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Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 36-42

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In Search of the Lost Confederate Graveyard
The Last Civil War Correspondent Enters the Field

photographs by Charlie Curtis


It would be a two-mile trek through the seldom traveled woods outside Front Royal, Virginia, and it could easily result in a futile search for something no more than myth. As a known regional photographer, Curtis had been tipped by locals to a setting that, he said, "brought to mind the truly amazing." Hopeful, eager—and wary, too, of the disappointment he would experience if he could not find the fabled place—Curtis set out into the cold and gray countryside one day last winter in search of a lost cemetery for Confederate soldiers.

His journey began with the typical false starts you might expect from a trail marked by memories and hearsay, but then the woods suddenly seemed to calibrate itself to his journey. He found what he estimated to be a 140-year-old tree. If he was right about its age, it had been a sapling during the Civil War. He stopped to photograph its crown and then ventured on, believing he had discovered, in the ways of these Virginia woods, the first marker on the trail to lost Confederates. [End Page 36]

After hiking three-quarters of a mile, Curtis turned off of an old dirt road already partly grown over by wild grasses. He was leaving the last landscape he would find that day that had not been completely allowed to reclaim itself from the people who once lived there. "Furious" was how he would later describe this land, as if the walk had become something akin to traveling the inner reaches of the mind. "It is beautiful," he thought, as he left the dirt road, "and menacing. No place you'd ever want to lay down to sleep." [End Page 37]

Now past the pines, after having hiked another half mile, the man on the hunt for lost soldiers could not help but think of himself as hunted, too. Curtis knew he was trekking through hunters' territory, but finding these stands in the trees, even empty, still gave him a start. At first, he thought only of the absent hunter and his gun; then he quickly realized the similarity between the quest of the solitary huntsman, traveling through otherwise uninhabited terrain, and his own mission. [End Page 38]

After several more minutes trudging through the forest, at last Curtis could sense that he was closing in on the lost Confederates. This truly was a woods full of graves—and other vestiges of the past. A fallen cedar in decay still bore the shards of its attachment to the ground and life. Forty-year-old cattle remains lay bleaching in open air. The cattle bones reminded Curtis of the old backwoods practice of dragging a dead cow away and out of view to allow it to decompose unburied. He had done it himself many years ago while growing up on a farm and knew that it was a harrowing and exhausting undertaking—something that you could sort of get used to, but that never was easy. It seemed that each step through these woods had become a step back in time. So on he walked for another hundred years. [End Page 39]

And then, there they were, under a canopy of branches in deep woods, resolute in the undergrowth—and just as Francis Finch Miles had promised in his famous "The Blue and the Gray":

Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the Judgment Day:
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray.

"I was overcome by the presence of the grave-markers of these men," Curtis later remembered. "As a documentary photographer, you want to preserve information for the viewer. But these men were part of one of the greatest conflicts in history, and now, in this setting, they were so much at peace. I only wanted to capture the essence of that place. And to understand what had...