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’62 battle recreated on film

Documentary shot at sites of combat

Re-enactors assemble a pontoon bridge to cross the Rappahannock River, just as Union troops did in December 1862. Rhonda Vanover / The Free Lance–Star triangleORDER A PRINT OF THIS PICTURE


The Free Lance-Star

Film director Brad Graham and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee have something in common.

Both men have organized and executed large-scale military maneuvers along Sunken Road on the Fredericksburg battlefield.

The thousands of men Lee lined up at the base of Marye’s Heights in the winter of 1862, however, were shot at by muskets and cannons from enemy troops.

Graham’s 80 re-enactors were shot by 35mm film this weekend.

“Aside from no one being afraid or dying, this is a pretty authentic [reproduction],” said historian John Hennessy, the assistant superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Media Magic, an independent movie company from Lansing, Mich., spent the weekend filming a documentary on the bloody campaign that left nearly 18,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead or wounded.

Dressed in wool, the re-enactors stood in rows behind a portion of the stone wall between Kirkland and Mercer streets that was there during the real battle.

Graham threaded his camera through the lines as the re-enactors poised their muskets for mock battle.

Saturday’s whistling wind and warm air was similar to the real day of battle’s weather, which was mostly overcast but mild.

Tim Learman of Ellicott City, Md., took part in the filming.

“This provides an opportunity to tell the story as it should be told,” said Learman, who spends his days working as a computer network analyst.

Learman was just one of dozens of re-enactors who responded to a call by Graham months ago to act in the movie.

Although he typically portrays Federal soldiers, Learman switched sides this weekend.

“I’m a dyed-in-the wool Yankee,” he said. “But this time, I’m a Confederate.”

During filming, the heat of re-created battle often was punctuated by the realities of movie-making.

“The actors need to make sure to pick up all their cigarette butts,” an assistant director shouted through a megaphone.

At first glance, the movie crew and re-enactors drew the attention of curious onlookers. But only a few people gathered outside park barriers to watch the action.

It was the first time, however, that the National Park Service has allowed a movie company to film a re-enactment on the battlefield.

“We’ve had lots of talking heads with cameras out here,” said Mike Johnson, the park’s chief ranger.

Filming on the battlefield was a logistical pain in the neck for the park service. Roads and sections of the park had to be closed to the public, and black powder specialists had to be on hand in case of accidents.

The project should be worth the park service’s effort.

In exchange for being permitted to shoot footage inside the park, the film company also will produce a 15- to 20-minute film for the park service to use at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.

Since August, the long-outdated slide show there has been broken.

The endeavor will save the park service upward of $250,000 that it would have had to spend to produce its own film.

Meanwhile, as Graham filmed the action in Fredericksburg, a splinter crew was set up along the banks of the Rappahannock River at Ferry Farm, George Washington’s boyhood home in southern Stafford County.

That crew filmed a re-enactment of a pontoon-bridge crossing before the Battle of Fredericksburg; it took place about 800 yards upstream of the movie’s site.

On Dec. 11, 1862, Union soldiers feverishly built several bridges, which consisted of wooden beams resting on top of pontoon boats, to cross from Stafford Heights into the city.

Confederate sharpshooters stationed in cellars and on rooftops in Fredericksburg weren’t about to let that happen, and picked off Union soldiers.

The Federals responded with a heavy barrage of artillery and cannons that destroyed many of the city’s dwellings.

Graham, who also has filmed a movie on the Battle of Antietam, hopes to sell this finished product to cable, network or public television.

As for Learman, this weekend’s re-enactment was one of the best in which he’s taken part.

“I’ve been out in 110-degree weather and weather where I’ve frozen my keister off,” he said. “This is just great.”

A column of re-enactors dressed as Union soldiers makes its way toward camp after a long day of filming on the Fredericksburg battlefield. Rhonda Vanover / The Free Lance–Star triangleORDER A PRINT OF THIS PICTURE