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Column: Civil War historian makes Gettysburg his focus and his home

Gettysburg, Pa.

The wheat had been flattened in the somber field where the dead Confederates were lined up for burial in 1863.

Forty-four bodies, some with their legs tied together to make them easier to carry, had been gathered by their comrades. But there was no time to dig the graves, and this was how the photographers found them, laid out on the trampled ground.

William Frassanito, the reclusive historian of Civil War photography, is standing in the woods just outside the field at sunset, explaining how he located this spot after it had been lost for more than a century.

It’s quiet now, except for the cooing of mourning doves and the lowing of cattle that graze in the knee-high grass.

Frassanito, 66, rarely ventures out in public at this hour. He’s a night owl who rises at 4 p.m. and goes to bed at 6 a.m. He seldom answers his phone. He has no answering machine, no email and no cell phone.

But last week marked the 150th anniversary of the colossal battle, the photography and geography of which he has studied most of his life. Thousands of visitors, dignitaries and historians were expected to mark the three-day struggle that began July 1, 1863 — a victory for the Union cause and the turning point in the war.

And Frassanito would like his pioneering scholarship, and its impact on history and the battlefield, to be more widely recognized. Key parts of the hallowed battlefield have been restored because of his work. Battlefield plaques have been added or corrected. And his research has created the new specialty of examining an old picture for the information it contains.

“I’ve actually created a hybrid field of study,” he said. “Academic historians traditionally view photos as Christmas tree ornaments, just something that (helps) you spruce the book up. . . . They’ve never really had the interest in the photo as a document.”

Frassanito’s investigation of the battle’s historic photos — which he began as a child — has resulted in some of the biggest revelations in the past 50 years about the battle and its aftermath.

His discoveries of the spots where the pictures were taken have helped the National Park Service restore important parts of the battlefield to their original appearance. “As far as having a really solid impact on the historical thinking and understanding of the battlefield, very few other people have contributed to it like Bill Frassanito,” said Gettysburg historian John Heiser of the National Park Service.

Frassanito is a student of Gettysburg with meticulous habits.

He already has his name and birth year on the family tombstone in the town’s Evergreen Cemetery. He notes that his last name has 10 letters, just like Gettysburg, and that he has files on almost all 2,400 persons who lived in the town in 1863. He keeps a regular, if unusual, schedule, meeting friends, relatives and admirers at precisely 10:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the Reliance Mine Saloon.

Then he goes to his third-floor office in an old house in town. There he answers correspondence, prepares material for friends who run his Facebook page and listens to country-rock on the radio.

“He’s the most eccentric person I’ve ever met,” said his friend Garry Adelman, vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography. “He’s the most careful historian I’ve ever met.”

The grandson of Italian immigrants and the son of a jeweler, Frassanito was born in Queens, N.Y., and raised in a two-bedroom house on Long Island. He is a diminutive, amiable, somewhat shy figure with gray hair, glasses and a gray beard. He loves to talk and tell stories, and devoted followers call him “Frazz.” He has never married.

He has lived in Gettysburg for 38 years. His first visit to the town was in 1956 at age 9. He attended Gettysburg College, worked as a battlefield guide and settled here permanently after serving in Vietnam.

His parents are buried here.

Nowadays he never leaves Adams County, home to the historic town. He was recently aghast at the prospect of having to see an eye doctor in Frederick, Md., about 35 miles away. He found someone local.

“I don’t like to travel,” he said during an interview in the saloon, which he said he likes because it has a fire in the winter. “The only socializing I do is here, three nights a week,” he said.

“When I’m not here I’m kind of reclusive. I like to be left alone. “

But he loves to talk to his fans in the saloon, where his books are above the bar. “And then I disappear into my office,” he said.

“There’s nothing else that I need in life.”

Frassanito is best known for revealing that one of the most iconic images of the war — a picture of a dead Confederate “sharpshooter” in his lair — had been staged by the famous Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner.

Gardner and his crew had found the well-preserved body a few days after the battle and carried it across a swath of rocky terrain to a more photogenic spot at a stone barricade.

They laid the young soldier’s body down, added a rifle as a prop and took the famous picture. They also cooked up a bogus caption.

An earlier writer had noticed that the body had been moved, because the same soldier appeared in another photo at a different place.

But it was Frassanito who first provided the details, in his popular 1975 book, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time, and in a subsequent work, Early Photography at Gettysburg, in 1995.

He found the spot where the other photo had been taken and calculated that Gardner and his crew had carried the body about half the length of a football field to set up the famous picture.

As a result, the Park Service changed the erroneous explanation of the photograph on the wayside plaque that had been at the spot for years.

Frassanito also figured out that a dozen famous Gardner photographs, containing vague or erroneous captions, were all images of the same group of dead soldiers taken from different angles.

By scouring the battlefield for a distinctive split rock in one of the pictures, he found the place where all the shots had been taken.

The spot was the field on the Rose Farm, south of town. It was then overgrown with forest and a locale that few students of the battle had even heard of — “one of the most obscure places at Gettysburg,” Frassanito said.

Heiser, the historian, said that because of Frassanito’s work, the spot has been cleared of woods and restored to its 1863 appearance. A plaque marks the site.

When it was filled with the gruesome ranks of the dead, it must have riveted Gardner, who took more pictures there than at any other place on the battlefield, Frassanito said.

The black-and-white photos — “death studies,” he calls them — seem to have an eternal fascination for people, he said.

“The death studies are one of the biggest magnets that drew me in here,” he said. “Because it’s as close as you could actually come to the blood and guts of a battle.”

The viewer can use the photo as a map, find the rocks that appear in the background and go to the exact spot, separated from the moment in the picture only by time.

As for the 44 dead Confederate soldiers, Frassanito said he has been studying them for so long that “they’re like my buddies.”

On July 4, 1863, the day after the battle ended, many of the fields and woods around Gettysburg presented scenes of horror.

“No pen can paint the awful picture of desolation, devastation, and death that was presented here to the shuddering beholders,” wrote local farmer John Howard Wert. “Death in its ghastliest and most abhorrent forms everywhere. . . . It was a hideous and revolting sight.”

Sheets of musket fire had peeled the bark from the trees. Rocks were scarred by thousands of bullets. Artillery shells and rifle balls had burrowed into trunks and branches, some to stay hidden for more than a century.

Residents carried bottles of peppermint oil to mask the stench from dead horses and men, according to a study of the aftermath by the historian Gregory Coco.

Roughly 6,600 soldiers, Union and Confederate, had been killed. The toll of those killed, wounded, missing or captured topped 50,000.

The battle was the midpoint of the war — a disastrous defeat for the South and the start of the long, bloody collapse of the Confederacy.

It was here that Gardner and his men, and, later, famed photographer Mathew Brady, among others, hurried in the days after the battle.

And a century later it was their photographs — and puzzling captions — that mesmerized the young Frassanito and started him on the research that would take up much of his life.

On a recent evening, Frassanito stood on a remote lane on the battlefield in blue jeans, black shoes and a tan shirt. The Rose Farm killing field was just through the underbrush on the other side of a zigzag rail fence.

There was a historical marker noting that Confederate Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes was mortally wounded nearby. Across the lane stood a statue honoring the 53rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 74 of whose 135 men were killed or wounded.

The sun was just setting behind Warfield Ridge to the west. It was roughly the time of day that the fighting raged here on July 2, 1863.

Frassanito didn’t want to venture into the field. But he explained how he found the crucial split rock, which was the key to where all 12 of the famous pictures were taken.

He had eliminated four other likely places on the battlefield. He then narrowed down his search to this area and began walking with a sketch of the rock he had made from a photograph.

That photo depicts several slain soldiers, probably men from the 53rd Georgia or 15th South Carolina regiments who were killed nearby, Frassanito wrote in 1975.

The men, and their comrades in the other photos, had been dead for several days. Their bodies had been exposed to the sun and the rain that drenched the area after the battle.

They had nothing with them — no rifles, no equipment and, in some cases, no shoes. Hats were strewn about.

“My God,” wrote a Union soldier who saw a similar scene nearby. “I cannot say I ever wish to see another sight like that I saw on the battle-field of Gettysburg.”