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A bit of history has been corrected

September 08, 2013

On the dawn of Sept. 17, 1862, about the time that most people by today’s standards are beginning their morning commute, the grandfatherly Gen. Joseph Mansfield was taking a bullet to the chest in defense of the Union. He did not survive, but as was the reward for the five other generals mortally struck that day, he was honored with a cannon barrel planted in a base of stone, marking the exact spot where he fell.

Sort of. But there were enough cracks in the conventional wisdom to set Stephen Recker’s perpetually hyperactive antennae aquiver.

Using (literally) shopping carts full of vintage photographs and a forensic scientist’s nose for detail, Recker, a web developer at High Rock in Hagerstown and a guide at Antietam National Battlefield, had already proved that a famous Gettysburg photo once featured in Life magazine was not shot at Gettysburg, but at Antietam. It was Recker’s work that revealed soldiers were buried randomly at Antietam National Cemetery and do not match the headstones that purport to bear their names. But this Mansfield business would prove even stickier.

Recker is that rarest of breeds — the Type A historian who believes that poring over events of 150 years ago is a blast. With the enthusiasm of a young colt on the first day of spring, he can get his audience on the edge of its seat to learn the true position of a 19th-century sycamore that the two armies would have seen the moment the battle commenced. With stories galore, a ready guffaw at the war’s myriad ironies and a naughty grin suggestive of untold historical secrets, no one who spends an afternoon with Recker will ever again insist that history is dull.

Those who suspect him of being a showman are correct. He played guitar for Al “Year of the Cat” Stewart, appeared in a movie with Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong, worked in multimedia for Apple computers and on his own produced “Virtual Gettysburg,” the fourth commercial CD-ROM in history.

But it was history that kept calling to him, and after his National Cemetery scoops, Recker knew he had to come out with a book matching vintage photographs to the modern-day landscape. The final product, “Rare Images of Antietam: And the Photographers Who Took Them,” is a fascinating study in the then and now, and solves mysteries that are better than a century old.

It can be a tricky business. Contours in the localized topography can change over the years, but some shapes, such as the silhouette of South Mountain, endure. Photographers during the Civil War often ignored fields of great significance, Recker says, focusing instead on more photogenic features, such as Burnside Bridge or Dunker Church. Some of the most interesting action gets overlooked that way, including a second cornfield at Antietam that Recker finds every bit as fascinating as The Cornfield.

And even “solid” information from the period isn’t always solid — it wasn’t until 25 years after Antietam that veterans began drifting back to tell their stories, reliant on imperfect memories of distant-past events.

In fact, Mansfield’s demise had been pegged at seven or eight places on the battlefield, depending on who was telling the story. This was too much for the old general’s compatriot, Maj. John Mead Gould, who allowed that it was bad enough to be mortally wounded once; no man should have to suffer through it multiple times. So he decided to set the record straight.

Gould grabbed one of those newfangled Kodaks just coming on the market in 1889 and snapped 100 photos to document Mansfield’s true position. He did not think to take notes. When the photos were processed, Gould was left with a stack of unidentified shots of fields and trees. “No one, not even the person who took them, knows where they are,” Recker said.

What was known was that when he was hit, Mansfield was on his horse talking to Capt. William P. Jordan, who was standing on an outcropping of rock. From there, with the help of historians and collectors near and far, Recker finally came up with the “money shot.” Tracing an identifiable tree through multiple photos gathered from across the land, Recker found a picture taken from the spot where Mansfield fell. A signature tree — today a buried stump — provided the operative reference point. So just weeks before Recker’s book went to press, he feverishly dashed to the site and began counting posts. One two, three … 13, 14, 15, “and then boom, there it was,” Recker said. It was that outcropping of limestone, likely the very spot where Jordan was standing when his general took a fatal bullet.

“It took three years and four (photo) collections,” Recker said.

The spot is maybe 30 yards west of the Mansfield cannon. Does 30 yards matter? It will to historians in the future who fit together small puzzle pieces to reconstruct broad pictures. But maybe more important, it speaks to the inner detective in all of us — those who believe that with enough work, all things are discoverable. And that the chase to discover those truths is part of the fun, as Stephen Recker so aptly demonstrates.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.



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