Civil War historian Brian C. Pohanka, who explored the lives of Irish soldiers, dies at 50

Photo by Kevin J. Kennedy
Brian Caldwell Pohanka, in his trademark Zouave officer's uniform, 1994

Sometimes at night I seem to see them, and to hear their voices crying out to me that it must not all be for nothing! When I am gone, too, the lives that they lived, and the dreams that they dreamed, will be gone forever. ... So I wonder sometimes if I have told you enough, if I have done all I can to make you love your country, to make you realize how precious it is. 
    — The words of aged Revolutionary War veteran Randolph Montague, from Upton Sinclair's Civil War novel, "Theirs Be the Guilt." (1960)

The voice of Brian Caldwell Pohanka, a voice that eloquently and persistently recalled the heroics and sacrifices of those who fought America's Civil War, is stilled forever.

Pohanka, a writer and somewhat unconventional historian, died June 15 at age 50 from complications of melanoma, at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was a force for preservation of Civil War history and the heritage of Irish soldiers in that conflict, and will be sorely missed by his friends and colleagues, and the many whose lives he touched with his passion for America's military heritage.

Brian was born in Washington on March 20, 1955, and grew up amid the sights, sounds and inspiration of America's five-year Civil War Centennial. He attended Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, and Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pa.

He was the author or co-author of dozens of books and articles, most focused on the Civil War. Among Pohanka's books are "Distant Thunder: A Photographic Essay on the Civil War," "The Civil War: An Aerial Portrait," "Landscapes of the Civil War," and "Don Troiani's Civil War Art." He was co-author of "Mapping the Civil War," "Custer's Field" and "Myles Keogh: An Irish Dragoon in the 7th Cavalry." He authored a monograph published in 1993 by the Irish Brigade Association, titled "James McKay Rorty: From Donegal Town to a Place Called Gettysburg."

Brian, a contributing editor here at WGT since our launch in 1997, was one of the most important parts of our team, especially in our early years. He not only has authored several of the most enduringly popular features on our site, but served as an invaluable adviser and cheerleader. He was frequently standing by, just a phone call away, offering us an otherwise elusive fact or resource about an Irish soldier or Civil War engagement.

He was unflagging in his dedication to the history and preservation of the memories of these Irish immigrants, not wholly explained by Irish ancestry on his mother's side. He found simple ways to impart profound meaning to these soldiers' sacrifices. He said at a Memorial Day service in 1992 at New York's First Calvary Cemetery:

There was a turn-of-the-century American historian and philosopher who once said, 'There is no dream but deed; there is no deed but memory.' Those (buried here) were men of dreams. They dreamed, as James Rorty did, of 'leading in the cause of Ireland,' as he put it. And they dreamed of this country, their adopted land. And gave their lives ... risked and gave their lives, in its defense, in its cause.

Jack Conway was then chairman of the Irish Brigade Association's Graves Committee, which Pohanka served for five years as honorary chairman. Said Conway: "What impressed me about Brian was his enthusiasm for and his wanting to help the (then) fledgling Irish Brigade Association. His knowledge, his sincerity, his vocation as a champion of the common soldier of the American Civil War were an inspiration to the membership. His genuine interest in assisting us in remembering the immigrant Irish soldier was most appreciated and shall not be forgotten."

'(Brian's) knowledge, his sincerity, his vocation as a champion of the common soldier of the American Civil War were an inspiration.'
– former Irish Brigade Association activist Jack Conway

A reenactor for nearly three decades, Brian commanded "Duryee's Zouaves," one of the oldest "living history" organizations in the country. With his eloquent calls for remembrance, and his slender physique, Imperial beard, and meticulously authentic uniforms, he seemed at once a touchstone for the Civil War and a spokesman for the war's soldiers.

Brian was also a much sought-after consultant for film and documentary projects, playing key roles in two Academy Award winning films. He served as an on-set advisor for "Cold Mountain" (2003), training Romanian army soldiers to portray Civil War soldiers. For "Glory" (1989), he raised a company of black recruits to portray soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. He served as a historical advisor to director Ron Maxwell's films "Gettysburg" (1993) and "Gods and Generals" (2003).

Photo by Kevin J. Kennedybb>
Liam Murphy, left, and Gerry Regan, right, presenting Brian Pohanka, center, with a drawing of Irish Brigade commander Richard Byrnes.

A fixture as a "talking head" on the A&E series "Civil War Journal," Brian also served as a series consultant. Unflaggingly polite and dignified, he never failed to provide reporters, or anyone else, earnest, colorful, thoughtful and accurate commentary and insight.

Brian's touch was lyrical as well as historical. During a visit to France, he recited the poem "Rouge Bouquet" at the grave of slain 69th New York infantryman and poet Joyce Kilmer, evoking the tragedy of a whole generation of artists and other young men lost in the devastation of "The Great War." He described First Calvary Cemetery, the final resting place of Rorty, Michael Corcoran, Tim O'Meara, Richard Byrnes, and other notable Irishmen sacrificed in the Civil War as "The Valhalla of the Irish Soldier," underscoring both the poetry of his world view and the vast reach of his knowledge.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, Brian directed his passion for history to the support of the widows and children of those New York City firefighters who died then, linking the thousands of firemen who served in New York's colorful Zouave regiments during the Civil War and today's firefighters. With features online exploring those links, along with personal appeals, his Zouave unit raised $8,000 for the Uniformed Firefighters Association Widows' and Children's Fund.

Perhaps in no field, though, was Brian more compelling than in battlefield preservation. He was a founding member of Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, which evolved into Civil War Preservation Trust. The Trust has saved thousands of battlefield acres across the country from development.

'Continuing Brian's work will be the best way to celebrate his life.'– Cricket Bauer Pohanka

Brian often seemed a one-man rescue team, arriving at government and local citizens' meetings and embattled battlefield sites, stirring the faithful with his resolve, contrasting the sacrifices of the long-dead combatants with the mercenary gains represented by development of those fields. He was a constant presence during some of the most contested — and successful — preservation struggles of our time, including Stuart's Hill at Manassas National Battlefield and Brandy Station, Va. Their survival today stand as part of his epitaph.

He is survived by his wife of six years, Cricket Bauer Pohanka; his father, John Pohanka of Washington; a brother, Geoffrey Pohanka, of Vienna, Va.; and a sister, Susan Pohanka, of Bryn Mawr, Pa.

"Continuing Brian's work will be the best way to celebrate his life, I think," Cricket Bauer Pohanka wrote me in an e-mail. Donations to Civil War Preservation Trust can be made in Brian's name, using a link from the Trust. We urge you to make that contribution now.

"Without memory, we have no deeds," Pohanka reminded onlookers that sun-drenched Memorial Day in 1992, standing over the graves of Irishmen slain during the Civil War. "So remember, and honor these brave men, these brave souls. Thank you."

And so we will, Brian, impelled by your example. Rest in peace, comrade!— Ger

Brian C. Pohanka's Remarks at the Civil War Monument, First Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, N.Y., Memorial Day (May 30), 1992
Photo by Jack Conway
Brian Pohanka, in the blue tunic of a U.S. army captain, Fort Schuyler, N.Y., 1993

Ladies, gentlemen, guests, comrades, it's truly a pleasure to be here today. This is a spot I've come to once before, walked over it, looked at the (grave)stones, and thought about what they meant and conjured up in my mind's eye images, because this place is filled with images. Images of the swamps of the Chickahominy; images of the "Sunken Road," swept with bullets and blood, at Antietam; images of a stone wall at Fredericksburg; images of the shell-torn earth at Petersburg. Places where those interred here today, and in many cases all but forgotten today, save by a few, save in the memory of that few. Places where they fought and suffered and bled and many of them died.

There was a turn-of-the-century American historian and philosopher who once said, "There is no dream but deed; there is no deed but memory." Those (buried here) were men of dreams. They dreamed, as James Rorty did, of "leading in the cause of Ireland," as he put it. And they dreamed of this country, their adopted land. And gave their lives … risked and gave their lives, in its defense, in its cause.


And it is for us today, not only this handful gathered here today, who truly care about these men and their sacrifice and their deeds, but about all those to whom we can spread the word. And all that we can do and encourage others to do to see that their last resting places are honored and properly marked and preserved. It is for us to carry their dream forward and hand it to future generations.

This very ground we stand on today, by this worn and battered memorial, is sacred ground because around this memorial were buried numbers of the fallen. We stand here today on their last resting place. Men like Major William Horgan, who fell at Fredericksburg, and Patrick Clooney, who died at Antietam, and many others rest around this memorial.

And as we go and decorate the graves for the next few minutes you'll see the last resting places of James McKay Rorty and Timothy O'Meara, another unsung hero of that war, who risked his life to get the wounded and the defeated away from the disastrous battlefield at Balls Bluff, where troops were literally drowning in the Potomac River. He went back across that river to save his comrades because of those ideals that he valued. He later gave his life in the charge on Missionary Ridge. It is said that General Grant wept over O'Meara's body.

And it is men like that and countless others that I don't know of, that probably none of us here know of, who may rest here in unmarked graves, men like the commander of the Irish Brigade, Col. (Richard) Byrnes of the 28th Massachusetts. He rests here in an unmarked grave. There are so many projects that await county associations, historical organizations, people who care. Because we must do what we can to carry that memory of that dream, and those deeds into the future. Because there is no deed but memory. Without memory, we have no deeds. So remember, and honor these brave men, these brave souls. Thank you.


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Tags: American, Civil, LivingHistory, States, United, War


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