“Movies” of Civil War

“Movies” of Civil War

The antebellum and wartime stories of Stafford County’s Belle Plain area, which in 1864 hosted at least five Union wharves along a two-mile stretch of Potomac Creek, are a source of continual research inspiration. In an article published in the July-August 2000 issue of Military Images magazine, I had the privilege of sharing the discoveries of a friend and mentor, the Belle Plain/White Oak historian and museum-director D. P. Newton. He located the modern-day camera locations of four of the photographs of Confederate prisoners who had clustered in the various “Punch Bowl” ravines near those Belle Plain wharves. Sources in D.P.’s research files, most notably the diary of Union Colonel Theodore Gates, showed that the ravines and wharves hosted more than 7,800 captive Southerners between May 13 and May 23, 1864.

In locating the camera positions, D.P. had accepted a challenge that historian William A. Frassanito issued implicitly in his 1983 classic, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865—find the sites on a modern landscape that is “densely wooded with numerous hollows.”

A decade after publishing the Military Images article, Belle Plain again captured my imagination when I suddenly noticed that one of D.P.’s site-identified images, shown here alongside a modern near-equivalent that he made around 2000:


…had originated with a glass-plate negative–intended to produce carte de visite photographic prints–that was exposed in a four-lens camera to record four slightly different, sequential scenes:

The plate had recently been posted online, as a digital file, in an intermittently accessible sampler of Civil War photographs in the collection of the National Archives.

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