A Memorial Tribute to
Brian C. Pohanka
(March 20, 1955 - June 15, 2005)
of an Idealistic, Noble Soldier
Pohanka was known as a Civil War historian, writer, speaker, battlefield
preservationist, film consultant, and re-enactor. For all his notable
and innumerable accomplishments, he was perhaps most widely recognized
for his commentary in the "Civil War Journal" series on
the History Channel; as an extra in films such as "Cold Mountain"
and "Glory," and as captain of the 5th New York (Duryée
Zouaves) Volunteers Infantry, Company A, living history organization.
Despite the publicity he received for his work, Brian was a private
person who did not seek the limelight. A humble man who marched to
the beat of his own drum and stood behind his beliefs, Brian was among
the Civil War battlefield preservationist pioneers of the late 1980s
whose efforts would found what is known today as the Civil War Preservation
Trust. A student of not only the Civil War, but also the Great War
(World War I) and the Battle at Little Bighorn, Brian unselfishly
shared his knowledge and time with those who were not even among his
peers. His loyalty to the soldiers he admired was reflected in his
ceaseless service towards honoring their memory.
Though his studies seemed to focus on war, suffering, and death, Brian
loved life and all living things, great and small. His nature was
inward and often not easily understood. For at heart he was idealistic,
gentle, kind, empathetic, spiritual, and compassionate. By bravely
facing his own long-term illness without bitterness or complaint,
Brian demonstrated the true soul of a chivalrous and noble soldier
who fought to the end for his ideals.
Loss of a Great Leader and Friend
War living history groups and preservationists lost a great leader
and friend on June 15, 2005, with the untimely death of Brian Pohanka.
Brian cared a great deal about the history of the Civil War, the places
affected by the War, and especially the individuals who lived through
those years of turmoil. He cared so much that he dedicated his life
to the cause of preserving the memory of those soldiers, especially
the ones he most admired. Brian's heroes inspired him to reach for
high ideals and to lead a principled and productive life for the benefit
of assisting others, primarily through education. His was a positive
and spiritual life: Profound, fulfilling and meaningful.
On a personal level, Brian had encouraged and inspired me ever since
I had known him. He was a patient teacher who generously shared his
knowledge of his many studies—mainly the Civil War, World War
I, and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Brian unselfishly devoted much
time contributing content towards building this site and painstakingly
reviewing my work, and I shall always be grateful to him for his energy
and effort. For all his kindness, care, and devotion as friend, he
is truly missed.
With Brian no longer here to rally the troops, I feel an even greater
responsibility in dedicating my life to causes that are important
to me, such as honoring the soldiers of the Civil War. It seems fitting
and appropriate to continue his good work for the benefit of generations
As part of this memorial tribute to Brian, I would like to share some
content from Brian's email messages that demonstrate his superb character.
Brian was a thoughtful friend, and while he was serious about many
matters in life, he also embraced the child within and never forgot
to enjoy the beauty in this world. These messages are grouped by subject
War Heroes at this Site
September 9, 1998, Brian responded to my email after having read the
biography of Philip Kearny posted at this Web site. In my message,
I had also mentioned that the next soldier to be profiled at this
site would be Joshua Chamberlain.
for sharing that URL with me -- good work. Kearny was the epitome
and embodiment of daring. Having worked to save those markers at
Ox Hill (Chantilly)
and through my association with Bill [Styple], I have certainly
come to admire and appreciate the dashing soldier.
of course wrote, and spoke, so many eloquent, powerful and soulful
words. It does him a disservice to celebrate him only as the hero
or savior of Little
Round Top as he'd be the first to credit all those others who
fought and fell there. And so much of that fame has come from novels
and Hollywood. But his dauntless faith in the face of suffering,
and his spiritual view of the lessons of the terrible war -- those
things are sublime, and in fact religious in their nature -- and
were so expressed, by him. He was a very great human being, Chamberlain
-- with tremendous depth of character and philosophy -- and a truly
mystical and, as I say, spiritual view of the ordeal he had passed
through along with so many others.
you can see I think highly of him.
of luck on your website, and keep me posted.
April 30, 2000, Brian forwarded the contents of a post he made to
the Antietam Group message board, in which he replied to a comment
a member of the group made in regards to Joshua Chamberlain being
a "War Lover":
for Chamberlain being a "War Lover" -- well, I don't think
that is it at all. My own "take" on Chamberlain -- a man
I have long admired, from first reading Pullen's Twentieth Maine
when I was a teenager (years before [Michael] Shaara [wrote his
historical novel The Killer Angels] or the Movie ["Gettysburg"
based on that novel]) -- is that he was one of those rare individuals
who sought to define humankind's sufferings and agonies in a religious
or even mystical/religious way -- his own terrible wounds and lifelong
afflictions were a part of this, and having battled some of my own
misfortunes -- as most of us eventually do of course -- I rather
admire, and empathize with Chamberlain's approach.
did not "love war" and to distill his deep and complex
thought into that is, IMHO, a gross oversimplification. I think
his view was that the suffering and pain and at times seemingly
"unfair" hurts that we are oftimes dealt, can be a means
to a higher, personal, understanding that can be, if the individual
is strong enough or daring enough, externalized to an even greater
good. It might equally be a matter for rage, sour grapes, brooding,
bile. But Chamberlain saw it as a means of a very great, even unfathomable
know it sounds like some sort of "New Age" gobbledegook
-- but it was Chamberlain's way, and I suspect the way of many who
feel drawn to him. Others, who don't understand it, or are not cut
from that cloth, might prefer a more "realistic" -- that
is down and dirty, perhaps a tad cynical approach to life. From
my interest in the literature of the First
World War, I tend to think that this has become, thanks to that
horrific slaughter, the preferred "modern" way of looking
at things -- in war, and in life.
who can read Chamberlain's eloquent words and come away with a view
of him as a war monger or glorifier of war is missing something,
I think. Not that they are "wrong" as it is the reader's
approach, I would hazard, not only to war but to life. Chamberlain
approached it differently. I think he sought to find something that
was powerful, even divine, in the willingness of his comrades, of
the soldiers, to give so much, to suffer so much, for ideals, for
hopes, for something that was in the end intangible. That they "rose
above the mortal" -- and he did not mean this as a glorification
of bloodlust, but of the spirit -- of something beyond human. That
is how I see it, anyhow.
was ambitious, he had a big ego, he was not always right. And like
most who wrote about the war years later his memory was not perfect.
But there was much in his philosophy (forget Hollywood, novelists,
and the tunnel vision on Little Round Top) -- much in his soul
that I think does speak to those today who admire him. They may
not be able to define it, but it touches them in a deeply spiritual
way. And that, in my opinion, in this day and age, is a very good
to ramble about this -- but I do believe it most strongly, and had
to say so!
introduced me to the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. when he
sent me quotations by the associate
justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to post to the Veterans
page at this site. On April 18, 1999, Brian compared Holmes to Chamberlain
in his email message:
will take a look at the Veterans link -- I am sure you came up with
something that honors those heroes [on the occasion of Memorial
am glad, too, you liked the O.W.
Holmes quotes. I truly admire him -- he was a deep-souled, complex,
brilliant man. He could be distant, cerebral, aloof, sometimes skeptical,
even cynical -- but underneath all that he was an idealist -- very
much like Chamberlain I think, though a little more sharp-edged
-- but what a great mind he was -- and someone who was on a plane
of his own when it came to his world-view, his thought processes,
and his activity in the present while also deeply connected to the
Brian also introduced
me to Henry Lee Higginson
and his biography, Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson,
by Bliss Perry. When informing him that I would be profiling Higginson
at this Web site, Brian replied to my message on February 8, 2001:
am very glad you are going to bring deserved attention to HLH....
I always liked him, by that I mean when I first read of him, and
especially read his letters, I thought, this is someone I would
have liked to have known.... He was rather unique, a bit of a puritan,
a bit of a rebel, a lover of music and art, someone who had not
really found his niche in life when the war came along (though he
always really did have a niche) and who ultimately was able to see
his dreams to some fruition with the Symphony and so on -- the Soldiers
Field to honor his friends -- he was a smart, likeable and intelligent
man -- Some I think found him a bit too much his own character,
but that of course is the kind of thing we all encounter -- Anyhow,
I think of him with fondness and I hope that wherever he is now,
he appreciates our interest.
editing Brian's "Thoughts
about Henry Lee Higginson" posted at this site, Brian commented
on the final piece in his email dated September 2, 2001:
so much. You did an absolutely wonderful job of editing together
my thoughts on Henry Lee Higginson.... I do think it is one of the
best things I have ever written, as I wrote it with my heart, in
admiration for that good man. I know you share that view of him.
God Bless Him!
December 1999, a residential real estate developer planned to develop
a section of Morris Island in South Carolina where many soldiers of
the 54th Massachusetts
lost their lives in the attempt to take Fort Wagner. Upon learning
about this challenge, Brian was among the first individuals to express
his concern. He fired off an email to the editor of Charleston's Post
and Courier on December 23, 1999 and forwarded me a copy of his
As one who has spent a good part of my life researching and writing
about the Civil War, I was deeply concerned to learn of the proposal
to construct homes at Cummings Point on Morris Island. Having recruited,
trained and commanded the living history volunteers of Company B,
54th Massachusetts for the Academy Award winning film "Glory,"
I know how aware my comrades and I were of the sacrifice made by
those brave men whose story we sought to tell, so that future generations
would remember and honor what they did on that shell-torn spit of
sand. How in a spirit of idealism, and hope they charged -- and
died -- with an ardor born of idealism and of hope. The soldiers
of the 54th martyred themselves on the ramparts of Fort Wagner that
awful night of July 18, 1863, so that their children would live
in freedom, with dignity and pride. And many a brave soldier of
the Union and Confederacy died on that ravaged island, fighting
for ideals they cherished above life itself. What a shame, what
a sad commentary on our money-grubbing souless times, that even
that sacred place is threatened. It should be preserved and revered
as a monument to valor, and aspiration -- not defiled. And I hope
that those who understand this will fight to save it.
to the efforts of caring citizens across the country, a movement was
begun to thwart this effort, with pleas made to the City Council,
and the preservationists were eventually victorious in this fight.
Unfortunately, the area is being threatened again and such battles
must continually be fought.
Favorite Civil War Things
three messages share a few of Brian's Civil War "favorites."
On April 13, 1999, Brian replied to my email regarding the Memorial
Day material he sent for posting to this site.
am glad you liked the Memorial Day material -- since that topic
means a lot to me, from a spiritual and philosophical standpoint
-- I sent you more than you will likely need, but if nothing else
you can keep some in reserve for future use.
February 10, 1999, Brian responded to a message I sent, commenting
on the "Echoes of the Blue and Gray (Volume I)" video from
Bill Styple's Belle Grove Publishing Company:
so much -- I thoroughly enjoyed writing that narration for Bill's
"Echoes" tapes and saw it as you surmise, as a tribute
from me (us) to them -- the veterans.
am doing well. I hope to lead my company [A, 5th NYVI] in the President's
Day Parade on Monday.
visiting the updates to this Web site, Brian wrote on January 28,
so much for posting the [Winslow] Homer 'Zouave'
[image to your site] and for the link [to our 5th NY living history
group Web site]....
is one of my favorites, too, and was I think the greatest of the
Civil War artists in that his paintings are very authentic and true
to the soldiers' life and experiences. The Zouaves he painted were
5th New York men, as he saw them during a visit to the front during
the siege of Yorktown in 1862 -- and when the 5th came home in 1863,
he purchased a uniform from one of the men that he used on models
at his studio.
Chamberlain quote [posted
to this site] is also one of my all-time favorites, as I am sure
you surmise. I keep a compendium of some of his quotes and writings
that appeal to me, as I think he captured, and articulated so well
that giving of something greater than self, that transcendence of
self for things that were eternal -- that gets to the heart of what
that service and sacrifice was about....
tribute continues with:
to Brian's Pages
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