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Photographing Custerís Battlefield

Photographing Custerís Battlefield

By Sandy Barnard

Book Review by Bob Reece, June 2016

If youíre looking for just one book to buy during your visit over the 140th commemoration events at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (LIBI) - or from your local bookstore and online - then Sandy Barnardís Photographing Custer's Battlefield: The Images of Kenneth F. Roahen is the one to bring home.

Full disclosure, Sandy and I share a friendship that stretches back three decades. It is the kind of friendship developed by those who have spent time together at this battlefield. We have witnessed countless changes, experienced the political intrigue that can accommodate it now and then, and sat in the audience or presented for historical symposiums. Plus, anyone who reads the book reviews on the Friends website understands how much I love Sandyís earlier book, Where Custer Fell, written with Jim Brust and the late Brian Pohanka.

The Roahen photos are a perfect study for preservation conducted on this battlefield; one can witness how well resource management is working for it. Where Custer Fell was a testament for the exemplary job the Park Service has performed in protecting the battlefield. Now, Photographing Custerís Battlefield takes advantage of the Roahen photos to document changes to this sacred landscape, and answer some mysteries of the Custer Battle.

Photographing Custerís Battlefield includes a one-chapter overview of the battle; however, its mission is to showcase photos of the battlefield. The photography section is divided into chapters of specific areas of the battlefield - Reno-Benteen Defense Site, and Keogh Sector for example - and presented in the order of the battle beginning with the Crowís Nest. Each chapter includes a topographic map pinpointing where the photos of the chapter were taken and in which direction the camera faced.

There are plenty of photos of Last Stand Hill, but many more are included from parts of the field most people have not visited. Sandyís book will take you there, both from its past to today. The sites covered are from the Divide to Reno Creek, the Morass, Girardís Knoll, Renoís first crossing of the Little Bighorn River, Renoís advance down the valley, the Valley Fight, Renoís Retreat Crossing, Reno-Benteen Defense Site, Weir Point, Medicine Tail Coulee, Calhoun Hill, Finley-Finckle Ridge, Battle Ridge, Keogh Sector, Below Custer Hill, Last Stand Hill, and the battlefield entrance. The battlefield entrance is fascinating because Roahen documented both the old and the current gates. Concluding chapters cover the Visitor Center dedication on June 25, 1952, and fascinating aerial photos Roahen took during the 75th commemoration events. Additionally, there is a chapter on the life of Roahen, as well as the different generations of battle students.

Historical photos can enhance the interpretation of this battle, as well as resolve some of its unanswered questions. As I wrote in A Companion to Custer and the Little Bighorn Campaign (Wiley Blackwell Companions to American History), ďThe discovery, study, and interpretation of historical photographs of the battlefield have lent a new perspective to the events when viewed through a modern, forensic eye. [The] careful study of photographs, especially with modern comparisons, offers clues to some of the mysteries.Ē (Lookingbill 2015, 319)

Sandy does just that in Photographing Custerís Battlefield. A good example is the amazing aerial photo 21.4 on page 231. Shot during the 75th anniversary, viewing it makes one feel like he/she is exploring the battlefield in a time machine. Looking down at the crowds on June 25, 1951, I wondered where Superintendent Edward Luce and one of his seasonal rangerís Robert Utley might have been at that moment. The photo also captured cars driving up the old entrance road and being diverted by a single individual to the overflow parking at right on what would soon be a quarry. Today, this flat prairie - easily seen from behind the current NPS administration building Ė is grazing land for horses. Let your eye continue following the battlefield road until it stops at the old entrance gate. There, cars are diverted onto a second overflow parking to the left. Continue following the road for a short distance and your eye gazes upon the trees of the Stone House lawn, and newer planted trees alongside the main avenue of the Custer National Cemetery. The visitor center under construction is visible, and at the top of LSH are seen the trees around the above ground water tank. Most important, Sandy further demonstrates how this photo helped him determine the area where Bismarck Tribune reporter Mark Kelloggís body was discovered by Col. John Gibbon and his troops as they explored the battlefield!

Sandy Barnard has matured to become an inspiration to photographers of this battlefield, because of the kind of work he produces in Photographing Custerís Battlefield. His book is an important reference on the history of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and its preservation. Please follow the link to read a short interview we had with Sandy regarding Photographing Custerís Battlefield.

We have a new interview with Sandy Barnard regarding this book. Jump here.

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