Fog of War: Inside the Strange, Compelling World of Civil War Reenactments

A reenacted battle of Fredericksburg All photos by Mike Falco

Michael Falco and the First Virginia Volunteer Infantry were marching up a knoll in the middle of an empty field, blind to the Union soldiers waiting for them on the other side. When the Rebels reached the crest, five hundred Yankees fired off their muskets all at once. Falco’s friends dropped all around him. “Seeing men piled up in heaps is just disconcerting,“ Falco recently recalled with a shiver. “For three seconds, I was freaking scared.” It was his first period rush.

From 2011 until earlier this year, as the United States marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Staten Island native visited battlefields and historical commemorations as both spectator and participant: Dressed as an 1860s photographer, he embedded with Civil War reenactors and used pinhole cameras to capture images so blurry and indistinct they feel oddly and impossibly real.

A period rush, Falco explained as our ferry slipped past the Statue of Liberty on a gorgeous morning in August, is what reenactors call the sense of disorientation you feel when your entire field of vision is filled with objects and scenes that seem unchanged from the past. “All of a sudden you’re like, Holy shit!” Falco said, as if recalling a psilocybic hallucination.

The images that Falco captured in the Civil War Pinhole Project, many of which are on view at the Staten Island Museum through next April, both capture and reproduce this charged and confounding experience. They show landscapes, at the actual sites of bloody battles or very near them, largely left alone for a century and a half and looking just as they would have on the exact same day 150 years earlier, minus the thousands of dead bodies lying in pools of blood. They show meticulously costumed and self-serious re-enactors, many of whom are descendants of soldiers who fought and died in those fields. They show–quite literally, thanks to the gunsmoke and the long exposures required by the pinhole camera–the timeless and impermeable fog of war.

“I loved the idea that the camera would be lingering in those places where the war was fought,” Falco, a freelance commercial photographer, said. “The pinhole camera has no lens, just a hole to let the light in. So the air and the dust from that landscape is entering the camera, too.”

In many of Falco’s images, the magic of that feeling gets across. In one shot at the Antietam battlefield–the clash there was the deadliest in American history–soldiers of uncertain allegiance mingle in a gauzy cloud of morning mist, nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding stalks of corn. Another shows a skirmish during the battle of Gettysburg, seen from a hill a mile away and slightly above the action, as a handful of period-garbed townspeople nervously look on. Others show reenactors mingling around cannons, hoisting flags, sitting in camp–giving the sense of what the landscapes felt like, as Falco put it to me, as much as of what they looked like.

Shiloh

Starting around six years ago, Falco immersed himself in the literature about the Civil War. “I became enthralled by the sheer size of the event,” he told me. Around the same time he started tinkering around with pinhole cameras, which use the camera obscura method that has been around for hundreds of years. He realized that would be the perfect way to capture the blood-soaked grounds on which the Civil War was fought. There was also, he said, a “desire to get away from the instant gratification of digital,” and he welcomed the artistic challenge.

Yet when he attended his first 150th anniversary battle reenactments in 2011, Falco was frustrated by the organizers’ refusal to allow photographers onto the battlefield. “At that point I knew I had to become a reenactor myself,” he said.

He still had difficulties gaining entry to the more hardcore reenactments, which are often put on far out of sight of the public, solely for the amusement of the “campaigners” themselves. “These are guys who choose to spend their weekends camping out with nothing more than salt pork, hard-tack and whiskey, and that’s it,” Falco said. “They’re doing it simply for their own education and amusement. That’s who I wanted to photograph.”

Falco’s first encounter with the hardcore campaigners came at the reenactment of the Seven Days Battles in 2012, when he found himself the last man standing at the top of that hill. At another point that weekend Falco was grouped with the 10th Louisiana Infantry as they prepared to attack. An officer read to his troops an excerpt from a Harper’s Weekly article that ran the same week as the original battle, 150 years earlier. It described the Confederate defeat at New Orleans a few weeks earlier. In a blog post, Falco wrote that some of the reenactors “were actually crying, tears running down their cheeks, for the fate of their Southern women and homes so far away.”

An image from that same weekend, on view at the Staten Island Museum, shows twelve reenactors posing for a group picture, all in varying shades of gray–due, Falco told me, to the South’s meager industrial capacity during the war and its reliance on homespun uniforms to dress most of the army. Everything about the picture, from the wearied posture of two reclining soldiers to the feigned disinterest of all but one of them, shows the reenactors’ commitment to historical authenticity and the degree to which Falco’s method captures what he calls the “nexus of history, people and place” as more conventional photography, all Insta-chatted and Pinter-grammed, rarely has the power now to do.

Antietam

“I didn’t expect there to breaking news related to this project,” Falco told me as we chatted outside the museum, referring to the debate over the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the June 17 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. “I just thought it was terribly ironic that exactly 150 years after that flag was supposed to come down, it was coming down.”

Politics–the existence of slavery, say–is largely absent from Falco’s images. “I kind of wanted to avoid the whole issue,” Falco told me. “I wasn’t sure what I could do with it. There was enough to focus on, just trying to capture the whole length of the war.”

The Staten Island exhibit went up more than a month before the Charleston shooting thrust the Stars and Bars debate back onto the front pages. Yet in the spring, when the museum designed signs for the exhibit with small insignias in the corners showing the American flag and the Confederate battle flag crossed over one another, an African-American donor to the museum insisted that any display of the latter was tantamount to showing a swastika, and the museum agreed not to use the symbol on its signs. A representative of the museum assured me they would not have interfered had Falco selected a photograph depicting the flag for the exhibit itself. Luckily for them, he hadn’t.

“A lot of the issues at stake in the war were never really reconciled,” Falco told me over lunch. “It’s still here, this conflict.” We were only a quarter-mile from the spot where a New York City police officer strangled Eric Garner last summer: death by period rush.

Follow Richard Kreitner on twitter @richardkreitner

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