Photographing Living History

Reenacting the Civil War

By Bob Schwabik Back to

bob schwabik, location photography, civil war reenactment Confederates drive the Union Troops towards Strasburg, Virginia

During the early battles of the Civil War (known in Virginia sometimes as The War of Northern Aggression) people would pack a lunch and travel by carriage to view the battles. Throughout the U.S., but primarily in the Mid-Atlantic states, you can still pack a lunch, get in your (horseless) carriage and bring your cameras to reenactments of Civil War Battles. In Virginia, several of the reenacted battles occur on the original battlefields and are accessible for both viewing and photography.

One of the better photo-ops is in the Shenandoah Valley. It is the Battle of New Market staged on the original battlefields, and draws a great number of participants. There are several others in the region and while the opportunities and difficulties are pretty much the same, the focus of this article is on the New Market Reenactment.

Considerations When Photographing a Battle
Attending a big reenactment is as close to a real battle as you can get, at least until the cannons set off the car alarms. Photographing a reenactment is probably different than most subjects the typical photographer has tried and has some unique considerations.

1. It’s full of living moving masses of people. You need to choose a clear spot to shoot from−at New Market close to the fence separating the orchard and the wheat field is where most of the action occurs and is a prime location to set up.

2. There will be a large number of people who are there to just view the battle. The crowds may hamper your ability to quickly move to other locations so initial choice of location and early setup is very important. Watch your backgrounds to keep modern structures out of your images.

3. The battle reenactment will move over a large area. You may not be able to capture the whole event.

4. Weather. Reenactments occur spring, summer and fall. In Virginia it can be hot and it may rain−you need to be prepared for anything and plan ahead.

5. Location. The larger reenactments are popular attractions and are always crowded. Arrive early to choose a spot, setup and stake out some territory. I’ve found that it helps look up the original battle to see where most of the action took place, talk to some of the reenactors if possible, and the best advice−look for folks with cameras and big lenses gathered in one spot.

6. Battles sometimes took days, reenactments can last several hours. Bring a chair, extra charged batteries, and plenty of memory/film. Several battles ago people were walking around, missing the event, asking if they could buy any extra film because they didn’t plan on the volume of photo-ops.

7. Reenactors use black powder in their rifles (like the originals) so there will be plenty of smoke to obscure (or enhance) the scene and metering can be tricky.

8. Check the history of the battle, the largest turnout of reenactors and crowds occur on an anniversary of a battle. For example, at New Market the 2014 (150th Anniversary) event will have the best turnout.

bob schwabik, location photography, civil war reenactment

As the troops in blue retreat north, the men in gray fire from the fence line

I bring just the bare minimum, a camera bag with my EOS 1D Mk IV, EOS 7D. The lenses I am most likely to use are (all Canon) EF 100-400 Zoom 1:4.5-5.6 L IS, my new EF 70-300 Zoom f4-5.6 L IS USM (a very sharp lens) and EF L 24-105 1:4 L USM. I set up the 70-300 on the 1D and the 24-105 on the 7D for flexibility. Most of the images were taken with the 7D and 24-105 lens until the battle moved away from my chosen location. I bring plenty of memory, charged batteries and a tripod with a ball head as well as a folding chair, some water and snacks. For weather, I bring a military poncho large enough to cover all the gear and most of me. This versatile rain gear is light- weight, inexpensive and available at most military surplus stores.

The Battle of New Market – May 15, 1864
The Battle of New Market, Virginia, took place on May 15, 1864, during the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864. A unique part of this battle is that the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) Cadet Corps, aged 15 to 26, most of whom were first year students fought alongside the Confederate Army and helped to force Union General Franz Sigel’s forces out of the Shenandoah Valley. The Confederates moved up from the south driving the union north through the town of New Market, through the orchard and over a fence separating the orchard from the wheat field. There was artillery, cavalry and infantry action during this battle.

bob schwabik, location photography, civil war reenactment

Union troops forming at the fence to fire at the approaching confederates

New Market Reenactment – May 15, 2011
Reenactments attempt to follow the paths of the original battle whenever possible. From experience, I chose to locate myself at the corner of the fence separating the orchard from the wheat field, because this is where much of the action occurs.

At the New Market reenactment the wheat field is cordoned off by a rope which starts at the corner of the fence by the orchard and stretches north along the wheat field. The reenactment of the battle was scheduled to start at 1:00 PM on Sunday, May 15, 2011. I arrived at 10:30 AM to stake out a good spot near the fence between the orchard and the wheat field. When I arrived there were already two other photographers ahead of me setup and waiting for the action to start.

When the Battle started at 1:20, the crowd was about five deep along the rope line separating the battlefield from the crowd, running about 1/4 of a mile along the wheat field. Spectators were in chairs, sitting on blankets and standing along the rope line.

This is akin to shooting at a sports event. The battle unfolds rapidly, and to capture the energy and excitement, I shoot quickly, intending to sort the good from the rest back at home. While it’s your choice, my preference for the reenactment photographs is black and white. Since I like flexibility, I photograph in color and convert to black and white in Photoshop leaving me with the best of both worlds.

bob schwabik, location photography, civil war reenactment

After several volleys the men in gray charge the field

By 3:00 PM this reenactment was completed and some visitors are packing up while others are visiting the “Sutlers” (Civil War-era merchants) area where period equipment and reproductions are for sale to both reenactors and civilians of all ages.

The people who participate in the “battles” take their roles very seriously, and many will stay in character should you get an opportunity to talk with them. Most reenactment units try to maintain an authentic encampment. I encourage you to visit the encampment of the reenactors as they usually welcome photographers into their camps.

Epilogue: The New Market Day Ceremony
What makes the New Market Reenactment special to me is the history involved. VMI, founded November 11, 1839 in Lexington, Virginia is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Graduates of VMI can be directly commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army. George C. Marshall was a graduate, Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson was an instructor, and George S. Patton attended (before West Point,) the 3rd generation of Pattons to attend VMI.

The service of the Corps of Cadets during the 1864 Battle of New Market marks the only time in the America’s history when an entire student body fought as a unit in pitched battle. The Corps battalion suffered 25% casualties at this battle. That service entitles VMI cadets to be the only school in the United States to parade with fixed bayonets, and to fly a battle streamer on its flag.

In 2011 the reenactment occurred on the same date as the original battle so some of the images you are seeing with this article were taken at the same time as the Roll of Honor was being called back at VMI in Lexington. The 2012 New Market reenactment will be held May 19 and 20.

bob schwabik, location photography, civil war reenactment

Union troops fire at the confederates approaching from the south

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About the Author

Bob Schwabik
Bob Schwabik is a retired Process Improvement Consultant living in Southwestern Virginia. Bob photographs from the side of the road or any other location that doesn’t require hiking. He has traveled extensively with his cameras by car throughout the U.S. and plans on continuing to advocate photography from a car for any and all people who find themselves less limber than they used to be in their youth. Bob has a workshop for beginners, focusing on locations that offer photo-ops near the side of the road. Visit his blog