The Commercial Appeal
Iconic image of Gettysburg not quite authentic
Picture was probably staged by war photog
McClatchy/Tribune News Service
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 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 photograph “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg,” shows a young soldier lying face-up behind a stone wall, 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 1 million visitors, many of whom call on Devil’s Den, 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.
The battle began on July 1, 1863, when Confederate troops clashed with Union forces on the north side of Gettysburg.
Both sides suffered high casualties during f luid fighting in the area. Ultimately, Union reinforcements bolstered Little Round Top and repulsed the Confederates.
After “Pickett’s Charge” — an infantry assault ordered by Confederate Gen. Robert E. 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 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. His right hand rests slightly cupped on his lower abdomen. Nearby, a rifle leans up against the stone wall.
The picture later appeared in Gardner’s twovolume work, “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.” And, with the passage of time, it 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,” Coddington said. “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.”
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 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.”