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Brian Pohanka Dies; Civil War Historian, Film Adviser

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.

In 1988, he recruited and instructed actors portraying the soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black regiment in the Union Army, for the movie "Glory." Because few African Americans are reenactors, Mr. Pohanka recruited Washington area residents through newspaper ads and unemployment offices.

"There were 300,000 blacks in that war. We think their role has been badly neglected, and we hope this picture will encourage more black people to take an interest in the history," he told The Washington Post while the movie was being made.

Mr. Pohanka enlisted two other veteran reenactors to help him teach 1,000 Romanian soldiers, who portrayed the Union and Confederate troops in "Cold Mountain," how to wear their uniforms, carry their weapons and perform their duties.

"We were struck by their lean and hungry look," he told the Dickinson College alumni magazine. "Their physical build is much closer to the way Americans looked back then."

Mr. Pohanka was pleased with how the film turned out, especially the opening scene of the 1864 Battle of the Crater, when the Union Army tunneled explosives under a Confederate fort, then ordered its untrained troops to charge the pit. A massacre ensued.

"I was glad that the battle scene was graphic, violent and gory," he said. "That's what war is. It's not a bunch of people in costume. If it's not as violent and horrible as it really is, it's not being true to reality."

He wrote and edited about a dozen books, including "Mapping the Civil War" (1992), "Distant Thunder: A Photographic Essay on the Civil War" (1988) and "Myles Keough: An Irish Dragoon in the 7th Cavalry" (1991). A regimental history of the 5th New York Infantry, which he worked on for more than a quarter-century, will be published posthumously, his father said.

He even met his wife, a costume historian, through "living history" reenactment activities. They lived in an 1880s-era home near Mount Vernon, once owned by a veteran of the 10th New York Cavalry.

Mr. Pohanka served on the boards of several local preservation associations, and he was named Battlefield Preservationist of the Year in 2004 by the Civil War Preservation Trust and the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

Survivors include his wife of seven years, Cricket Pohanka of Alexandria; his father, John Pohanka of Washington; a brother, Geoffrey Pohanka of Vienna; and a sister, Susan Pohanka of Bryn Mawr, Pa.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company