A Mystery Solved? Part 2


A Mystery Solved? Part Two

    In my last post I mentioned that my search to find where Gardner’s Union death studies were taken took me to the July 1 battlefield.  There was only place I thought might possibly match the terrain in the photographs, so one day this last fall I drove to Reynolds Avenue and stopped south of Herbst Woods, along McPherson’s Ridge, and with the images in hand I began to walk the ground.  While walking the position held by Colonel Chapman Biddle’s brigade on July 1 the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place and in 30 years of searching I found the only point on the battlefield where the photographs matched up both to the terrain and to the evidence the photographs provide us.   Frassanito probably never found this view because when he worked on Journey in Time, because then a non-historic tree screen planted by the NPS on the western slope of Seminary Ridge, north of the Chambersburg Pike, obscured the historic view.  This has since been removed.

    I am convinced that the images were taken a short distance east of the crest of what I call Eastern McPherson’s Ridge along the line held by Biddle’s brigade.  The dead in image number 2, which is looking south along McPherson’s Ridge, are primarily from the 121st Pennsylvania, which formed the extreme left of Colonel Chapman Biddle’s brigade of the 1st Corps on the afternoon of July 1, and the extreme left of the entire 1st Corps line.  The regiment was struck in front and on its left flank (where the horseman can be seen) by the 52nd North Carolina of Pettigrew’s brigade, and lost most of its 14 men killed in action on July 1 in this engagement.   Their ordeal was described in the regiment’s after action report by Major Alexander Biddle:  I saw the line of the enemy slowly approaching up the hill, extending far beyond our left flank, for which we had no defense.  As the enemy’s faces appeared over the crest of the hill, we fired effectually into them, and soon after received a crushing fire from their right, under which our ranks were broken and became massed together as we endeavored to change front to the left to meet them.  The immediate attack on our front was destroyed by our first fire. . .The regiment, broken and scattered, retreated to the wood around the hospital [the Lutheran Seminary building], and maintained a scattering fire.

    The evidence in photograph #2 corroborates with Biddle’s report.  The main line of the regiment is evident, extending from near the fallen soldier in the foreground to where the burial detail can be seen.   There are no dead and no evidence of burials beyond this point which confirms this was the end of a battle line.  The greatest concentration of dead in this image lay on the far left of the line, where Biddle writes the regiment attempted to change front to fight off the attack of the 52nd North Carolina.  The soldiers in the immediate foreground, who are the focus of image #1, which was taken looking northeast, or 135 degrees from the direction we are looking in image #2, are probably men of the 20th New York State Militia, which was on the 121st Pennsylvania’s immediate right flank.   The 20th New York State Militia had 24 men killed in action on July 1.  Some of these men were no doubt killed during the retreat to Seminary Ridge and during the fighting in front of the Seminary, but like the 121st, the majority fell in the combat along eastern McPherson’s Ridge.  There are about 21 bodies visible in image #2.  It is possible that some of the dead in the distance are Confederate.  It is even possible that one of the “bodies” is a horse.  But since there are no Confederate soldiers anywhere in the foreground or lying in front of the line of Union dead we must presume that all the dead in image #2 are Federal.

Image #1 - Library of Congress

Modern view of Image #1, looking toward the northeast.Image #2 - Looking south along eastern McPherson's Ridge. Library of Congress


Image #2. Monuments Biddle's brigade, the 20th New York State Militia, and 121st Pennsylvania Infantry.

 Gardner had to have taken these images on July 5 before the Union dead from the July 1 were buried.  This prompts the question of how did Gardner end up here and why didn’t he take any other images of the field, or of important buildings, such as the Lutheran Seminary, which was still an active hospital?   Addressing the first part of the above question, what seems likely is that when Gardner attempted to make his way to Gettysburg on July 5 on the Emmitsburg Road he learned that the road was blocked ahead by the 5th Corps and other Federal troops and turned west on Bull Frog Road to avoid this.  From Bull Frog Road he could have turned north on Pumping Station Road, then taken Willoughby Run Road or Blackhorse Tavern Road to the Hagerstown Road.  Biddle’s brigade followed this same approximate route on July 1.  Driving east on the Hagerstown Road would have brought Gardner to McPherson’s Ridge where he could have seen the Union burial details at work.  If he approached the battlefield from this direction the first casualties he would have encountered would have been those of Biddle’s brigade. 

An 1890's William Tipton image looking southwest from the Seminary cupola. The arrows mark the approximate location Gardner’s images were taken. The road in the middle ground leads to the Springs Hotel and did not exist at the time of the battle. Some of the trees near the arrows may be the ones visible in image #1. GNMP

As to why Gardner did not shoot other images on the July 1 battlefield, or buildings such as the Seminary, this remains a mystery.   Most of the burials around Herbst Woods, the McPherson farm, and along the right flank of Biddle’s brigade, where the 142nd and 151st Pennsylvania fought, may have already been completed by the time he arrived.  Perhaps he did shoot other images but they did not survive.  Since he focused primarily on photographing casualties he might have passed up the opportunity to photograph the Seminary or other landscape views.  He did this elsewhere on the battlefield.  But unless someone uncovers documents from Gardner that shed additional light on his time at Gettysburg this is likely to remain a mystery. 

   The black arrows represent the approximate location and direction of Gardner’s photographs.  Note the Virginia worm fence east of the 121st and 20th’s position the remnants of which can be seen behind the burial detail in image #1.

    In my next post I will look at who some of the fallen men in the photographs might be.

Scott Hartwig,

Supervisory Historian

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15 Responses to A Mystery Solved? Part 2

  1. Frank J. Piatek says:

    The photos of the union dead purportedly on the first day’s battle is based on the topography of an area consistent with what is shown in each photo. A further corroboration would be the casualties themselves as well as the nature of the field in which they lay. I do not know whether the 121st PA or 80th NY wore sack coats or frocks, but that may be another clue that could rule out those units if they wore frocks while the photos show sack coats. Of course, it is also possible that the regiments had a mixture of uniforms. The Cope Map (supposedly showing the crops during the battle) depicts rye or wheat (depending your interpretation of Cope’s legend) in the area of Biddle’s line east of the crest. But James H. Cooper’s report (Battery B, 1st PA Art.) stated that the battery occupied its first position in an oatfield about 350-380 yards south of the Chambersburg Rd. (O.R. Vol. 27, Pt. 1, pg. 229, 355). Cooper’s guns were posted initially on the ridge between the 80th NY and the 142nd. PA. If the trampled crop depicted in one of the photos looking down Biddle’s line is oats, then this is possibly some additional corroboration, although, admittedly, not conclusive evidence. Just thought I’d mention these items which, after considering the topography, are the only other clues gleaned from the photos themselves. Anything else would have to come from anecdotal evidence not visible in the photo. Is it possible to enlarge the photos and clear-up some of the background by altering the exposure to highlight the background?

  2. I know that the Elliott map has been judged by many to be inaccurate. However, it shows few if any bodies buried at the proposed camera location. Comments?

    • The Staff says:

      I noticed that when I was researching this. Elliott missed many trenches and individual graves that were recorded by Dr. O’Neal, Samuel Weaver and J. G. Frey. He may have missed these burials as well, or, since he sometimes noted the general location of burials, rather than a specific location, he may have included them as part of the very large number of Union burials he shows just east of Herbst Woods.

      Scott Hartwig

  3. Zack Fry says:


    Upon downloading the high-resolution image of the “Harvest of Death” photograph facing south, I can see that there is definitely a collapsed forage cap or enlisted kepi to the right of the most prominent man in the foreground; the cap appears to include an insignia, which very much resembles the circle badge of the First Corps.

    There will always be skeptics about this enigmatic series of photographs, but I think you have it nailed exactly.

  4. Norman Muller says:

    Years ago I had noticed a small bump or nipple on the treeline to the far left of O’Sullivan’s “The Incidents of War,” reproduced above, and concluded that it might represent the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary. I enlarged this area of the photograph and this feature did not appear to be a tree. I later asked a photographic conservator at the Library of Congress whether this area of the photograph had been tampered with, and he could not see that it had. Could the cupola be visible to the far left in Image #2?

  5. Tom Burke says:

    The 20th NYSM would have left New York in November ’61 wearing their NY State coats and gold trimmed kepi. After a year and a half of hard campaigning, being slaughtered at the 2nd Bull Run and engaged at the Miller Cornfield at Antietam, the remnants of the twentieth had been assigned to provost duty near Washington. At that point, I’m sure that they would have received replacement uniforms (fatigue blouses, aka sack coats) before rejoining the 1st Corps on June 25, 1863. I have walked the grounds in question all the way down to Willoughby Run and believe that image has finally been identified! My G-G-Grandfather served in Co. F of the 20th.


    The location of the famed Harvest of Death photo series, first detailed and outlined by William A. Frassanito, is what I and many consider the greatest Civil War photo mystery. I have been actively searching for this site since 1988. More importantly, however, I have been examining the theories advanced to Frassanito for almost twenty years now and I have seen that most of these theories, which now number around 30, distinct sites, have plenty in common. Namely, each theory was full of problems and most theorists were reluctant to deal with these problems. In many cases, the theorist simply chose to ignore the evidence that makes their theory impossible while focusing only on evidence that supports it. Many have proclaimed their sites to be absolutely correct—not theories at all—even in the presence of contrary evidence and before other historians weighed in on the matter. No historian, or detective for that matter, can succeed in this manner.

    I will advance a discussion of the five photos in the series and provide very specific examples of problems with the recently-advanced theories—John Cummings’ (January 2012), Scott Hartwig’s May 2011 (although first advanced to Frassanito in 1999 by Mr. John Stewart) and Jerry Coates (first advanced in the late 1980s) in a series of dedicated posts on the Gettysburg Daily, probably in February 2012. I also hope to examine several other sites advanced by Messrs. Harman, Teague, Gibson, Martin, myself, and others.

    For photo research in particular we need to apply a different standard than to work that involves textual accounts. With the latter, we regularly assemble evidence and weigh which are more likely to be correct and why. If 400 witnesses say one thing and two say another, and they are otherwise equal in bias and apparent accuracy, we usually side with the 400. With photo research you can have 400 things that support a theory but if one single photo taken that same week, or month shows features that should, but fail to, appear within the field of a proposed location’s photo, the 400 pieces of potentially supporting evidence become irrelevant, unless the difference in features can be explained. In short, photos can provide what I regularly call “deal breakers” that unless truly explained make a theory impossible. All three of my own, proposed Harvest of Death sites ultimately fell into this category and I never advanced them publically (although I still have some small hope for one of them!). With photo research we must be our own, harshest critics and actively work to prove our own theories wrong. There is no theory more correct than another—a site is either absolutely correct or completely wrong.

    So, for now, I hope you will examine the images and locations of the various theorists for yourself. Ask why none of them leverage the 3D format in which 3 of the 5 photos were taken? Why do the features on early battlefield maps alone make almost all Harvest of Death theories impossible, alone? Why are the theorists tending to focus on one of the angles to the exclusion of the other? Why none of them leverage other historic photos that overlap their proposed fields of view? Form your own conclusions and I hope you’ll check out my take on the matters soon.


    Garry Adelman
    Vice President
    The Center for Civil War Photography

    • The Staff says:

      Garry references two other posts readers of this blog may want to look at. John Cummings at http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/, and Jerry Coates, who recently did a three part series on the “Harvest of Death” photo series at http://www.gettysburgdaily.com/?p=13019. The only point I will add to this discussion is a reminder that while it is critical to match the terrain to the photographs it is equally important to consider what evidence the photographs provide us. The line of dead is a battle line, not a skirmish line. The bodies are not behind Union lines since the Union army did not leave its dead lying unburied until July 5. These soldiers that Gardner photographed lay either in a no-man’s land or behind Confederate lines. This narrows the search to the first day’s battlefield or the forward 3rd Corps line that was driven in on July 2 by Longstreet’s attack. These are the only locations on the field where soldiers who fought and fell in a line of battle were beyond reach of Union burial details until after the battle was over. I encourage the discussion to continue and look forward to Garry’s analysis.

      Scott Hartwig

  7. I’ve posted my latest thoughts on the HOD series this morning. Garry and Tim have started their examinations on Gettysburg Daily.
    Here is the link to what will probably be my last until I can get back up to the battlefield to check my angles. http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/2012/03/gettysburgs-harvest-of-death-trump-card.html

  8. Rob says:

    You have to admit Garry, Scott makes a strong argument when he talks about photographic evidence. You can’t just make decisions based on how well today’s terrain matches those photos. With Scott’s 31 years of experience i tend to agree with him.

  9. I have made two new posts on my blog after a return trip to the field on June 14, 2012. These should clear up many questions since the conclusion of Garry and Tim’s series on Gettysburg Daily.

  10. John Szweda says:

    I don’t know that this issue has been completely decided. I think you need to give some consideration that these may be Ohio men that are in the field just southwest of Barlow’s Knoll. The rise in the landscape in the photo from the other direction matches very well with the rise up Barlow’s Knoll.

    John Szweda

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