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Brian Pohanka photo by Jim Wassel  

A Memorial Tribute to
Brian C. Pohanka
(March 20, 1955 - June 15, 2005)

The Soul of an Idealistic, Noble Soldier


Brian C. 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.

The Loss of a Great Leader and Friend

Civil 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 to follow.

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 matter.

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The Civil War

Civil War Heroes at this Site

On 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.

Thanks 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.

Chamberlain 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.

Anyhow, you can see I think highly of him.

Best of luck on your website, and keep me posted.

On 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":

...As 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.

He 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 good.

I 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.

Anyone 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.

Chamberlain 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 thing indeed.

Sorry to ramble about this -- but I do believe it most strongly, and had to say so!

Brian 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:

I 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 Day] --

I 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 past....

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:

I 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.

After 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:

Thanks 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!

Battlefield Preservation Efforts

In 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 message:

Dear Editor:

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.

Thanks 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.

Some Favorite Civil War Things

These 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.

I 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.

On 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:

Thanks 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.

I am doing well. I hope to lead my company [A, 5th NYVI] in the President's Day Parade on Monday.

After visiting the updates to this Web site, Brian wrote on January 28, 1999:

Thanks 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]....

Homer 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.

That 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....

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Brian's tribute continues with:

The Great War

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Index to Brian's Pages
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