GETTYSBURG, Pa. – Photographer Alexander Gardner and his two colleagues, Timothy O’Sullivan and James Gibson, came upon a frightful landscape late on July 5, 1863.
Soldiers of the Blue and Gray lay dead virtually everywhere, still littering a battlefield nearly two days after the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.
The trio set about recording the aftermath of the battle, photographing the dead at locations that have long since become synonymous with the Gettysburg lore – the Slaughter Pen, the Wheatfield, the Valley of Death and Little Round Top.
One picture they captured, of a lone Confederate soldier lying dead in Devil’s Den within the Slaughter Pen area, has become an indelible symbol of intimate combat and death – and possibly even the war itself.
The dead Confederate in the photograph, “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg,” shows a young soldier lying prone behind a stonewall, situated at the confluence of two large stone outcroppings in Devil’s Den.
The scene has a compelling quality, almost as if the viewer has happened upon a sacred roofless tomb.
But despite the sense of deadly immediacy the image possesses, all is not as it seems in the photograph.
Each year, the Gettysburg National Military Park attracts more than one million visitors, many of which call on Devil’s Den, and make it among the most popular stops on the battlefield.
Historically, Devil’s Den and its surrounding outcropping of huge boulders hosted some of the fiercest combat during the second day of the three-day battle.
“I would describe it as certainly as some of the most intense fighting of the day,” said Ronald S. Coddington, author of three books profiling rank-and-file Union and Confederate soldiers. His latest effort, “African American Faces of the Civil War; An Album” (The Johns Hopkins University Press), details the life experiences of black Union soldiers. “The Union infantry and artillery here courageously defended their position against an overwhelming number of Confederate attackers late in the afternoon.”
The battle began on July 1, 1863, when Confederate troops clashed with Union forces on the north side of Gettysburg. Forced to draw back, the Union Army of the Potomac established a strong line south of town along Cemetery Ridge, with Gen. George G. Meade in overall command. Across from Meade’s army on Seminary Ridge sat the Army of Northern Virginia, led by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
On the second day of battle, a Union corps commanded by Gen. Daniel Sickles made an ill-advised advance that exposed the army’s left flank. Sickles’ force soon faced a serious threat from a late-day assault by a Confederate corps led by Gen. James Longstreet.
The Confederates pushed back Sickles’ men from positions in the Wheatfield, Slaughter Pen and Peach Orchard, and pressed on toward the strategically important but lightly defended Union site on Little Round Top. In the process, Rebel soldiers, including sharpshooters – snipers, – occupied Devil’s Den.
“Those who were assigned a role as sharpshooters were expert marksmen,” said Coddington. “In the Union army, a sharpshooter had to hit 10 consecutive shots in a 10-inch circle at a distance of 200 yards. They preferred Sharp’s or British-made Whitworth rifled muskets, and sometimes used telescopic sites. The Confederate were not as well equipped, but were very effective at Gettysburg and in other battles.”
Standing inside Devil’s Den, one can see the advantage a Confederate marksman might have. The spot offered a virtually unobstructed view of Union artillery posted on Little Round Top.
“Artillerists, mostly, are who they wanted to nail,” said the Superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park, Bob Kirby, during a recent visit with Coddington to Devil’s Den. “The value of this spot right here is great, if you’ve got nice rocks to protect you.”
The small stonewall in which the dead Confederate lies before in Gardner’s photograph is not the same as visitors see today. Damage to the original makeshift protection, by both natural elements and visitors over time, ultimately led the U.S. National Park Service to reinforce a reconstructed stonewall.
“The truth of the matter is you see somebody put mortar in there,” said Kirby. “Over the years it’s been kicked down and people stole rocks because it’s a souvenir. So in the ’70s, the Park came in here and mortared all of the rocks that were around and most of the ones they could find elsewhere.”
Both sides suffered high casualties during fluid fighting in the area. Ultimately, Union reinforcements bolstered Little Round Top, and repulsed the Confederates. Thereafter, combat in this sector subsided, as the soldiers’ attentions turned to the next day and an all-out Confederate attack on Cemetery Ridge.
After “Pickett’s Charge” – an infantry assault ordered by Gen. Lee – failed on July 3, the Army of Northern Virginia retreated back to Virginia. Two days later, Gardner, O’Sullivan and Gibson arrived on the scene with their stereo and view cameras and came upon Devil’s Den as they worked around the Slaughter Pen.
The image of the dead Confederate is as poetic as it is sobering. His head rests on a blanket, or possibly a knapsack, with his mouth open and eyes closed. His dark hair appears almost uniformly swept back. An upside down cap lies inches from his head. A section of undergarment protrudes from under an open, dark coat. His right hand rests slightly cupped on his lower abdomen. Nearby, a rifle leans up against the stonewall.
The picture later appeared in Gardner’s two-volume work, “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.” And, with the passage of time, the image earned a certain iconic status.
But all that changed when a controversy about the photograph took root in 1961, after Frederic Ray of the Civil War Times magazine wrote that the sharpshooter’s body had appeared in another Gardner photo from the battlefield.
Civil War historian and photography specialist William Frassanito expanded on Ray’s observation in 1975, in his book “Gettysburg: A Journey in Time.” Frassanito found that the dead sharpshooter had turned up in other Slaughter Pen photographs as well, and determined that Gardner’s crew had moved the body into Devil’s Den for the famous image.
Moreover, the dead man probably was not a sharpshooter at all, but an infantryman. And the rifle in the photograph offered a revealing clue to this likelihood.
“It’s very possible that it was a prop gun carried by Gardner, which he used as he saw fit,” said Coddington. “It’s not a sharpshooter’s rifle, and that certainly lends credence that it was something that Gardner placed there. In the context of this photo, there are a number of other photographs of the same body in different positions at different places, around that sector of the battlefield. And you’ll see that gun laying in numerous places.”
While it is easy to accuse Gardner of an editorial faux pas or staging the scene, you need to keep in mind that photojournalistic guidelines were practically nonexistent in 1863. The first practical photographic process had been developed in 1839, and the medium was still a relatively young during the Civil War.
“Back then, Alexander and his contemporaries were storytellers, first and foremost,” said Coddington. “Gardner was also a man of his time, influenced by engravings and paintings. These artworks were created by talented artists, and they tended to place a higher value on composition and aesthetics over facts and reality. Gardner, like other artists, played with the facts to increase the impact of his visual storytelling on the Civil War battlefield.”
Coddington also added that one fact still remains true about the image to this day.
“As a photograph of Gettysburg, it leaves an indelible impression,” he said. “But its real power is as a reminder of the generation of citizen soldiers from both sides who gave it all. It is much more than a representative photo of Gettysburg. It is iconic image of the entire Civil War.”
-Chuck Myers, Kansas City Star