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Exhibition captures essence of Civil War


WASHINGTON -- The National Geographic Society has opened an exhibition of Civil War photography as moving and evocative as any ever staged; yet all of the more than 30 color photographs in it were taken within the last four years.

The National Geographic's Sam Abell, who took the photos for the show, summed up his mission: "The Civil War cast a spell over America -- in its aftermath."

He sought to get at the essence of that spell by focusing his lens on what remains of the Civil War -- the battlefields, the monuments and memorials, the graves, the misty, ghostly atmosphere that still shrouds the hills, rivers and farm fields over which this bloody American struggle was fought.

Although his pictures are mostly of empty countryside and cold stone figures, there is a tragic human presence in every one.

His late sunset picture of the equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., shows the general and his mount as a small, distant silhouette starkly visible against the pale, fading sky at the end of a darkened avenue of trees.

Another lifelike image is Mr. Abell's close-up of a memorial sculpture at the national battlefield on Mary's Heights in Fredericksburg, Va., scene of one of the most brutal slaughters in the war.

The statue is of a young hero, Richard Rowland Kirkland of the Confederate 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who braved Union fire to move about the bloody hillside to bring water and comfort to Union wounded.

The sculpture shows him leaning close to a wounded soldier's desperate face, crooking his arm around the man's head to bring a canteen to his lips.

The better part of the pictures are landscapes -- showing not simply what was fought over but what was fought for.

The exhibit, at Explorers Hall, 17th and M streets Northwest, titled "The Blue and the Gray," continues through Sept. 15.

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