Famous O’Sullivan Photo Is Recreated In Virginia Churchyard
By Scott C. Boyd
(November 2008 Civil War News)

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Civil War battles are recreated. Civil War ships are recreated (just visit the USS Monitor Center or Port Columbus). But Civil War photos?

A famous photo from 1864 was recently recreated at the very spot and with some of the same furniture and trees seen in the original.

The original photo shows a war council held by Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant at Massaponax Baptist Church in Spotsylvania County, near Fredericksburg, on May 21, 1864. The scene was replicated on Sept. 20.

The setting of the original photo was the middle of the very bloody Overland Campaign, which stretched from The Wilderness in early May 1864 to Cold Harbor in early June of the same year.

Grant kept engaging Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in one battle after another. Grant suffered greater losses than Lee, but instead of retreating north after every bloody nose given by the Confederates (as his predecessors had done), he kept pushing south while grinding down Lee’s army, inflicting casualties the Confederates could not readily replace.

Between the battles at Spotsylvania Court House and the North Anna River, Grant held a war council at the church. Troops from the Union Fifth Corps were marching by the temporary headquarters there as the council met.

The setting of the recreated photo was the church’s 220th anniversary. The Civil War scene became part of the festivities that day at the church. Union reenactors, mostly from the Fredericksburg area, portrayed the officers meeting with Grant and the soldiers in the background.

Harry Bulkeley, who played Grant in the 2007 TV movie “Sherman’s March,” came from his home in Galesburg, Ill., to portray the Union general.

Portraying Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, whom Grant leans over to look at a map, was John Griffiths.

Griffiths lives in Fredericksburg and, in a startling coincidence, is a direct descendant of General Grant. Yet, he looks so much like Grant’s subordinate, he portrayed Meade.

The church pews that the reenactors sat in were the same ones used in 1864, except they had been painted white sometime since the war. The church allowed several pews to be taken outside, just as in 1864.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, an employee of photographer Alexander Gardner, took the original photos at Massaponax Baptist Church from a second-story window looking down on the war council in the churchyard.

Terry Thomann, director of the National Civil War Life Museum in Spotsylvania County, was the 2008 photographer. He used a perch at the same window, but he had two limitations that O’Sullivan did not face.

First, Thomann had to shoot through the second-floor glass window and its acrylic cover. O’Sullivan took the window sash down to have a clear shot. Thomann explained that he did not want to inconvenience the church further by asking to take down the window sash and protective cover.

Second, Thomann used a standard wet plate portrait camera, instead of a stereo camera like O’Sullivan’s. “My field of vision with that lens was a little more magnified,” Thomann said.

“O’Sullivan’s lens was a little more wide-angle. So he got a little more of the scene in than I could get.” He explained the lenses are not adjustable. “You can’t zoom them in and out. The only way to change perspective is to move the camera.”

Thomann took seven photos and laughed when he added, “Two of them came out.”

Sunshine through the window created a glare, resulting in washed-out pictures. “Finally the sun went behind a cloud and we shot two pictures in quick succession and we got two good ones.”

He said he learned a lot that day about the difficulty that a photographer had making an image like that. “You don’t have a lot of time to work. You prepare these plates, run them upstairs, get them in the camera and take that picture.”

 For O’Sullivan to get three images in a very short period of time is “incredible.”

The church invited everyone back to do it again next year, but Thomann said he doesn’t want to wear out his welcome. He’s waiting for the 150th anniversary of the war council photo in 2014.

“We’re going to have a lot more reenactors, horses and wagons, and the church has said that we’ll have the window down for that one,” Thomann said.

“I’ll have a stereo camera, too. So we’re going to really be able to do it up exactly.”