A Mystery Solved? Part I

A Mystery Solved? – Part One

From Scott Hartwig

During my 31 years with the National Park Service at Gettysburg NMP it has remained a mystery where Alexander Gardner took his famous series of photographs of Union dead on the battlefield.  Gardner seemingly offered a clue when he labeled one of the images in his 1863 catalog of photographs as a “View in the field on the right wing where General Reynolds fell.”  There were two stereo views of the same image but their captions did not mention Reynolds.  One read, “View in the field on right wing,” and the other, “Federal soldiers as they fell.”  Gardner also shot two other images of this same grouping of soldiers from a different camera position.  He labeled these “A Harvest of Death,” and “Evidence of how severe the contest had been on the right.”

Alexander Gardner

William Frassanito, in his classic book Gettysburg: A Journey in Time, concluded from his research that Gardner never visited the first day’s battlefield, and that he labeled this particular image “where General Reynolds fell” in response to competition from Matthew Brady.  Although Gardner visited the battlefield at least a week before Brady, the August 22, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly had published eleven of Brady’s mid-July photographs of the battlefield as woodcuts, including one Brady labeled “Wheatfield in which General Reynolds was shot.”  Brady had scooped Gardner with the public.  In response, when Gardner published his catalog in September, 1863 Frassanito believed he added “where General Reynolds fell” to the original caption of “View in the field on the right wing.” 

Frassanito searched every conceivable place on the battlefield that these photographs might have been taken, including the cavalry battlefield east of Gettysburg, and was unable to find a match to the terrain.  He concluded that Gardner took this image somewhere on the southern end of the field, near the Rose farm and the Emmitsburg Road.

For a long time I agreed with Frassanito, although I was convinced the images were taken near the Catherine Trostle farm on the July 2 battlefield, in the field west of the farm, and I spent many hours tramping the fields there trying to line up the images.  But, like Frassanito, I could never get the terrain in either photograph to line up correctly. 

What fascinated me about the images was not a morbid curiosity or a need to be the one who finally matched them to the terrain.  I just wanted to know who these men were.  Where had they fought?  Where had they died?  These were some of the men who had given, as Lincoln said, the “last full measure of devotion,” yet they remained as anonymous as the unknowns in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.  So, I kept looking.  Meanwhile, over the years, a number of people have taken me out on the field or written to me about where they thought the photographs were taken.  They were members of the 2nd Maine west of Pitzer’s Woods.  They were men of the 5th New Jersey killed on the skirmish line west of the Emmitsburg Road.  They were soldiers of Willard’s New York brigade on Cemetery Ridge, near the old Cyclorama Center, killed in the bombardment of July 3, or gathered after Pickett’s Charge for burial.  They were skirmishers near the Culp Farm killed on July 2. 

Image #1 – View in the field on right wing.  Library of Congress

There were two problems with all of these locations.  Either the terrain matched perfectly for one photograph but not the other, or elaborate explanations were necessary to explain how the terrain had changed since 1863 and thus why the images no longer matched the terrain.  The other problem was the evidence the photographs themselves provided us.  The number of dead conclusively indicated that these men died on a line of battle, not a skirmish line, and not from artillery fire.  Also, they generally lay as they had fallen.  These men had not been dragged to this spot for burial. 

Image #2 – A Harvest of Death – Library of Congress

The dead in the photographs had been stripped of their equipment and shoes, and appeared to have been searched over for valuables.  But they still had their uniforms on which is one of the pieces of evidence that convinced me the images could not have been taken on the first day’s battlefield.  I had encountered circumstantial evidence over the years that indicated the Confederates had stripped Union dead from July 1 of useable coats and pants to be recycled into clothing for Confederate uniforms.  If this was true then these men could only have been in an area not directly controlled by either army, since if they fell behind Union lines they would not have laid unburied until Gardner reached Gettysburg, and if they were behind Confederate lines I thought they would have been stripped of parts of their uniforms.   This narrowed the possible area to the ground between the Emmitsburg Road ridge and the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, where Sickles 3rd Corps had fought on July 2.  This became a kind of no-man’s land on July 3 and 4, under direct observation of both Union and Confederate sharpshooters and artillery.  Many dead lay unburied in this area until July 5 when it was certain that the Confederates had withdrawn from the field. 

Frassanito believed that Gardner arrived on the battlefield on the late morning of July 5 along the Emmitsburg Road.  The Union 5th Corps advanced out to the Emmitsburg Road that morning and sent out details to begin to bury the dead.  When they began to bury the dead the burial details worked out from the road.  I presumed that Gardner probably arrived in the late morning, found the burial details still at work in the fields near the Trostle farm and took these images.  But hard as I tried, I could never get the images to match the terrain correctly.  The distant line of woods in image #1 could not be explained.  I finally concluded that maybe we were all wrong.  Maybe, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, Gardner did take these images on the first day’s battlefield.   In our next post we will visit the spot that I am now convinced Gardner took these images.

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2 Responses to A Mystery Solved? Part I

  1. Rob Jeffries says:

    Looking into this photograph a little closer, I can only amateurishly speculate something possibly interesting. The body on the left of the photo, at the feet of the two men in the foreground, has his face covered and in a slightly higher resolution, looks as if there is a small piece of paper, laid upon this coat, covering his face, with a stick laid upon the paper, as a weight. Why, this one man with his face covered? Did he do it just before death, covering his face, or twisting so that he ends up beneath it? This does not fully give reason to the small sheet of paper laying atop of it. I feel someone close, possibly a brother, seeing his sibling dead upon the ground, covered his friend or brothers face, to shield his face from the marring sun, in hopes that he may be recognized by burial crews. Being a veteran of more battles, he would more than likely have witnessed the suns affects, hoping not to have this fate fall upon his brother. Secondly, scribbling his brothers name as a second safeguard to be identified. A brother would do this for a brother. The one more speculation, that the man with his feet at the covered mans side is very close. Close enough to be squatted at his brothers side, frantically covering and identifying his brother and then being shot or succumbing to his own wounds and falling backward, at his brothers side, dies.
    Speculative, yes.. interesting thought, yes.. I would love to see a very high resolution picture that could either read that note or find the pencil still laying among the debris.

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