Original publish date: September 19, 2019
Over the past decade there has been a subtle yet perceptible shift in historical genre on the Internet (particularly on Facebook) known as the “Then and Now” movement. If you are a fan of historical photography, or of the time and space continuum theory, then no doubt you have noticed these images. They consist of a blended pair of photographs, usually landscapes or buildings, one old, one new, both morphed into a single image for comparison. They are eerie reminders of a shared place and time probably best described by William Faulkner in his classic Requiem for a Nun as “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” If, like me, you’re a fan of this genre you need to thank one man: William A. Frassanito of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Mr. Frassanito first popularized the “then and now” movement in his groundbreaking book “Gettysburg. A Journey in Time“. He followed up that classic with two similar books on Antietam, another on Grant and Lee in Virginia and three more on Gettysburg, including his seminal study of Early Photography at Gettysburg. Mr. Frassanito was among the first to conduct a historical comparison based on identifying topographical elements found in archival photographs that remain consistent on the landscape today. Bill’s work sent a shockwave through the historical community that resonates to this day.
I interviewed Mr. Frassanito at the Adams County Historical Society research center (368 Springs Avenue Gettysburg) a couple times during the past few months. I was in Gettysburg looking for information on Osborn Oldroyd, whose father was a one time Adams County resident and former owner of a textile mill in the county. Most of my readers will recognize the Oldroyd name as a near constant in this writer’s work. Needless to say, I was pleased with my visit to and pleasantly reminded how invaluable places and people like these are to the preservation and education of history. After the ACHS helped fill in some blanks in my research, I turned my attention to author Bill Frassanito. He is intensely private, yet unassuming and modest in demeanor. Although an author by trade and historian by nature, Mr. Frassanito has the soul of a teacher.
When I asked Mr. Frassanito how he developed the concept fot the modern “then and now” movement so prevalent on the Internet nowadays, he modestly answers, “I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time and that today is tomorrow’s history. What I tried to do in the use of ‘then and now’ was to have the reader experience the photograph, but it’s not just the ‘then and now’, it’s the maps that allow people to go and stand on the spot and experience what the photographer experienced. So it’s a total picture used in a systematic fashion book after book after book. I didn’t invent the concept, but I took it to a level that was completely unprecedented. When my ‘journey’ book came out in 1975, there were about a dozen modern books on the battle of Gettysburg available. Now there are zillions on every aspect of the battle.”
When asked if there are any more books on the horizon, Bill answers, “My first book came out when I was 28 in 1975 and the last came out in ’97 and I’m through writing. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. I was much sharper 20 years ago than I am now. I’m especially pleased that part of my legacy are people like Garry Adleman and Tim Smith, and they constantly mention my work, so I do have a legacy. I’m not going to be around forever but I do know that 100 years from now there will be a group of people that are very familiar with the role my pioneering work played, so the average person probably won’t know about me but the experts will know indefinitely. I laid the foundation so when new stuff surfaces they will know how to fit it in.”
When asked what first drew him to Gettysburg, he explains, “My first trip to Gettysburg was in 1956 when I was nine years old, and I was just awed by all the monuments, cannons and stuff. I started my research when I was a kid and much of the research for Journey in Time was done when I worked it into a Masters thesis (he is a proud Gettysburg College alum). “When you went to Gettysburg College, I was the high school class of ’64, college class of ’68, at that time all the male students had to take either phys ed or ROTC for two years, after that you made the decision whether you continued on to advanced ROTC, then you were a part of the Army and you got paid. From there you are committed to, after graduation, serving for two years as a second lieutenant, then on to grad school.”
Frassanito continues, “I was accepted to Gettysburg College my senior year in high school. I went to high school in Long Island. I spent a weekend at the college as a senior. I had some time off and I visited the Red Patch Antique Shop and I asked if they had any old photos and he (the shop owner) brought out a basket full of cased images. Among the photos was an outdoor daguerreotype, which is very rare. I opened up this quarter plate daguerreotype, it was a farmer sitting on a bench with a horse in front of the barn. I asked how much and he said a $1.50, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was worth more back then. On the inside of the case was the name of the photographer, “G.J. Goodrich York, Pa.” Years later I discovered that Glenalvin J. Goodrich was one of the few black photographers in Pennsylvania. But because of the battle, he moved to Michigan.”
Glenalvin, son of former-slave, opened his first photo studio at the age of 18 in 1847 and later operated his studio out of the Goodridge residence on East Philadelphia Street. Mr. Frassanito has already allowed the daguerreotype to be used in two different books asking only that credit for the photo be given to the Frassanito collection. “Just last year I was contacted by someone who wanted to purchase the daguerreotype and I said I’m sorry it’s not for sale, I have personal attachment to it. His offer kept going up and up and up. His last offer was $10,000. And I told him, no it’s not for sale, I’m sorry. It’s going to go to the Adams County Historical Society. Now, when it is at the Adams County Historical Society, since it’s not Adams County related, if they wanted to make a deal with the York County historical Society, I would have no problem because technically that would be, probably, the most appropriate place.”
Bill’s collecting interests are not solely confined to Gettysburg. “All of my stuff is going to the Adams County Historical Society. It will be called the Frassanito collection. Including all my stuff that goes beyond Gettysburg and Adams County. My interest in military history includes World War I and Franco Prussian war, it’s very expansive.” Mr. Frassanito’s interest in all things military came when he saw the 1956 movie “War and Peace” starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda and, he states, “from that time on I’ve been fascinated by Russian history including the Crimean War” (October 1853 to February 1856 in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia).
“It was 1968, my senior year, my parents came to visit me from Long Island. We rode around the countryside and stopped at an antique shop in New Oxford. I asked my standard question, do you have any old photographs? The shopowner brought out this brown paper bag full of old photos removed from photo albums. Apparently he would sell the empty albums. There were 130 Carte de Visites, I asked how much and he said a dollar.” Among those CDV’s was a rare photo of an identified Franco-Prussian soldier. But more importantly was the discovery of two photos from a New York City gallery. One signed on front “G.G. Sickles”, the other “Susan M. Sickles.” Frassanito thought no more about the photos until years later when he discovered that these were the parents of the famous Gettysburg General Dan Sickles, who lost a leg in the Peach Orchard during the battle of Gettysburg. “I eventually made a connection with the Sickles family and learned that they had no photographs of these relatives.” says Frassanito, “Turns out I have the only photos. They were just stuck in this old brown paper bag.” he says with a chuckle.
Bill then details a chance meeting he had with Pres. Dwight D Eisenhower while serving in advanced ROTC as a junior at Gettysburg College. “As fate would have it, they lined us up by size, and as I was the shortest cadet in the unit, I was positioned at the far left of the line, which turned out to be the sweet spot where all the cameras and newspapermen were positioned. Much to my surprise, Ike stopped in front of me and we had a short conversation while the cameras clicked away. It was not a substantive talk and you could of knocked me over with a feather.” That photo can be found in Mr. Frassanito’s updated Gettysburg Bicentennial Album book available for sale at the Adams County Historical Society.
“I’m the definition of a baby boomer.” Bill reveals, “The war ended in ’45 and the millions of serviceman came home and the boom started in ’46. My pop was in the Navy and he got back from the Pacific in December of ’45 and I arrived exactly 9 months later to join my older brother and my parents. I was born in September 1946. The neat piece of trivia of here is that three months before I was born in June 1946, President Donald Trump was born. Two months before I was born in July 1946 President George W. Bush was born. And one month before I was born in August 1946, President Bill Clinton was born. It’s the first time in American history that we have three presidents not only born in the same year, but born in successive months.” Then, Bill says with a wink, “June, July and August and I’m September, so I’m technically the next president. But I haven’t made my final decision yet.”
Bill continued, “I fortunately survived Vietnam and I put it (his book research) all together when I got out of the Army. I tried to get a job in the museum field but the book took off when I signed with one of the top publishers, Charles Scribner’s. It was later picked up for the Book-of-the-Month club. That became the first of seven books on Civil War photography. I spent eight years and eight months on that project.” One of Bill’s most important discoveries was the “Slaughter Pen” near Devil’s Den. Bill’s book included detailed maps. Bill explains, “The whole purpose of the book was to enable people to re-experience standing where the photographer was. One of the questions I often get is why I don’t update the modern photographs. I’ll never do that as I see them as sort of a time capsule in themselves and I want people to know what the battlefield looked like when I spent five years looking for these spots.”
Another of Mr. Frassanito’s photographic discoveries was to identify the family of General John Reynolds pictured in Devil’s Den on the battlefield. When asked if there have been any more discoveries of historical photography at Gettysburg, Bill states, “As far as early photography of Gettysburg is concerned, the last major discovery were those photos of the posed soldiers in Devil’s Den (made by Frassanito). The hunt for the “Harvest of Death” is still going on. Those are the photos of the union dead. I established that these two camera angles showed the same group of bodies looking at a different direction.” Mr. Frassanito has not been able to pinpoint the exact location for this famous photograph, although many others have approached him with locational suggestions over the years.
Frassanito notes that the publication of that photo started a search that is still going on 44 years later. There have been two dozen sites that have been suggested as the site of the photograph. “When people make their discoveries it becomes a religious experience. Every one of those sites has major problems. As far as I’m concerned I don’t want to see a faulty location declared the site and have the search end. That’s the biggest mystery for Civil War photography at Gettysburg. And I’m hoping that one day a pristine 1863 version of the original stereoview or negative surfaces.”
Previous to my April visit, I shared, as part of my research at the Adams County Historical Society, the fact that I had just come from researching at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and the House Where Lincoln Died. While in Washington, my steward for the day was a young woman named Janet Folkerts who had just learned that she was now the curator in charge of the Vietnam War Memorial wall museum. I was aware that Bill had served (with distinction) during the Vietnam War, so I asked him about his service. He detailed his term of service in Vietnam and shared his story about the wall.
Bill was discharged in August of 1971 and upon returning to Gettysburg in November, Bill began taking all of his “modern” photographs used in his groundbreaking book. “I was there (Vietnam) in ’70 and ’71. I was assigned to the 525 military intelligence group in Saigon. I worked at MACV (aka ‘Mac-Vee’) headquarters (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) which was the nerve center for all of Indochina. I worked at the highest level of military intelligence, so we knew what was really going on. We knew that the war was a lost cause once the US troops left. We had very little faith in the South Vietnamese, there was corruption from the top down. So anyway, I worked in the safest place in Vietnam.” However, once Bill’s work shift was over and he departed, he was on his own.
“I lived about 2 miles away in kind of a slum area of Saigon, it was a hotel we rented from the Vietnamese called Horn Hall. On the main floor was a narrow lobby, and there were two shifts requiring a duty officer, you had to spend six hours just sitting there. You had a pistol and if anything happened, you were in charge. One of the shifts was midnight to six. On the 16th of December 1970 I was assigned night duty at MACV headquarters so my name was removed from the night duty at Horne Hall. Later, we got a phone call that a bomb had gone off that night at Horne Hall and the Lieutenant on duty was instantly killed. And I realized that had I been sitting there, all of my discoveries would have gone with me. And these classic photos of the 24th Michigan and 1st Minnesota would still be misidentified.”
At this point, Bill slides over to the computer and, in somewhat surreal fashion, Googles his own name to find the photo online showing the devastation that may have been his own fate. “It was a 35 pound satchel charge and that’s the seat I could’ve been sitting in. It blew out both walls of this narrow hall and that’s where they found the body of the Lieutenant.” I asked if he knew the Lieutenant, “No, I socialized with the people I worked with, but the officers quarters (where the bomb exploded) you just slept there basically. I knew my roommate but I didn’t know the name of the Lieutenant and I didn’t want it bouncing around in my head for the rest of my life so I made no effort to remember it. Years later, I visited the wall down in Washington and I found out that the 58,000+ names are in chronological order. So I was curious to see, if I had died, where my name would be. There was only one 1st Lieutenant killed in military region three on the night of December 16th, so I found the spot and wrote the name of the officer down. I started wondering what it would have been like for people visiting the wall to see my name there.”
Unsurprisingly, Bill researched the soldier (Gary J. Faculak) and contacted his family to learn more about the man; his hopes, aspirations and goals. Turns out the dead soldier was from Boyne City, Michigan and aspired to own a tour boat and lead tours on Lake Charlevoix (Michigan’s third largest lake) when he got out of the Army. Lt. Faculak is buried in Maple Lawn cemetery in Boyne City. Ironically, the cemetery made headlines in May of 2011 when two special Civil War veterans were honored not far from Lt. Faculak’s grave, thanks to the Robert Finch Camp No. 14 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Two Native American Indian sharpshooters (John Jacko and William Isaacs), buried a century ago in unmarked graves, finally received their long overdue headstones. Both soldiers were members of Co. K of the Michigan 1st Sharpshooters, the only all-Indian unit in the Union Army east of the Mississippi. Both men were also members of the G.A.R.
What’s more, Bill learned that he was not the only one to narrowly escape death that day. Turns out another young officer (Van Buchanan) had switched shifts with Lt. Faculak that night. “If it hadn’t been for the Internet, I would never have been able to make the connection,” says Bill. Well, Mr. Frassanito, if it hadn’t been for your dogged detective work for a group of dusty, old, mislabeled, long-forgotten photographs, we would have never made the connection either. Well done, soldier, well done.
2 thoughts on “Gettysburg’s Bill Frassanito: Father of “Then and Now.””
I came across your article on Bill Frassanito and found it to be most interesting. The 50 year anniversary of the event in Viet Nam which he references comes up in two short weeks. That event affected my life profoundly.
Thanks for the kind words. I’m sure Bill would like to hear from you. You can contact him in care of the Adams County Historical Society in Gettysburg.