It took me virtually every minute of the 10 years I've lived in Maryland to put those biographies and that chronology together. When I first moved here, I almost daily haunted John Frye's Western Maryland Historical Library, the Washington County Historical Society, Doug Bast's Boonsborough Museum of History, and Antietam National Battlefield. I spoke with every historian and collector that would give me the time of day. I started figuring things out and stories emerged.
But even more pieces of the puzzle are coming to light. I did not discover who took the best images in the Wilmer Mumma collection until a month before I went to press. And I had lunch recently with local historian Jeff Brown, who has discovered some fascinating information about George B. Ayres, expanding on the photographer's brief mention in my book.
You structure the book in two ways — geographically (by sections of the battlefield) and also by photographer. How did you come up with that organization?
I was originally going to mimic Frassanito's "Early Photography at Gettysburg," which covers Gettysburg photographers chronologically and then goes through their photographs geographically.
But I got to thinking about an interview I read in which Shelby Foote opines about his popular Civil War trilogy. Instead of wading through a bunch of boring biographies at the start of his book, he only mentions people when they are relevant to the story.
So I decided my book would follow the Battle of Antietam from start to finish, and I would only introduce a photographer right before his earliest image appeared in the book. What made that difficult was that I also wanted the photographers to appear in order from earliest to latest and I was finding so much new information that the order kept changing.
In the end, it all came together perfectly. The book follows the order of battle and the history of early battlefield photographers in two parallel, yet intertwined, tracks.
What was your process of writing like?
Once I let go of the idea of writing a 600-page opus, I settled on a magazine format like the old Time-Life books. They were great because you could jump in anywhere and read a four-page spread and get an entire snapshot of some slice of history. But you could also read the book from beginning to end and there would be a continuity. So it was less a matter of writing one, long manuscript than finding my most interesting images and marrying them with related images, stories and relics, and writing what are effectively short magazine articles.
And writing short pieces fit my lifestyle perfectly. I have a very young son and I was determined to only write at night when he was asleep, usually in 30-minute increments.
You had a collection of photos when you started. Where did you find other photos and battlefield information?
I became friends with a number of Civil War relic vendors and Antietam collectors who have been researching for decades. Once they saw how serious I was, they would call me with tips or help me solve mysteries.
Literally a week before I went to print, Nick Picerno, pre-eminent historian of the 10th Maine Infantry, and I drove to North Carolina, ending a three-year search for images archived at Duke University.
Another time, Antietam historian and author Thomas Clemens and I drove 500 miles in the snow to the New Jersey Historical Society and unearthed an amazing cache of unknown images. I received an image via email two days before I went to print, and it made it into the book. I had mentioned the image in a talk months before as one I did not think existed. Someone proved me wrong.
Talk about the maps you include in the book. What purpose do they serve? And where did you find them?
I wanted the book to be used as a field guide, so maps were a must. In the 1890s, the Antietam Battlefield Board created a series of 17 maps that show the movement of the troops at different times of the battle day. They are called the Carman/Cope maps.
For each section of the book I tried to select the map that contains the most relevant troop movements in the areas shown in the photographs. Readers can use them to locate the spot on the battlefield where a particular photograph was taken.
I also went to great pains to make sure that the maps were framed in a way that showed surrounding geographic features that were important to the action.
You want this book to be factually accurate. Who were your advisers for this book? How were they helpful?
Initially, it was the good folks at Antietam National Battlefield — people like Ted Alexander, Ike Mumma, Keven Walker, Keith Snyder, Brian Baracz, Alann Schmidt, K.C. Kirkman and John Hoptak. In fact, I still run down there every time I find something new because they always have something interesting to point me to.
Musician-turned writer's book based Civil War-era photos
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