburg provided me with a a unique opportunity to change that. Since the reenactment happened right in the town I was able to photograph the Union crossing, fight through the streets of town, and assault on the Confederate position on Marye's Heights. I got some really unique shots and a few of my pictures were even featured on the Civil War Trust Facebook Page, which was pretty exciting.

It was a challenging week, but a memorable one that provided ample opportunities for me to capture moments I have not encountered at any other commemoration.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Illuminating the Sacrifice of War with the help of Steven Spielberg

On November 19, 2012 I spent the day working as a Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. This was, quite literally, a childhood dream come true. I first expressed a desire to be a Park Ranger when I was about 5 or 6 years old. At that point being a Park Ranger meant giving campfire programs in the campgrounds in National Parks. I got to give my own campfire programs in my very first NPS position at Wind Cave in 2009. In fourth grade I developed a great interest in the Civil War, an interest which continues to guide my life today. That very same year I saw special coverage of the 130th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. At the age of ten, as I sat there watching the commemorative events, I figured out that the 150th anniversary of the battle would be in 2013. I decided at that point that I wanted to be at Gettysburg in July of 2013.

When I first started looking into working for the National Park Service Gettysburg was right at the top of my list of ideal places to work. I even flew out to meet with one of the chief rangers at the park to find out more about how I could end up working there. I quickly learned that it would be no simple task to work at Gettysburg, as it is an incredibly desirable park and one of the hardest at which to find employment.  Rather than despairing at the difficulties, I have spent the last four years applying for a wide variety of positions in the Park Service (my total tally is over 300) and have had the pleasure of working in four very different positions.

My current position has allowed me to be a part of some pretty special events, but November 19, 2012 opened up the door to a new level of dream fulfillment. That day marked the 149th anniversary of the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg: the day that President Abraham Lincoln delivered his few appropriate remarks that we know as the “Gettysburg Address.” My job that day was to capture the event on film to share with the thousands who could not be there in person. This would have been exciting for me in any situation, but was made infinitely more so because the keynote address was being delivered by Steven Spielberg.

We weren’t supposed to be there that day. The park didn’t invite us. We invited ourselves. It began with a facebook post from the park that Alison and I happened to see when we went to post a picture of ourselves at Cape Cod in October. When we returned from our trip to New England I mentioned the event to my boss and suggested that we should see if we could get ourselves involved. We succeeded in doing precisely that and found ourselves armed with cameras in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on a cold November morning. 

I had the added benefit of an assistant for the day, in the person of my dear wife, who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see Spielberg herself.

It was a lovely ceremony that included, not only Spielberg’s address, but also a special wreath laying ceremony and a rendition of the famous address by 
re-enactor James Getty.

I have a great love of good stories, and Steven Spielberg is, without question, one of the storytellers that I most admire. I was quite impressed with his treatment of “Lincoln” so it was also fun to see Tony Kushner, the man responsible for the screenplay of the film.

I was additionally excited to spot another one of my most admired storytellers, Jeff Shaara, sitting in the audience during the ceremony.

I even got to play paparazzi and photograph Spielberg as he was signing autographs and leaving the event.

It was a memorable day for me, one that stands out as a highlight of my Park Service career. 

Less than two weeks later I went up to Antietam to photograph the Memorial Illumination. Over the course of the morning volunteers laid out 23,110 luminaries, each one representing one a casualty of the single bloodiest day in American history.

It was an impressive site to see in the daylight, but even more so once the light faded. Even as the sun set, the luminaries began to come to life. The sunset itself was brilliant, especially since I got to watch it from a position where I was the only person around. It was one of those moments where I had to stop and remind myself that the government was paying me to take pictures of what I was seeing.

There was about a 15 minute window after the sun went down before true darkness set in in which the color in the sky was complemented by the brilliance of the luminaries

Once the darkness set in the battlefield truly came to live as all 23,110 luminaries shown forth in their true brilliance.

It was unlike anything I have witnessed and an evocative tribute to those who gave so much on those fields 150 years ago.

I am truly blessed to get to do what I do for the National Park Service!