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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.
BEN FREDMAN/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
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.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973