Photography and Battlefield Preservation: William A. Frassanito’s Revolution

With the publication of William A. Frassanito???s Gettysburg: A Journey in Time in 1975 came a disappointing realization regarding Civil War battlefield preservation — despite the National Park Service???s efforts to maintain those battlefields, as t…

With the publication of William A. Frassanito’s Gettysburg: A Journey in Time in 1975 came a disappointing realization regarding Civil War battlefield preservation — despite the National Park Service’s efforts to maintain those  battlefields, as they would have appeared at the time of the war, areas of the park were so grossly overgrown that the sites were no longer recognizable. Historical accuracy — defined in this sense as how the fields appeared at the time of battle in the 1860s — is one of the National Military Park’s main goals, but how can they restore something that they do not know is inaccurate?

Frassanito’s crusade originated with discrepancies he found with photographic captions. One particular image of a group of dead Union soldiers was given different captions identifying the scene as different locations on the battlefield when presented from different angles.  Frassanito first saw it labeled as the “Dead of the 24th Michigan” When Frassanito realized that this handful of images depicted the same men, he knew that he had discovered that most, if not all, of the captions were incorrect. With a steadfast determination, he undertook the task of correcting these errors.
This proved a more laborious and lengthy process than he initially anticipated. He frequented the Library of Congress to examine their photographic collection and used his time as a Gettysburg College student in the 1960s to search the battlefield for these photos’ location. With all of the undergrowth disguising the historic landscape of the Gettysburg battlefield, Frassanito’s search seemed akin to finding a needle in a haystack. During one of his jaunts through the battlefield, he happened upon a split rock in the woods that looked curiously like that which appeared in the photograph of the 24th Michigan. On March 10, 1967, William Frassanito  uncovered the biggest secret regarding battlefield photography and accuracy, effectively hidden for 104 years. It wasn’t until the publication of Journey in Time that this and subsequent discoveries were made public. Once published, the National Park Service recognized these issues and began a massive restoration of the battlefield based on the new information. His “then and now” shots in Journey highlighted how overgrown the battlefield had become and inspired urgency in its refurbishment.  Thanks to William Frassantio, much insight has been provided into photos, what they show, and how they can be used as tools for restoration.
As if this eye-opening experience was not enough, Frassanito also helped begin to bridge the gap between using photographs as artistic pieces and using them as historical documents. Whereas before photos fell almost exclusively into the realm of fine arts, Frassanito began seeing them as primary source documents that could be used, as previously illustrated, to locate and pinpoint specific sections of the battlefield among other things. Before Frassantio’s scholarship they were found as intriguing illustrations in textbooks; however they are now used as valuable, concrete sources from the period that can not only help with location and accuracy but exemplify  the depiction of war, how images were received on the home front, how they were used as political documents, and how closely they captured reality.
This revolution in photographic history (or the historical uses of photography), aside from its initial impact regarding landscape restoration, has produced subtle changes to the point where students today find it natural to regard Civil War images as primary source documents that give invaluable insight into the past. Perhaps this is the true measure of Frassantio’s impact on modern historical research. His discoveries have truly altered historians’ work and have greatly impacted twenty-first century scholarship. Wartime pictures are no longer simply ornaments in a textbook used to add aesthetic value. Rather, photographs today tell much about the technicalities of the battles such as regimental position, occupied areas of the field, clothing worn, the size and scale of battle, and much more. The Antietam photographs taken along the Hagerstown Pike are some of the prized Civil War images in which the bodies were captured in the positions they fell rather than in preparation for burial, as are the majority of the Gettysburg images. While thought too harsh for the viewers on the home front, the bodies’ positions indicate the direction in which the bullets were flying as well as the wholesale destruction of that particular battle. Those are truly uncensored images of war that can be used not only as emotionally stimulating images, but useful artifacts regarding more mechanical aspects of war. These images are keys to the past that can give insight like no other document. A picture is said to speak a thousand words and, thanks to William Frassanito, we are finally realizing just what it is they have to say.

For Further Reading:

Frassanito, William A. Early Photography at Gettysburg. Pittsburgh: Thomas Publications, 1995.

Most of the information found here was taken from an interview of William A. Frassanito by Natalie Sherif that is archived at Special Collections at Musselman Library.

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