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Brian Pohanka Dies; Civil War Historian, Film Adviser

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

Brian C. Pohanka, 50, a Civil War historian who advised filmmakers, preserved battlefields, reenacted troop movements and dressed the part, died of cancer June 15 at his home in Alexandria.

As an adviser and military coordinator on major motion pictures, including "Glory" (1989) and "Cold Mountain" (2003), he ensured the historical accuracy of films that would be seen by millions in theaters and on television.

His expertise stemmed, in part, from his work as the senior researcher, writer and adviser on the 27-volume Civil War series by Time-Life Books. He also was series consultant for the History Channel's "Civil War Journal."

So immersed was he in the Civil War era that he trimmed his beard in a style called the Imperial, popular in the 1860s. One of the legions of Civil War reenactors in the area, Mr. Pohanka served as captain of the 5th New York Infantry. When he donned its red-and-gold trimmed Zouave, or French-style, uniforms, the dapper historian looked as if he had stepped out of history.

Mr. Pohanka also engaged in contemporary political activism, resisting a number of development projects on the sites of Civil War battles in Northern Virginia.

"Some kid a hundred years from now is going to get interested in the Civil War and want to see these places. He's going to go down there and be standing in a parking lot. I'm fighting for that kid," Mr. Pohanka said during a 1990 demonstration in Culpeper County.

He was that kid 40 years ago; his father said that as a 7-year-old, Brian pored over American Heritage history books and historian Bruce Catton's works.

"I saw the battle lines in those books and took my toy soldiers and set them up the same way," he told a battlefield preservation group last year, according to his father. "I saw the connection between the men and the land."

At 12, Mr. Pohanka was doing research at the National Archives, thanks to a friendly employee who waived the minimum age requirement. Years later, when he became editor of the Time-Life series, some of the correspondence and other first-person artifacts he found as a youth proved handy.

Mr. Pohanka was born in Washington. He was a graduate of Sidwell Friends School and received a degree in history from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Although the Civil War dominated his work, Mr. Pohanka also studied the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry was wiped out after attacking a large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne in southeastern Montana. He spent some time there every summer for the past 25 years and participated in two archaeological digs at the site. He also made trips to South Africa, where he investigated the 19th-century Zulu wars.

But his interest, and the interest of the public, in the War Between the States kept him employed.

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