The Commercial Appeal

Iconic image of Gettysburg not quite authentic

Picture was probably staged by war photog

- By Chuck Myers

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.”

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 ?? LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/MCT ?? “Home of a Rebel Sharpshoot­er, Gettysburg” was produced by photograph­er Alexander Gardner and his team in Devil’s Den on the Gettysburg battlefiel­d, a few days after the Civil War battle in early July 1863. The image shows a Confederat­e soldier behind...
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/MCT “Home of a Rebel Sharpshoot­er, Gettysburg” was produced by photograph­er Alexander Gardner and his team in Devil’s Den on the Gettysburg battlefiel­d, a few days after the Civil War battle in early July 1863. The image shows a Confederat­e soldier behind...
 ?? CHUCK MYERS/MCT ?? Bob Kirby (left), the superinten­dent of Gettysburg National Military Park, and Civil War author Ronald S. Coddington discuss the scene at Devil’s Den during a visit to the site at the Gettysburg battlefiel­d in Pennsylvan­ia.
CHUCK MYERS/MCT Bob Kirby (left), the superinten­dent of Gettysburg National Military Park, and Civil War author Ronald S. Coddington discuss the scene at Devil’s Den during a visit to the site at the Gettysburg battlefiel­d in Pennsylvan­ia.
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