Photographing the Civil War Bucktails of Pennsylvania


After two years of coordination and extensive research, I finally got to photograph a personal project that is very dear to me.  It was one of those projects that kept me up late at night while lying in bed anxiously thinking about the portraits and how they would look in the end.  Those sleepless nights finally came to an end as I photographed the project over the course of two months in October and November.  It feels great to finally be able to share this project with you as well as the story of how it all unfolded.

Like I mentioned just a second ago, this project took two years to produce.  But as I think about it, I think it would be fair to say that I have been preparing for it long before then.  Back in 2005 during my senior year in college, I had to choose a topic for my senior thesis paper as a History major.  Combining my love for history and photography as I often do, I decided to research and write about the photography of the American Civil War and how it deromanticized warfare.  Combing through the photographs of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan, I saw many examples of work done on or near the battlefields and in their studios.  Since college, I’ve always remained interested in the photography of the American Civil War and how it recorded that period of our country’s history.

So lets rewind only two years ago to find the moment this project became an idea in my crazy head.  While visiting my family’s camp in the Allegheny National Forest, I was driving into the nearest town of Kane, PA to get supplies.  I’ve been going there since I was young, but this time I noticed a sign explaining the town’s name.  Kane is named after Civil War General Thomas L. Kane who founded it in 1863.  Being the history nerd that I am, this immediately peaked my interest.  When I got back home, I decided to read more about General Kane.  That’s when I discovered the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry also known as the Bucktails.

During the Civil War, General Kane recruited men into the 42nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  He called on the men of western Pennsylvania who he recognized as professional woodsmen and hunters with profound rifle skills.  Because of their sharpshooting skills and skirmish tactics, they can almost be considered as the special forces of the Civil War.  I found all of this information to be so incredibly interesting and I was very surprised that I had never heard about the Bucktails before, especially when researching the Civil War in college.  That’s the moment I realized that I had to do some sort of photography project.

The great thing about Kane, PA is that the town is very proud of their history and founder.  I reached out to the Kane Historic Preservation Society and asked if they would be willing to meet with me regarding a project I was interested in working on.  They were happy to sit down with me the next time I was in their area, so I eventually made the five hour trip to meet with them.  I explained what I was hoping to achieve and would be happy to accept any help they were willing to offer.  I was in luck and they were on board and willing to give their full support in any way they could.

Like with any history paper or project I had to complete in college, I knew I had to do my research for this portrait project.  I started by looking at examples of portraits taken of soldiers via Google Images.  I even tried to dig up any details I could about the portrait studios used by the photographers.  Then is when I decided to step up my game and go somewhere I haven’t visited since living in the D.C. area for 10 years.  I headed to the Library of Congress.  I thought, “What better way to get a true sense of these portraits than actually getting my hands on them?”  When I arrived, I was granted an official library card and shown to the printed photos.  It was really interesting to handle the prints, and it made me feel even more connected to the project.  The research phase was complete and it was time to start planning.

My main contact at the Kane Historic Preservation Society, Scott Morgan, and I started to coordinate the project.  He informed me of an upcoming reenactment that would be taking place about two hours from me.  The Battle of Cedar Creek was scheduled to take place on October 15, 2016, and the Bucktails would be part of the reenactment.  Scott highly suggested I attend as it would be a great opportunity to take field portraits in addition to the originally planned studio portraits.  I loved the idea so he put me in touch with the Bucktails that would be making their way to Middletown, VA for the reenactment.

I wanted to photograph the reenactors early in the morning at sunrise, which meant I had to leave my place by 5:00AM.  When I arrived, it was still somewhat dark and the battlefield was covered in fog.  It was a miracle that I was able to locate the Bucktails in the large encampment, but then again, their deer tails pinned to their hats makes them easy to spot.  I got set up immediately after a quick introduction and we got started. 

I have never been to a reenactment before, and being there with the soldiers in middle of hundreds of white tents, I couldn’t help the feeling that I had time traveled back to the 1860’s.  These men and women don’t spare any details.  It was absolutely captivating, and being there with them before the encampment opened to the general public was a real treat.

To make things easy for me, I knew I needed to keep my gear list short.  I kept things rather simple with just one Paul C. Buff Einstein paired with their 64-inch PLM.  My goal for these portraits was to make them look natural with the Einstein and PLM filling the shot with a soft light.  The Einstein was powered by my Vagabond Mini that I put inside my Think Tank Retrospective Shoulder Bag along with an additional battery.  I then used the bag as a weight to keep the light from being blown over in case there was any wind.

About a month after photographing the Bucktails at Cedar Creek, I was doing it again in Kane, PA.  The second part of this project was my original plan to recreate studio portraits of soldiers taken during the Civil War.  This is where Scott and the Kane Historic Preservation Society were extremely helpful.  They provided me with furniture, props, and even a rug to use in the portraits.  They also hosted this part of the project in the Thomas L. Kane Memorial Chapel.  A very interesting note worth mentioning is that General Thomas L. Kane is buried at the front of the chapel.  And to help even more with the project, Scott constructed a floating floor to mimic what may have been used back in the 1860’s.  They went above and beyond, and I’m truly grateful for all their help.

Unlike at Cedar Creek, we were loaded with equipment.  I was especially excited because I built a DIY scrim specifically for this part of the project (more on that in another blog post).  For now, I’ll just say that it worked exceptionally well.  In addition the scrim, I also painted a 9x12 feet canvas to use as the background in the portraits.  From my research, I noticed a majority of portraits with a plain white wall.  So I hit up my local Home Depot, picked up a drop cloth canvas, and painted it bone white.  The texture and color matched perfectly with what I was wanting.

In terms of time and preparation, this has been the largest project I’ve completed, and I’m very excited to finally be able to share it.  There are a few people that I would like to mention specifically for assisting in making this happen and helping me pull it all off.  First, a huge “Thanks!” to Scott Morgan who helped coordinate this from day one and going above and beyond for building a set for the project.  I’d also like to thank two of the Bucktails.  Clarence Walker who helped coordinate the first part of this project at Cedar Creek and Doug Foster for getting the word out to an army of reenactors for the second part of it.  Lastly, I have to thank my mom and dad for all their help on the second part of this project.  My dad was the extra pair of hands I knew I’d need, and those hands even grilled 60-some hotdogs in the freezing cold for the crew and reenactors.  And my mom provided her killer sewing skills when I was building my DIY scrim.  Without her help, that thing would have looked awful. 

Thank you to everyone who was a part of this project!


Email: info@willisbretz.com
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