History you can see

Artist delivers Mercersburg Raid in gritty detail

Artist delivers Mercersburg Raid in gritty detail

October 10, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Picture this - the squish of mud on a raw, rainy autumn day, the sticky thwoosh of a shoe stuck in muck, the tension required to pull said shoe out of a puddle.

Most are content to avoid mud; Ron Lesser wanted, needed, to become intimate with it.

That's the price one pays for historical accuracy, and the East Hampton, Long Island, painter's painstaking attention to detail should withstand the keen observations of enthusiasts.

"You just can't paint a picture doing anything you want," Lesser says. "The Civil War buffs that are really into this thing, they really know their stuff. If you're grossly inaccurate, they'll really hate you."


During a Civil War Weekend Friday, Oct. 11, through Sunday, Oct. 13, Mercersburg, Pa., becomes a haven for some of the lesser-known aspects of the War between the States.

And Lesser's series of three photo-realistic images set the tone.

Celebrating the 140th anniversary of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's raid on Mercersburg, the paintings depict scenes from the reconnaissance mission. Portions of the offensive will be re-enacted throughout the weekend.

Also under the spotlight will be the 54th Massachusetts regiment, one of only two units for black soldiers to serve during the war. More than two dozen of those who served in the 54th or 55th came from Mercersburg. Thirteen are buried in the town.

"I just hope a family comes and young people, and I guess old people, sort of revel in the life of history, the presence of history," says Jerry Ross, one of the event's organizers. "We're trying to bring history alive. To make it something they can see, not just read."

The challenge for Lesser, known for his paintings of Indians during the same time period, was to imbue his creations with a spark of life.

Richly detailed, the paintings are the result of months spent working with historians such as Stuart expert Robert Trout to make sure every stitch of clothing, every building on the square, even the color of horses when possible, was authentic.

"It's not enough to just see it in a picture. I want to know what the buttons look like," Lesser says. "I want to see what a sword really looks like, the sword belt really looks like."

Rather than rely on old photographs, he ordered custom flags, bought uniforms and hired models to wear the garments.

The effort shows for Betty Stenger, a Mercersburg resident and coordinator of a Saturday night Civil War Remembrance Ball.

"I would say they're about as accurate as you can get to reproduce something 140 years ago," Stenger says. "You might be struck by the hue of the paintings, but the time of day was early morning rain."

She marvels at one of the images, which features part of Ross' home, in his family since 1834.

The attention to detail spills over into the dance. Those at the gala will be dressed in period costume, with Civil War-era dancing. The entire weekend, Stenger says, should be viewed as an interactive history lesson.

"If we give them a real sense of history as it existed back then, it will help them to understand their past, their history," she says. "I think the more young people can learn about life as it was 100 or so years ago, the more they can understand life today."

Though it is the childhood home of the nation's 15th President - James Buchanan, Mercersburg's role in the Civil War is nonetheless overshadowed by the bloody conflicts in Gettysburg, Pa., and Antietam.

Stuart's 1862 raid may not have resulted in any bloodshed, but its importance, Ross says, cannot be over simplified.

Stuart's forces entered Mercersburg at mid-day, creating a headquarters and pillaging the town for goods, clothing and horses.

"It was a pretty brilliant cavalry raid," Ross says.

It deserves remembrance. This weekend's activities, coupled with Lesser's paintings, should do the trick.

"It's wonderful for people to read books and articles, but I wanted to capture people's imagination. I wanted to find someone who could make it so real you could step back into time," Ross says. "This idea is particularly for young people. They don't have to look far to find important places where these things happened. They can just look in their backyard."

The Herald-Mail Articles