The Civil War in Color – Book Review
Cinematographer, director, and self-proclaimed Civil War buff John Guntzelman has spent four years choosing and hand-colorizing over 200 black and photographs of famous leaders, camp life, ordinary soldiers, civilians, slaves, and “freedmen.” The Civil War in Color is a fascinating coffee-table sized book that adds life to “dusty images of a dustier past.”
As a Civil War historian, I can attest that Mr. Guntzelman has accomplished his task. Aside from painstakingly researching appropriate color choices for uniforms, equipment items, hair/eye color, etc., he also cleaned up the photographs, removing scratches, cracks, and other imperfections. The result of his effort is a new sharpness to familiar photographs. Pictures look as fresh and clean as if shot yesterday and erases the 150 years since the shutter opened on the subject. If he had stopped there, Mr. Guntzelman would still have provided a valuable service, but by colorizing the cleaned-up photographs, the pictures now pop off the page with a vibrancy that black and white cannot attain (read to the end of the review for a sample photograph).
Mr. Guntzelman admits that in some cases he had to use best-guess color choices. As I have found in my own research efforts, it is sometimes incredibly difficult in determining someone’s eye and hair color. Case in point, newspapers and personal memoirs described General George McClellan, not exactly an unknown figure in Civil War history, as having either black or mahogany hair. The prudent choice is to collect a preponderance of documents that agree and just go with it.
The Civil War in Color is not a history book, but “a visual tour of what life was like for the people who lived through one of the greatest periods of turbulence in the American experience.” I would have to disagree with Mr. Guntzelman here, no one can truly know “what life was like” but simply what it may have looked like. That said, the book does indeed succeed in provided a plausible recreation of the Civil War era.
Faults are hard to find. Some photographs, still-life portraits for example, are incredibly life-like. Others, mostly due to deterioration of the negative and/or movement of the subjects are less sharp. The colorization method, overall, is well done. Guntzelman does not disclose what method he uses but it appears to be a mixture of Photoshop pixel color manipulation and perhaps hand coloring. Whatever the technique, it mostly works though there are a few instances where the color just does not look right. On page 87, there is an enlargement of Ambrose Burnside and his magnificent whiskers. Everything looks as if it were an actual color photograph taken in June of 1864—except for his hat. The hat looks a little too blue and more like a cut-out that was “cut and pasted” onto his head. These instances are rare but stand out when you see them.
Historically, I found only one obvious factual error and one editing mistake. The editing error, which appears on page 117, is the famous Massaponax Church “council of war” photograph. An inset captures a close up of General Grant on a pew with the caption stating that General Meade could be seen “on the left of the image,” implying to the left of General Grant on the pew. Actually, seen from behind, Meade is sitting on another pew in the left side of the larger, full-view, photograph on page 116. The officer to Grant’s left on the pew appears to be a lieutenant colonel or major.
The factual, (or perhaps another editing error) I discovered occurs on page 129 where the caption describes a picture of Confederate Fort Harrison having been captured on September 29, 1864, by “twenty-five Union forces.” Fort Harrison actually fell after assault by 2,500 Union troops.
However, these are minor things that do not detract at all from the valuable ideas and insights that reenactors, historical interpreters, genealogists, photographers, computer artists, and Civil War buffs will find between the covers of The Civil War in Color. Having seen perhaps thousands of Civil War photographs over the past thirty years, I thought that nothing remained to surprise me. Nevertheless, even I had to restrain a gasp at times by the level of realism and detail brought out by Mr. Guntzelman’s labor of devotion.
Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years, too many cats, and a speedy miniature pincher aptly named “Blitz.” Mr. West volunteers at Manassas National Battlefield conducting tours and historic weapons demonstrations. He has a BA in American Military History and a Master’s Degree in Military History, with a Civil War concentration. Neal is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com and is the proprietor of AnotherBullRun.com, a site dedicated to the Second Battle of Manassas.