Hundreds Gather on Battlefield to Mourn Historian's Death

Photo by Kevin J. Kennedy, 1994
Brian C. Pohanka

By Gerry Regan, Producer / TheWildGeese.com

MANASSAS, Va. — Laughter and sorrow commingled over the sun-drenched Manassas National Battlefield as more than 400 mourners gathered June 23 to remember and honor author, reenactor, and preservation activist Brian C. Pohanka.

Pohanka, who clearly touched many lives during his 50 years, died June 15 after an 18-month struggle with melanoma. By all accounts, he was a force for the preservation of the history and heritage of America's Civil War, including that of the war's Irish immigrant soldiers. (See WGT's tribute to Brian.)

In nearly three decades of work in history, the day's speakers indicated, Pohanka challenged apathy, greed, and careless or self-serving portrayals of history as he helped transform the preservation landscape, expanded knowledge about the war's soldiers, and brought the war to life with dozens of appearances in documentaries, movies, speaking engagements, and living history. Further, Pohanka, a much sought-after historical advisor, helped filmmakers portray the Civil War in a gritty, honest fashion rarely seen in major motion-pictures.

The 80-minute service took place on the Stuart's Hill picnic grounds, acreage that Pohanka's exertions helped preserve in 1988. The event drew Pohanka's family, friends, comrades, colleagues, and journalists — a veritable battalion of admirers.

Photo by Jonathan Zeron
The honor guard of the 5th New York Infantry, aka Duryée's Zouaves, forms a backdrop for the service's speakers.

Jim Lighthizer, president of Civil War Preservation Trust, offered what may have been a keynote for the service, telling the gathering, "We truly have lost a good man, and as sad as that is, we're also here today to celebrate a life that was very well lived. And that in itself is a joy."

Pohanka encouraged writers, historians, and budding historians, and edited many articles and books for which he received no credit simply because he felt they "were important," Lighthizer noted. "In a phrase, Brian Pohanka was a first-rate military historian," he said, and a modest and unselfish one, at that.

Lighthizer spoke about Pohanka's decades of devotion to battlefield preservation. Pohanka was one of the founders of the Trust's predecessor, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, in 1987. Since then, "some 23,000 acres of Civil War battlefield land have been saved, land that but for those organizations, would not have been saved." After a burst of applause, Lighthizer continued: "That number continues to grow, thanks in part to Brian Pohanka's vision and leadership."

We're also here today to celebrate a life that was very well lived. And that in itself is a joy.
— Jim Lighthizer, President, Civil War Preservation Trust

Pohanka was extraordinarily generous to preservation causes, but also was "willing to do the grunt work," Lighthizer related, often traveling hours, sometimes to wait for hours, to advocate in only a few allotted minutes for "a piece of a battlefield" at a hearing before officials "who didn't really want to hear what he was going to say."

"That's not glamorous work, and it's no fun, but it's the kind of work, the kind of attention to detail that often times determines the fate of ... a piece of land," Lighthizer said. "In part what Brian's legacy is, is the gift of that land to the American people. I would say to Brian, for that we're all very grateful.

'He drew strength from those soldiers.'

Reenactors from Company A, 5th New York Infantry, which Pohanka led as captain, provided a 30-man honor guard that stood behind those who were to speak. "Brian endured his individual battle, solaced by the fact that, at least for Brian, many Civil War veterans had endured worse," said unit member and NPS historian Patrick Schroeder. "He drew strength from those soldiers, and emulated those strengths throughout his life. Brian was not just a talker, but ... a doer."

Schroeder said: "Brian's plight and situation reminded me so much of the battle with cancer that U S. Grant went through, both enduring constant pain, yet diligently working on their books, Grant finishing his memoirs to support his family, and Brian completing his regimental (history), an everlasting tribute to the soldiers of the 5th New York, Duryee's Zouaves."

Photo by Jonathan Zeron
John J. Pohanka, Pohanka's father, tells mourners that while he traveled people would often ask if he was related to Brian.

Another speaker, long-time reenactor and historical advisor Michael Kraus, a friend of Pohanka's for nearly two decades, worked with Brian on the films "Cold Mountain," "Gettysburg," and "Gods and Generals." He described Pohanka's gift for making history both personal and vivid.

"I loved to hear him speak, whether it was around a campfire, on a stage, in a classroom, in a car on the way back from a hard day at a movie set," Kraus told the assemblage. "His ability to recall stories and assemble anecdotes at the top of his head was magical. His scope of knowledge, (was) so fantastically broad, ranging from literature to language, and, of course, so many layers of history. ... Many worthy speakers can deliver a historical program, but Brian could transport you to the scene."

Pohanka used that attention to detail and narrative to elevate the historical values of major motion pictures, Kraus noted. "On each (film project), he insisted on portraying the highest standards of historical accuracy, behind any fictitious or superficial story the director might want to film."

Kraus noted that during the filming of "Gettysburg" in 1992, which Pohanka served as the chief on-set historian, Pohanka's suggestions to director Ron Maxwell led to inclusion of a number of scenes drawn from the battle, including Garnett's horse emerging riderless at The Angle during Pickett's Charge.

In "Cold Mountain," one can also see Pohanka's expertise at work in a number of scenes, Kraus noted, including the film's portrayal of the Battle of the Crater, when Confederates hurl their rifles, bayonets fixed, into the so-called Crater as spears, and when federal soldiers clawed their way up the Crater's steep walls. "Those and more were direct suggestions from Brian," Kraus said.

"Adamantly tough and uncompromising as he was in preserving history and battlefields, Brian also had a soft side," Kraus said. "He would literally drop everything to contribute a line of research prompted by an e-mail or a phone call. ... He enjoyed the human connection with everyone."

Kraus also highlighted a lesser known side of Pohanka — his love and advocacy for animals. In Romania, during filming of "Cold Mountain," Kraus related, Brian won over a stray puppy with daily offerings of bits of his lunch, till the dog came routinely to Brian's side. "I know Brian's heart melted whenever he could coax the stray over for a stroke on the head or a scratch on the chin," Kraus said. Pohanka's widow, Cricket Bauer Pohanka, said he delighted in the companionship of cats, having four in their home.

'Are you related to Brian Pohanka?'

Though clearly driven by strong and informed passions, Pohanka was sensitive and a "good team player," recalled Terry Daley, the first captain of the 5th New York, calling him "the U.N. of reenacting."

"I said, 'Brian, you've got to take a stand on this. ... He'd say 'I wouldn't want to hurt anybody's feelings.' Brian, I wouldn't have a problem doing that. He'd say, 'That's why you're going to do it.'" Added Daley, "Brian made some choices in his life, and he enjoyed every minute of what he did."

John J. Pohanka told the audience of his experience bearing the name Pohanka. "I'm John Pohanka, Brian's father. ... Wow! ... Now I say that because over these last 10, 20 years, as I travel around the country, checking into hotels, buying things, presenting my credit card, often people would look and say "Pohanka, Pohanka? Are you related to Brian Pohanka? ... Yes, I'm his father. And they would say "Wow!"

The senior Pohanka, chairman of Washington-based Pohanka Automotive Group, also recalled a clerk at a Borders book store in Florida saying "'He changed my life.' Now he probably never met Brian, he probably saw some editions of 'The Civil War Journal,' and recognized (Brian's) love of history, his love of country, his scholarship, and somehow was inspired by that."

'I witnessed Brian take personal affront at racism.'
— Bill Gwaltney

Bill Gwaltney, a Denver-based NPS director and reenactor with Company B, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, outlined Pohanka's role in recruiting and training the first company of black reenactors, recruited for the Academy Award winning film "Glory." He said it was a role that made Pohanka very proud.

In the spring, Gwaltney said he met with Pohanka and his wife, Cricket, for dinner. Later, "in a very calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice, Brian asked if I would speak at the funeral. I tried to maintain my composure as he went on to say that he felt it important that people knew ... of his connection to the story of black troops in the Civil War, as a human being and not just as the military historian or reenactor."

Photo by Jonathan Zeron
NPS' Bill Gwaltney addresses those at the standing-room-only memorial service, with the 5th New York's lieutenant, Stan McGee, behind.

"I can only say that Brian Pohanka was thorough and thoughtful. He studied everything and forgot nothing. He listened carefully and cared about justice. I witnessed Brian take personal affront at racism on several occasions, and then take immediate and personal action to confront it. I remember well because I pulled him off a couple of guys."

"As a result of Brian's work," said Gwaltney, reading comments sent him by fellow 54th member Brian Young, "the sable warriors of the past are no longer just a footnote to history but have taken their place in the ever-evolving landscape of American history."

Pohanka had been buried, wearing the uniform of a 5th New York Infantry captain, a few hours earlier in a cemetery in Arlington, Va., after a funeral service limited to family, close friends and some colleagues. His gravestone reads, in part, "God Bless the United States." Included in his casket, according to his widow, was a wad of fur from his felines, along with his pipe, tobacco, and sweetgrass from the Little Bighorn battlefield, another of Brian's research specialties.

Pohanka's father read from Walt Whitman's 1855 poem "Song of Myself,"noting that Pohanka read the same words during the eulogy he delivered for his mother in 1987. "In my mother's death, everyone here has lost a very great part of themselves," the elder Pohanka quoted his son as saying at the time. "And yet those words of Whitman ring true, in that by her death, as well as by her life, our lives have been led forward and been immeasurably enriched. Brian said it all," John Pohanka concluded. WGT

Gerry Regan, producer for TheWildGeese.com, came to know Brian Pohanka, a WGT contributing editor, as a colleague and friend over 18 years, working together to preserve and promote the history of Irish immigrants in America's Civil War.

'HOW POHANKA HELPED SAVE 'GETTYSBURG'

One of Brian C. Pohanka's more spectacular legacies was not mentioned during the June 23 memorial service. Pohanka arguably was responsible for transforming the film "Gettysburg," which Turner Network Television execs initially envisioned as a two-part TV miniseries, into a major motion picture.

TNT Photo, Claude Levet
Brian Pohanka, portraying Brig. Gen. Alexander Webb, can be seen, highlighted, standing to the right of Jeff Daniels ("Chamberlain"), center, at the "Gettysburg" film set's reproduction of the Leister farm house, in September 1992. Documentary maker Ken Burns, appearing in a cameo, can be seen in the foreground, far left.

The production, an adaptation of Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels," was in trouble when principal photography began July 20, 1992. Embattled reenactment impresarios Patrick and Nancy Massengill, friends of director Ron Maxwell's, were in charge of reenactor involvement for the project. The pair had years earlier run afoul of many in the reenactment community. Reenactor leaders were also angered by the producers' refusal to pay reenactors working on large-scale scenes, and urged their comrades to ignore the production.

A week into filming, someone posted flyers in Gettysburg telling passersby to "have fun come out for "Killer Angles,' (sic) No experience needed. ... Uniforms / food supplied." Turnout was less than half of the 100 or so extras that the scenes that week required.

The Massengills resigned, and the producers negotiated a deal with leaders from a coalition of leading reenactment groups: In return for the support of the coalition, TNT agreed to donate $100,000 to battlefield preservation and addressed reenactors' concerns about the film's authenticity by hiring Pohanka to review the script and serve as an on-set historical adviser. Thus assured, reenactors flocked to support the project, which Ted Turner later renamed "Gettysburg," deciding it spectacular enough to merit a theatrical release.

The film's $13 million, TV-sized budget hampered Maxwell, and, by extension, Pohanka. For example, viewers can be distracted by the cowboy-style hat worn by Tom Berenger ("Longstreet"), and phony-looking facial hair worn by some principal characters. Berenger insisted on the hat, said a TNT executive then, while Maxwell later lamented that the film's rush into production, along with financial constraints, precluded more convincing beards and mustaches.

Still, Pohanka helped remove scores of historical errors from the script, and contributed mightily to a new sense of purpose among the cast, crew and reenactors, stating then that the film "is our best chance to reach people. We can present the subject to people who might never otherwise read a book about the Civil War. If we can reach those people, we can benefit things like battlefield preservation." "Gettysburg" has been seen by tens of millions on TNT, as a result of DVD rentals and purchases, and while grossing $10.8 million in box office. — Gerry Regan

These stories were copy edited by Doug Chandler, and produced by Joe Gannon and Gerry Regan.

Copyright © 2005 by GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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