Church relives Civil War history made famous by a photograph

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May 21, 1864: An election loomed, and America was embroiled in a war that was becoming unpopular, as it dragged on and casualties mounted.

Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant needed a victory. He had just lost 35,000 men in two weeks of intense fighting near Spotsylvania Courthouse. President Abraham Lincoln wanted to be re-elected, but as the war continued with few victories for the Union, that re-election was in jeopardy.

And the American public knew more about the horrors of war thanks to a brand-new phenomenon: photojournalists who followed the troops.

These photographers captured the gritty details of war: dead bodies, burned cities and sad soldiers.

"It was shocking to people to see these gruesome scenes," said Terry Thomann, director of the National Civil War Life Foundation in Spotsylvania. "It showed not only the faces of soldiers, but it also showed the face of war."

In early May, Grant's troops attacked entrenched Confederate forces near the Courthouse. Grant needed a new strategy to lure the Southern troops out into the open.

He and Gen. George Meade had the pews pulled out of Massaponax Baptist Church and held a strategy meeting on the church grounds. They determined to push the Union army on toward Richmond.

Photographer Timothy O'Sullivan captured that meeting on glass plates and developed it into a photo that became one of the defining images of the Civil War.

That photo was titled "Council of War at Massaponax Church" and printed on wooden plates for distribution in illustrated magazines.

Yesterday, Thomann re-created that famous photo at a celebration of the Spotsylvania church's 220th anniversary.

Re-enactors--including Grant's great-great-grandson John Griffiths--sat on the same pews dragged out for the strategy session.

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