Interview: Garry Adelman, “Manassas Battlefields Then & Now”

7 07 2011

Garry Adelman, Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide and Civil War author (among other things), has a new book coming out next week, Manassas Battlefields Then & Now: Historic Photography at Bull Run. He recently took some time to discuss his work with Bull Runnings.

BR: While I’m sure many of the readers have heard of you or seen you on the tube, tell us a little about yourself.

GA: I became all but instantly obsessed with the Civil War at age 16 upon picking up William A Frassanito’s Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. It changed my entire life. I was living outside of Chicago and just started digesting all the books I could. I had never before read history for pleasure. I got a business degree at Michigan State a few years later—Hotel and Restaurant Management to be exact—and then went back to Chicago to run restaurants.  In the meantime I started driving out to Gettysburg and Antietam whenever I could. Ultimately, I couldn’t resist moving to Gettysburg, which I did in the fall of 1992. Save for picking up that book in my high school library in 1983, I would not have met my wife, had my kids or been able to work what I think are the best set of jobs in the world.

BR: Whoa, that’s a lot! What happened after you moved?

GA: I didn’t have a job or even any prospects so I did the only thing I knew how to do—opened a restaurant. While running that place, I started writing for The Gettysburg Magazine, became a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, and explored the battlefield with what little time I had. I sold the restaurant to Gettysburg College in 1995, worked there for a few years and then for Thomas Publications, which specializes in Civil War books. In the meantime, I met my future wife on Gettysburg’s town square, published (with Tim Smith) Devil’s Den: A History and Guide (1997) and started working on more books. I got my Masters in History from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania in 2002 and then I really entered the history world. After an 8-year stint at a historical consulting firm in Rockville, Maryland, I started working for the Civil War Trust as Director of History and Education, about a year and a half ago. I am still a Licensed Battlefield Guide and I regularly speak to Civil War groups. I have now written, co-authored or edited more than 30 Civil War-related books and articles.

BR: What is The Center for Civil War Photography?

GA: The Center was founded in 1999 and I have served as its vice president for more than a decade. The Center aims to teach people the whos, whats, wheres, whys, and hows of Civil War Photography. We aim to collect digital copies of, place into context and  make available every outdoor Civil War photo ever recorded. We hold an annual seminar at various battlefields every year and this October we are focusing (excuse the pun) on the Western Theater, at Chattanooga. Space is still available! It was a no-brainer to take the Manassas book to The Center as publisher.

BR: Why did you choose the Bull Run battlefields as the subject for your new book?

GA: No matter how many facets of the conflict I may research or address, I always go back to my first Civil War love—then & now photography. Frassanito pioneered the field of the study of Civil War photographs as primary documents and I am one of a small cadre of historians moving that work forward as he has slowed down. No historian had ever completed even a small book on Bull Run’s historic photography and the resources, mysteries and curiosities abound at Manassas and its surroundings. The topic was all but begging to be covered!

BR: Was there anything in particular that surprised you about the photographic history of the battlefields?

GA: Oh, my yes. Upon separating the various images into series by photographic team, it became clear that only one covered the actual battlefields field during the war—this was George Barnard and James Gibson’s team. Despite Matthew Brady’s attempt in 1861, and Timothy O’Sullivan’s coverage of Manassas in 1862, Andrew Russell’s in 1863, no other photographer secured plates of the iconic sites on the Manassas Battlefields. In June 1865, Alexander Gardner’s team was next to cover the field. This is extremely odd given Bull Run’s popularity and its proximity to Washington.  I suppose another thing that surprised me was how much work remained, even with Barnard’s 1862 series.

BR:  Can you describe your research and writing process?

GA: I first became familiar with and aimed to digitally secure every Bull Run-related historic photo I could. I had been doing this for more than five years already and the best stuff came from the Manassas National Battlefield, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and members of The Center for Civil War Photography. Upon collecting these and separating them into series, I did a bunch of field research, trying to find unknown photo locations and getting to know the photographers’ areas of operations.  This is not a lengthy book and yet this process took years.  I made most of the key discoveries, shot most of the modern photos and did most of the writing, however, in the last eight months.

BR: Any particular discovery you’d like the share?

GA: Indeed! I am most proud of having finally divined the location of five 1862 images that are usually labeled as Blackburn’s Ford. In close consultation with Jim Burgess, Museum Specialist at Manassas National Battlefield, who helped with almost every aspect of the book, I was able to pinpoint the location more than a mile upstream from Blackburn’s Ford. Finding a Civil War photolocation, that is, the place where photographers exposed their plates, is among the most satisfying and fun endeavors I know of. To put five photos into context—that’s more than were taken at Shiloh during the entire war!

 

The historic photo here (left), courtesy of Manassas National Battlefield, was found to show a wrecked Confederate Railroad bridge, upstream from Mitchell’s Ford. Next to it is the location today (right). Click the thumbs for larger images.

BR: What’s next for you?

GA:  I haven’t decided. My family, my work at the Trust and my various Civil War side jobs occupy a great deal of my time. I am playing around with the idea of a small Peninsula/Seven Days photo book. That series of photos remains one of the largest collections of largely unexplored Civil War photographs.

Manassas Battlefields Then & Now: Historic Photography at Bull Run can be ordered from Amazon.com or from The Center for Civil War Photography. Also see The Center’s press release here.








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