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.
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.
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.