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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • Civil War reenactment focuses on photography

  • Phil Cudd roamed back and forth along the sunken trail, urging the assembled "corpses" to take on a more death-like appearance.
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  • Phil Cudd roamed back and forth along the sunken trail, urging the assembled "corpses" to take on a more death-like appearance.
    "Let's see some bloating," Cudd barked, sounding like a stage director, as the bodies expanded as if attached to tire pumps. "Right before the shoot happens, open your mouths."
    Civil War reenactments are typically about smoke-wreathed re-creations of famous battlefield scenes, but during Wasioja Civil War Days this weekend, organizers tried something different.
    They re-created "Bloody Lane," a scene of some of the bloodiest fighting during the battle of Antietam and the name given to one of the war's most famous photographs, taken two days after the September 1862 battle by Alexander Gardner.
    As reenactors twisted their bodies into various states of rigor mortis, tongues hanging out, eyes open, photographer David Rambow captured the scene using the same wet-plate collodium process that was used by photographers during the Civil War. It took about 45 minutes to take three photos, with eight second exposures for each image.
    "It's like the easiest gig you can do as a reenactor," said Cudd, who served as battlefield coordinator, "as long as it is not a thousand degrees outside."
    The "Bloody Lane" reenactment cast an intriguing light on the role of photography during the war and how it shaped people's perceptions of the conflict. Rambow, one of only a dozen wet-plate photographers, said the photos taken by Gardner were exhibited in New York City, giving people their first visual glimpse of the war. What they saw shocked them.
    "It scared people, because the war was on their doorstep, and they didn't even know what was really going on," Rambow said.
    Civil War photographers, the most famous of whom was Matthew Brady, did something more than document the war. They also manipulated it at times, Rambow said. They rearranged muskets and canteens to give their images a more dramatic effect. Gardner even had a bayonet pounded into the shape of a hook, so that he could grab a body by the belt and drag it to a better position.
    Such freedom of action contrasts with today's more restrained approach toward the visual documentation of war. In an age when the photos of caskets carrying dead American soldiers can stir controversy, Civil War photographers strolled through days-old battlefields with little constraint, taking photos with almost voyeuristic abandon.
    The state of photographic technology at the time and the almost spectral images it produced also profoundly shaped how history would remember the war. Because taking a photo was so laboriously slow, the only subjects capable of being photographed either had to stand stock still or be dead.
    Brady tried to take photos of the first Battle of Bull Run, but all it produced was a fog-shrouded valley, Rambow said. Brady also learned how dangerous war photography could be. Bullets whizzed about him when his camera was mistaken by soldiers as an implement of war.
    Page 2 of 2 - This was the second year Wasoija has hosted Civil War Days, the first was held in 2011. This year's event drew about 200 re-enactors. It included Union and Confederate encampments, re-enactments of various battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg, many historical figures and educational tents and exhibits.
    Wasioja's history has particular strong claim on the Civil War. At the time the war broke out, Wasioja was a village of 3,000 people, bigger than Rochester. It boasts of having the only existing Civil War station west of the Mississippi. Many of its recruits came from a nearby seminary, which at the time was the only college in Minnesota, said Tom Jensch, one of the event's organizers.
    But the War also contributed to the village's demise. Some of the Boys of Wasioja died during the war, and many of those who survived never returned to Wasioja. But some did. More than 30 Civil War veterans are buried in the local cemetery.
    After the "Bloody Lane" reenactment, Dave Penkert, dressed as a Union soldier, picked himself off the ground. Later that day, he was set to have his leg amputated as part of a reenactment of a severely wounded soldier who goes under the saw. He said it was important to remember that the war was more than a bunch of pictures and stories.
    "It's for real, and we try to make it as real as we possibly can," Penkert said.
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