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Historians, congregation re-create famous Civil War photo during celebration of Massaponax Baptist Church's 220th anniversary

 Re-enactors, horses and spectators gather on the grounds of Massaponax Baptist.
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Date published: 9/21/2008


May 21, 1864: An election loomed, and America was embroiled in a war that was becoming unpopular, as it dragged on and casualties mounted.

Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant needed a victory. He had just lost 35,000 men in two weeks of intense fighting near Spotsylvania Courthouse. President Abraham Lincoln wanted to be re-elected, but as the war continued with few victories for the Union, that re-election was in jeopardy.

And the American public knew more about the horrors of war thanks to a brand-new phenomenon: photojournalists who followed the troops.

These photographers captured the gritty details of war: dead bodies, burned cities and sad soldiers.

"It was shocking to people to see these gruesome scenes," said Terry Thomann, director of the National Civil War Life Foundation in Spotsylvania. "It showed not only the faces of soldiers, but it also showed the face of war."

In early May, Grant's troops attacked entrenched Confederate forces near the Courthouse. Grant needed a new strategy to lure the Southern troops out into the open.

He and Gen. George Meade had the pews pulled out of Massaponax Baptist Church and held a strategy meeting on the church grounds. They determined to push the Union army on toward Richmond.

Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan captured that meeting on glass plates and developed it into a photo that became one of the defining images of the Civil War.

That photo was titled "Council of War at Massaponax Church" and printed on wooden plates for distribution in illustrated magazines.

Yesterday, Thomann re-created that famous photo at a celebration of the Spotsylvania church's 220th anniversary.

Re-enactors--including Grant's great-great-grandson John Griffiths--sat on the same pews dragged out for the strategy session.

Thomann used a period camera, wet plates and re-creations of the solutions from an 1861 photography manual. With hands stained walnut brown by iron sulfate, Thomann cleaned a hand-cut glass rectangle, poured chemicals on it and put it into the back of the large, boxy camera.

The lens peeked through the window panes of Massaponax Baptist Church, from the same location where O'Sullivan stood.

The reproduction shot is a closer photo, cropping out Massaponax Church Road in the background. The original photo shows that thoroughfare filled with horse-drawn wagons.

Yesterday, cars, trucks and motorcycles zoomed by as re-enactors sat on benches waiting for the photo.

Modern development has encroached on the historic church. The congregation recently bought adjoining land for a new building. Across the street, a sign advertises for tenants for the future Massaponax Crossroads offices.

"If you look around, there's no doubt our area is changing," said the Rev. David Hockney, pastor of the church. "The challenge for us as a church is to realize God still has a plan for us. The book of Massaponax Church's history is not finished. It's still being written."

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973
Email: aumble@freelancestar.com

Massaponax Church began in 1788, probably near Massaponax Creek. The current building was erected in 1859 at the corner of U.S. 1 and Massaponax Church Road. It cost $3,000.

The church was still new when the Civil War broke out, and it sustained some damage from being used as a hospital and command center, not from fighting. The church was used first as a Confederate hospital and later by Union troops. Both armies used the church as a headquarters.

The church's plaster walls became the canvas for soldiers' graffiti during the war. Many of the charcoal scribblings are preserved under Plexiglas. Soldiers sometimes just signed their names; others drew flags, wrote poetry or sent trash talk back and forth. Some even wrote on the walls to chastise people for writing on the walls of a church. The messages include:

"I hope this Sacred place may never again be polluted by Yankee feet."

"The rebellion will be crushed by 64."

"George Joslin Co. M 4th Pennsylvania Calvary Born at Carbondale City Lywerne County Penn. Will be eighteen years old on 8th day of July 1865."

"May 9th 1865 Dear friends you made this writing on the walls of the Church of God but you'r wrong. Perhaps you may be sorry for it someday."

"It is very wrong to treat the house of God in such a manner."

The first photojournalists followed troops on both sides of the Civil War and provided an important service for today's historians.

"It certainly brings the stories to life," said Donald Pfanz, staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. "As historians, you're trying to tell the stories to other people, and nothing tells a story like a photo."

There were almost a dozen war photographers, and hundreds who showed up at camp to take studio portraits. They carried their massive equipment by wagon.

Timothy O'Sullivan, who took the strategy-session photo, began working with the most famous Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady, in 1861. He left to form a studio with another of Brady's staff because Brady never gave his other photographers credit.

"Council of War at Massaponax Church" was important because it was one of the only close-up, candid shots taken during the war.