Musician-turned writer's book based Civil War-era photos

January 11, 2013
  • Stephen Recker of Smithsburg says his book "Rare Images of Antietam and the Photographers Who Took Them" is his first attempt to document, organize and interpret he historical photographs and photographers associated with the Maryland Campaign of 1862.
Submitted photo

Age: 54

City in which you reside: Smithsburg

Day job: Web developer, High Rock Studios, Hagerstown

Book title: "Rare Images of Antietam and the Photographers Who Took Them"

Genre: Historical nonfiction, Civil War

Synopsis of book: "Rare Images of Antietam" is the beginning of my attempt to document, organize and interpret, in a comprehensive fashion, the historical photographs and photographers associated with the Maryland Campaign of 1862, taken after Alexander Gardner & Co. left the battlefield at Antietam. The book includes many rare and unknown images of the battlefield.

Publisher: Another Software Miracle LLC

Price: $29.95

In the book's acknowledgments, you say your parents took you to see historic sights in New England. Tell me how that has influenced you?

Ever since I was a child, my idea of a good time has been to hang out at historic places, specifically Revolutionary War and Civil War sites on the East Coast. I spent the 1980s and '90s living in Los Angeles, working as a session guitarist and touring guitarist, and I would often visit the East Coast on tour. It tugged on my heart so strongly that I spent five years producing an interactive CD-ROM called "Virtual Gettysburg," which came out in 2002 ( "Virtual Gettysburg" was well-received and I was tired of living in LA, so I decided to move back east to work on "Virtual Antietam."

What first inspired you to publish a book on photos of Antietam battlefield? Had you always been interested in historical photography?

I have been fascinated by images of dead Civil War soldiers since I can remember. William Frassanito's "Early Photography at Gettysburg" (1995) got me hooked on finding old images and hunting down the precise locations where they were taken. I wanted "Virtual Gettysburg" to contain that feature, so the first thing I did when producing it was collect as many historic photographs of the Gettysburg battlefield as I could find, which is easy to do if you have some time and some money.

Antietam is a different story. The first five years I lived here I found very few rare images of Antietam, in any form, at any price. I even took to collecting rare postcards just to have something to research.

But my luck changed when bought the amazing historical photographs collected by the late Sharpsburg historian Wilmer Mumma. After that, the floodgates opened and I had a stunning run of luck. Each photograph I found was more obscure and more significant than the last. I concluded that these images were way too important to simply hide inside "Virtual Antietam," which I conceded would never be finished by the sesquicentennial of the battle. So I shifted gears and went headlong into writing this book.

Your name is similar to E.M. Recher, who you describe as the patriarch of the group of photographers called the Hagerstown Artists. Are you related? Why do you call him the patriarch of Hagerstown photographers in his time?

Although E.M. Recher often spelled his name Recker, my research shows that we are not related. It is strange, though, that only a few years ago I discovered that what I believe to be the earliest post-Gardner photograph taken on Antietam Battlefield bears the backmark: "Photographed by Recker." Stranger still, my desk at High Rock Studios sits right about where Recher's camera would have stood in his Civil War era photograph gallery.

Recher opened that gallery in the mid-1850s, and although there were other photographers in Hagerstown at the time, it was Recher who took some of the earliest battlefield images. He also trained B.W.T. Phreaner, Antietam's most prolific photographer, and was looked upon as Hagerstown's leading photographer, both artistically and technically, up until his death in 1887.

In "Rare Images of Antietam," you feature Recher and 10 other photographers who shot images at the battlefield. How did you find out about them?

It took me virtually every minute of the 10 years I've lived in Maryland to put those biographies and that chronology together. When I first moved here, I almost daily haunted John Frye's Western Maryland Historical Library, the Washington County Historical Society, Doug Bast's Boonsborough Museum of History, and Antietam National Battlefield. I spoke with every historian and collector that would give me the time of day. I started figuring things out and stories emerged.

But even more pieces of the puzzle are coming to light. I did not discover who took the best images in the Wilmer Mumma collection until a month before I went to press. And I had lunch recently with local historian Jeff Brown, who has discovered some fascinating information about George B. Ayres, expanding on the photographer's brief mention in my book.

You structure the book in two ways — geographically (by sections of the battlefield) and also by photographer. How did you come up with that organization?

I was originally going to mimic Frassanito's "Early Photography at Gettysburg," which covers Gettysburg photographers chronologically and then goes through their photographs geographically.

But I got to thinking about an interview I read in which Shelby Foote opines about his popular Civil War trilogy. Instead of wading through a bunch of boring biographies at the start of his book, he only mentions people when they are relevant to the story.

So I decided my book would follow the Battle of Antietam from start to finish, and I would only introduce a photographer right before his earliest image appeared in the book. What made that difficult was that I also wanted the photographers to appear in order from earliest to latest and I was finding so much new information that the order kept changing.

In the end, it all came together perfectly. The book follows the order of battle and the history of early battlefield photographers in two parallel, yet intertwined, tracks.

What was your process of writing like?

Once I let go of the idea of writing a 600-page opus, I settled on a magazine format like the old Time-Life books. They were great because you could jump in anywhere and read a four-page spread and get an entire snapshot of some slice of history. But you could also read the book from beginning to end and there would be a continuity. So it was less a matter of writing one, long manuscript than finding my most interesting images and marrying them with related images, stories and relics, and writing what are effectively short magazine articles.

And writing short pieces fit my lifestyle perfectly. I have a very young son and I was determined to only write at night when he was asleep, usually in 30-minute increments.

You had a collection of photos when you started. Where did you find other photos and battlefield information?

I became friends with a number of Civil War relic vendors and Antietam collectors who have been researching for decades. Once they saw how serious I was, they would call me with tips or help me solve mysteries.

Literally a week before I went to print, Nick Picerno, pre-eminent historian of the 10th Maine Infantry, and I drove to North Carolina, ending a three-year search for images archived at Duke University.

Another time, Antietam historian and author Thomas Clemens and I drove 500 miles in the snow to the New Jersey Historical Society and unearthed an amazing cache of unknown images. I received an image via email two days before I went to print, and it made it into the book. I had mentioned the image in a talk months before as one I did not think existed. Someone proved me wrong.

Talk about the maps you include in the book. What purpose do they serve? And where did you find them?

I wanted the book to be used as a field guide, so maps were a must. In the 1890s, the Antietam Battlefield Board created a series of 17 maps that show the movement of the troops at different times of the battle day. They are called the Carman/Cope maps.

For each section of the book I tried to select the map that contains the most relevant troop movements in the areas shown in the photographs. Readers can use them to locate the spot on the battlefield where a particular photograph was taken.

I also went to great pains to make sure that the maps were framed in a way that showed surrounding geographic features that were important to the action.

You want this book to be factually accurate. Who were your advisers for this book? How were they helpful?

Initially, it was the good folks at Antietam National Battlefield — people like Ted Alexander, Ike Mumma, Keven Walker, Keith Snyder, Brian Baracz, Alann Schmidt, K.C. Kirkman and John Hoptak. In fact, I still run down there every time I find something new because they always have something interesting to point me to.

I have also gotten a lot of great feedback from audience members during the nine months of talks I gave on the book before it was published.

The most valuable advice I got was from a group of historians I approached just as I went to press. I made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg to show a galley to William Frassanito, the father of photo-historiography. He graciously grilled me on some suppositions I made and helped me refine just how far I should go in declaring something a fact.

Ted Alexander took me to dinner with James McPherson and they schooled me what to leave in, what to leave out and what to put in the back. I debated the tone of my photo captions with Gettysburg photo-historians Gary Adelman and Tim Smith, and although the three of us could not agree on much, I was able to fine-tune the captions with a point of view that I can now thoughtfully defend.

I noticed you did independent research on a photo originally thought to show President Lincoln at Gettysburg; your conclusion is that the photo was taken at Antietam. What other independent research did you do for the book?

I was able to show that the bodies in Antietam National Cemetery are not buried directly under their markers. I discovered in Hagerstown's city records that E.M. Recher went broke in 1877 and had to sell his house, studio, and everything in both. I brought to light Ezra Carman's photograph collection at the New Jersey Historical Society and John Mead Gould's "Kodaks" at Duke. I am probably most proud of having found and identified the only known photograph of the stone wall attacked by the Union army at the climax of the Battle of Antietam.

What sort of reader is this book aimed at?

It was my goal to write a serious study that hard-core historians would appreciate but that would also be enjoyed by the casual tourist. My hope is that people who read it realize that the battlefield is a lot more interesting than one might think on first blush. Walking around the field you can see traces of not only the battle but of the history of the battlefield itself in the decades after the battle.

I also hope it will draw attention to the many fascinating buildings in and around the Hagerstown Public Square. Hagerstown has an amazing history and a wealth of historic structures everywhere you look.

Did you secure an agent to help with publishing the book? How did you find a publisher? How did you develop the visual design?

I published the book myself. Another Software Miracle is a production and publishing company that I created for "Virtual Gettysburg." For "Rare Images of Antietam," I hired Dana Shoaf as editor. He edits the best Civil War magazine out there, Civil War Times, and he is an avid Antietam guy. We contracted his art director, Jennifer Vann, to art direct the book. I did the actual layout on the pages, but when we got together, Jennifer and Dana would mark up each page, adding or removing image borders, changing the style of the icons on the maps, etc. It is the two of them I have to thank for the book looking so professional and being so readable.

Are you working on another book project?

I am actually working on three projects. "Rare Images of Antietam Through the Eyes of O.T. Reilly" is the working title for the follow-up to my recent book. Reilly was a kid in Sharpsburg when the armies passed through and for the next 75 years he was the center of activity in his town. He wrote a column every week for 50 years chronicling every veteran, relic, photographer and tourist who came to the battlefield. I used a lot of it in my first book, but in my second I wish to pay a little more direct homage to the man who left such a treasure trove of research and just plain good stories.

I am also editing an unpublished manuscript written by Simon Whistler, the man who stands on top of the 130th Pennsylvania monument in the Bloody Lane. His family has asked me to publish a book Whistler wrote about his year with Gen. Ulysses Grant as a surgeon on a hospital transport. The book is like Forrest Gump meets Mark Twain. Great stuff.

And back in the 1880s, two brothers from Ohio went through West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania taking photographs of battlefields. They created an amazing travelogue that I would like to add a narrative to and make into a book.

Is your book available in bookstores in our area?

You can buy the book at Antietam National Battlefield bookstore and at the Hagerstown-Washington County Visitor Center on Public Square in downtown Hagerstown.

Online, I sell it at my website,, where I will send you a signed copy; I pay the tax and shipping. It is also available at and eBay.

— By Chris Copley, Lifestyle assistant editor

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