Saturday, April 16, 2011

Book Review - Gettysburg: A Journey in Time

Attending the spring seminar out at Gettysburg last weekend got me excited about reading some Civil War history, and before I left to come home a couple of trips to the visitors center bookstore netted me five books. After hearing Tim Smith's talk on the history of Devil's Den, which spent most of its time on the photographic record of the site in the days/weeks/years following the battle, I was interested in starting with this book.
Gettysburg; A Journey in Time (1975) by William Frassanito is a history of the early photography of Gettysburg, focusing on those pictures taken between the immediate aftermath of the battle in July 1863 (before the dead were completely cleared from the field) and an end point of 1866. Many of the pictures detailed here were taken by two of the most famous photographers of the day (or at least by their studios): Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Frassanito gives a brief history of the various photographers, discusses photographic methods of the day, but then gets into the real meat of the book, which is a detailed look at the photos themselves.
The book reads at times a little bit like a detective story as Frassanito attempts to unravel the exact timing of when the pictures were taken, by whom, and of exactly where on the battlefield. Wherever possible, he has found the exact spot each picture was taken, and taken a modern one to put side by side with the original. In many cases, a definitive case can be made that many of these pictures were mislabeled in terms of location and even subject matter. Specific geology, unique rock formations, and a pretty good knowledge of the itineraries of the photographers as they moved around the battlefield allows for this to be done with absolute certainty in many cases. This is possible because the photographers were very diligent about numbering their negatives and plates sequentially. Given the cumbersome equipment required to make these photographs and the resulting difficulty in moving about, a "trail" across the field can be constructed, and anomalies can often be pinpointed. These anomalies often help prove that the captions on the photos as published at the time were wrong.
This is a fascinating read for what it is, but this level of minutiae is not going to be for everyone. I will admit that by the end of the book, I was getting a little overloaded on some of the detail. Frassanito has done several other similar and equally well regarded books on both Gettysburg and other Civil War subjects, and I will consider them must-reads in the future. For now, this all needs to sink in, and I will not dive into the next one just yet.

As an aside, the other four books purchased were:
  • Early Photography at Gettysburg, by William Frassanito (1995).
  • Devil's Den, A History and Guide, by Garry Adelman and Tim Smith (1997).
  • Confederate Monuments at Gettysburg, by David G Martin (1986). I probably wouldn't have gotten this encyclopedia style volume if it had cost much more than the $14.99 that it did, but I am a sucker for a nice cheap hardback, and there is a lot of good information in here.
  • Gettysburg Campaign Atlas, Philip Laino (2nd ed, 2009). This is the real gem of the bunch. 482 pages of map after map after map covering everything from the operational overviews of the larger troop movements before and after the battle down to the movements of regiments and batteries minute by minute across individual fields and fences. A treasure trove of detail for a wargamer or map geek.

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