Petzal: Transmitting History

In the mid-1960s I did the photography for a book called Fired in Anger, which was about famous and infamous firearms that had figured in history. One of the chapters was on the pistols used in the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel at Weehawken, NJ in 1804. The guns were (and are) owned by the Chase Bank in New York City, and the bank kindly gave me permission to photograph them.

They were built by a London gunsmith named Wogdon in the late 18th century, and I got to hold the pistol that killed Alexander Hamilton in my hand. It was a slightly uncanny experience; there was history, mute, but as real as it is possible for history to be.

(A brief aside: At one time, Congressmen backed up their ideas with a lot more than words. In 1856, on the floor of the Senate, Senator Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with his walking stick after Sumner made a speech that offended him. I would like to see this type of thing encouraged; it would do wonders for the worthless bastards.)

In South Carolina last week, at gun builder Kenny Jarrett’s wonderful little museum, I had the chance to handle a sword that had been found in 1919 on the Gettysburg battlefield where it had lain since 1863. The D-guard was broken and the blade was snapped at its mid-point. It was an infantry sword, not a cavalry saber. It had belonged to an officer, probably company grade because it was a plain weapon, not ornate.

There was no marking on it, so we will never know if the man who carried it was Union or Confederate. We will never know how the blade came to snap. We will never know what became of its owner—did he live or die? What part of those bloody three days did that sword see? Was it carried in Pickett’s Charge, or at the Peach Orchard, or on Little Round Top? It knows, but we never will. History, right there in the palm of your hand.