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Garry Adelman is an example of how someone can transform a passion into a vocation through hard work and staying focused. Starting out as a kid who didn’t care much about history, he became an author who has focused on Devil’s Den, as well as co-founder and vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography. He also currently serves as director of History and Education for the Civil War Preservation Trust. Anyone who’s passionate about the war can appreciate Garry’s journey.

When did you become interested in the Civil War and photography?

I was a D history student up through my sophomore year of high school. The last day of that year I went to the library and happened to pick up William Frassanito’s Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day. I had no idea pictures were taken that long ago—let alone of the research concepts that Frassanito pioneered for Civil War photography. From that day forward, literally, I became obsessed with the Civil War.

When did you make your first trip to a battlefield?

I had never been to any of them until July 1988, the 125th anniversary year; I was at Gettysburg a couple of weeks after the battle anniversary. I went to Gettysburg first and Antietam on the same trip. I really wanted to see Devil’s Den, Little Round Top— still my favorite places in the world to this day. The first time I was at Devil’s Den I happened to be writing in my journal when I came upon the “dead sharpshooter” position. I wrote something to the effect of: “Somewhere in Devil’s Den—whoa! I just saw the dead Rebel sharpshooter position. My heart is beating fast, I’m trembling, I can’t breathe properly. This is amazing.”

Did you make a lot of trips east?

I would travel anywhere between one and four times a year from Chicago to Gettysburg. Crazy 12-hour trips. I was working for a restaurant in Chicago, and I would get out at 2 a.m. and drive to Gettysburg, spend a few hours on the battlefield, go to sleep, spend the whole next day and then go back home the next day! I moved to Gettysburg in September 1992, working in restaurants while feeding my Civil War obsession.

When did you switch from restaurant to history employment?

In the summer of 1999 I started graduate school at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where I had a great experience. I then became the director of Marketing at Thomas Publications in Gettysburg. They focus on Civil War books. After I finished graduate school in 2001, I got a job at a historical consulting firm, History Associates Incorporated, and ended up doing an increasing amount of work through HAI with the Civil War Preservation Trust.

And now you work for the Civil War Preservation Trust?

Yes, as the director of History and Education, which means two main things: One, I run the Education department. We do a lot of outreach to teachers, and we’re working on a brand-new national Civil War curriculum that will be out before the Sesquicentennial. As director of history, I’m sort of the staff historian. I examine things before they go up on the website. I assist with significant statements. I’ll assist the organization in taking donors out to places. And when we’re looking at land to preserve, I’ll be consulted to see if I know about its significance.

Are you hopeful about preservation in the upcoming decade?

Absolutely, but I would focus on the next five years, which could be our last great opportunity to save key land before it’s gone. CWPT has saved more than 29,000 acres over the years, and I think we can make substantial progress doing that again, thanks to the attention the Sesquicentennial will bring to Civil War issues.

There is still a lot to save.

Correct. We work closely with landowners, local governments and even developers as appropriate. Development is not an evil, development is something that happens. If we can work with the developer to push the development off the sensitive areas of the battlefields, most developers are happy to help with our efforts.

What battlefield do you find the most engaging or intriguing?

It’s definitely Gettysburg. I don’t like the way that sounds in terms of cliché, but there are several reasons. First of all, it’s the first battlefield I ever visited, and second the photographic coverage, my main window into the Civil War, is rich at that particular place. Third, I by far know the most about Gettysburg, and therefore there’s a connection there that I really feel I just cannot get anywhere else, the detail that I understand about it.

I’m also a huge fan of Antietam, but by no means are my top 10 battlefields all out east. I absolutely love Shiloh and Chickamauga and Chattanooga. I love that parts of the Atlanta Campaign are still visitable. I spent a lot of time in our Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park because I like all the battlefield sites there. I adore the Virginia Peninsula despite the fact that the preservation story isn’t as great as I would like. The Franklin-Stones River-Nashville triangle is awesome.

Garry, you’re naming just about every battlefield!

Yeah, I know….They all have their certain levels of attraction and power.

Explain the Center for Civil War Photography for our readers. The Center was founded in 1999.

We have a great website, and we also hold the Image of War Seminar, the only seminar that I know of where participants discuss how to take Civil War photos, how to view Civil War photos, and—I think most important—how to use Civil War photos to increase our understanding of the conflict. Our ultimate goal is to identify and put into context every outdoor Civil War photograph that has ever been taken, every documentary photo ever taken.

The lion’s share of those are already online at the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pa., which must represent more than 75, if not 85 or 90, percent of all the documentary Civil War photos ever taken.

Do you think there’s still undiscovered photography out there?

Absolutely. It happens every single year. Not only are new images found, but photos that we knew about but didn’t understand the details of. Members of the CCWP make discoveries all the time.

What are your goals for the future?

For 10 years now I’ve been working on my magnum opus, The Civil War in the East, Then and Now. The book would tell the story of the war in the East through an in-depth analysis of the photographers and each photo, and would compare Civil War–period images with current photos. It would start with Harpers Ferry and the election of Lincoln and go all the way to Appomattox and the Grand Review, and even after that. There is a lot of good then-and-now opportunity in there.

You’ve come a long way from disliking history, haven’t you?

Yes. I can’t believe that I actually have a job where every single thing I do goes toward saving threatened battlefield land forever. How many people have a job where their grandkids can say, “My grandpa helped save this piece of land.” Considering not only my own obsession but my personal belief about the importance of this land, I have the best job in the world.


Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here