Seeing the Elephant

Peter Evans

Between the years of 1861 and 1865 over ten thousand British citizens fought on the battlefields of the American Civil War. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, a small army of men and women in Union blue and Confederate grey camp out in the fields of England and Wales. They seek to bring life to the long ago War Between the States, a conflict in which over three quarters of a million soldiers lost their lives.

They go by the name of the Southern Skirmish Association, and they are the oldest society outside of the United States to re-enact the American Civil War. Fascinated, I decided to document this close-knit community clad in the blue and the grey. For one year I camped out with them in one of their authentic canvas tents, wore clothes of the period and photographed everything from the skirmishes they fought to the breakfasts they ate. Throughout this, I became excited by the notion of trying to photograph a straight candid vision of the past, a sort of heightened reality where they unconsciously looked as if they really were of that time, living that moment, in camp-grounds burieddeep within the far off fields and forests of 1860's America.

In finding a way to photograph this remarkable piece of living history, I found inspiration in a slang phrase popular in their times. It was called, "seeing the elephant," and it could be taken in two ways. One referred to seeking out and witnessing a remarkable, profound and life-changing event. Volunteers both North and South in the American Civil War would ask it of each other, meaning as to whether they had seen battle yet or not. For those who had, the phrase shifted into a second, more wearily sardonic meaning. "I have seen the elephant, and it is not all that it is cracked up to be." That mixture of expression I hoped to steal from the faces of those around me. I sought to snatch from them an unconscious mirror of the eager and excited volunteer, and their inevitable transition to the exhausted and cynical veteran. At rest in sunlit fields and at the end of exhausting drill and march in the rain, I hope my photographs have helped the men and women of the Southern Skirmish Association to open a window onto times long past.

10am – 6pm Wed – Sat


41 Lochaber St

Roath Cardiff

CF24 3LS

Seeing the Elephant

22 -07 November
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