Haunting images from a scarred landscape

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 9, 2011

“Gone: A Photographic Plea for Restoration,” by Nell Dickerson and Shelby Foote, Bell Books, 120 pages, $29.95.

Long after the Civil War’s cannons fell silent and Northern troops withdrew, another foe attacked the Southern landscape: neglect.
Blame poverty, population patterns or priorities. Whatever the cause, the rural South is dotted with structures that survived the war only to die a slow death for lack of care and use.
In “Gone: A Photographic Plea for Restoration,” photographer Nell Dickerson beautifully displays these ghosts of the antebellum era, dignified but mournful relics on the brink of disappearing altogether.
As a photo essay alone, “Gone” tells a powerful story — a call to arms for preservationists. But Dickerson added layers of meaning by pairing the haunting images with “Pillar of Fire,” a short story from one of her “cousin-in-law” Shelby Foote’s novels.
In the story, Yankee troops prepare to burn down the home of an elderly gentleman whose history there is full of striving, success, setbacks and heartache.
Yet to the Union officer in charge of the torches, it is just another target.
“Looks old,” he said, rolling his cigar along his lower lip. He faced front, addressing the house itself. “Ought to burn pretty.”
Together, the story and photos suggest that these are not mere houses crumbling to the ground; they are our forebearers’ legacy, with stories to tell and artifacts to treasure.
If no one comes to the structures’ rescue, that legacy will be gone. And even though we act without malice, we will be just as responsible for that destruction as the officer giving the command to strike the match.
This year, as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the war’s beginning — and Historic Salisbury this weekend displays the rewards of preservation through OctoberTour — Dickerson’s message strikes a particular nerve. Even in defeat, Southerners maintained their pride of place. To be from the South is to be from a culture, not just a region — a culture rich in tradition and history and lore. We may be part of a global economy and a national psyche; our shopping malls may have the same stores and brands as those anywhere in the country. But we hold on to our separate, Southern identity — holdouts from a war that unified political boundaries but only stoked this stubborn sense of place.
Dickerson’s passion for preservation reportedly started in the early 1970s, when she photographed her grandparents’ Mississippi farm. She went on to become an architect and set designer, but maintained her interest in preservation. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, she conducted building assessments of historic structures for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
“My preservation creed is simple,” Dickerson says. “Honor your past, protect your history, respect your ancestors and preserve your own culture.”
In “Gone,” Dickerson focuses on structures tucked away in rural Tennessee and Missippi — grey farmhouses once white with paint and now falling amid the weeds, a brick house carved hollow by time and covered with vines, houseless pillars that stand as silent sentries to a lost cause.
With light and composition, Dickerson finds beauty amid the decay. And in an Afterword that says there’s hope for these structures yet, she shares the restoration story of one house, with before and after photos.
Shelby Foote’s interest in preservation hardly needs documentation. Foote wrote a 2,934-page history of the Civil War with a quill-tip pen and became famous for the eloquence and insight he lent to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. Foote died in 2005, but he made lasting contributions to the history of the South and its literature.
Writing from the perspective of a Union Lieutenant Lundy, Foote depicts the rote nature of Union troops’ assault on civilian structures in the closing days of the war:
What followed was familiar enough; we had done this at many points along the river between Vicksburg and Memphis, the Walnut Hills and the Lower Chickasaw Bluff, better than two dozen times in the course of a year. The soldiers went from room to room, ripping curtains from the windows and splintering furniture and bed-slats for kindling. When the sergeant reported the preparations complete, I made a tour of inspection, upsairs and down …. At his shouted command, soldiers in half a dozen rooms struck matches simultaneously.
About 620,000 soldiers in blue and gray lost their lives during the Civil War, a tremendous loss that reshaped the nation. And as Union troops carried out the concept of “total war,” they destroyed countless homes, farms, railroads — anything that might be used in some way to support the Rebel cause.
Hence Gen. George Stoneman’s attack on Salisbury on April 12, 1865, leaving much of the city a pillar of fire as well — visible for miles.
We cannot resurrect the structures that burned that day and are truly gone. But preservationists have pulled more than one dilapidated structure from the grave to restore its beauty and give it new life. Through “Gone,” Dickerson shows there’s much work yet to be done.