“The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” Revisited, Part 1

One of the most iconic images of Gettysburg is the photograph of a deceased young Confederate soldier lying behind a stone barricade at Devil’s Den. This graphic image was first published in 1866 in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, a collection of wartime images taken by Alexander Gardner and his team of photographers. Entitled “The Home of A Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg”, Gardner describes the melancholy scene as he discovered it with the young sharpshooter lying prone behind a stone barricade, and wondered in his narrative if thoughts of home and loved ones filled the young soldier’s mind as he perished.

1-home of Rebel Sharpshooter

“The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg” by Timothy O’Sullivan (Library of Congress)

There is more to this tale of course, but suffice it to say that we now understand the scene depicted in the photo was staged by the photographers and was not, as Gardner claimed in his narrative, to be a scene untouched since the end of the fighting a few days previous. The careful observer would have noticed that this rebel sharpshooter looked very similar- nay, identical to the corpse photographed in a rocky field on the previous page of the Sketch Book in a photo entitled “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep”. Gardner’s explanation of the scene is just as fanciful and imaginative as the narrative is for “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,” but perhaps more misleading in using this photo to describe the role of sharpshooters not only at Gettysburg but on other battlefields as well.

2-Last Sleep

“A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep”, one of the first photographs taken of the dead southerner where his body was discovered by Gardner and team. (Library of Congress)

Whether anyone in 1866 noticed the similarities of the body in these photos is undocumented, but for well over 90 years viewers took in these dramatic scenes and believed this individual to be two different soldiers. Then in October 1961, Frederick Ray, artist and illustrator of Civil War uniforms and subjects for Civil War Times Illustrated magazine, published a short article in which he highlighted the similarities of the deceased soldier photographed in two different locations, though offered no theory as to how or why this would have occurred. It was not until 1975 when historian and author William Frassanito took Ray’s article and further developed the story behind the sharpshooter’s home in Gettysburg, A Journey in Time, and again in his 1995 book, Early Photography at Gettysburg (Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, PA, 1995). Based on his knowledge of the 1863 battlefield photographs and area where Gardner’s team worked, Frassanito described the course taken by the photographers to set up the scene by transporting the body from the first site where the soldier fell to a position behind the stone barricade, a distance of some 72 yards, where two photographs were taken, the first by James Gibson with his stereoview camera (two lenses) followed by Timothy O’Sullivan with his single-lens camera. It is O-Sullivan’s sharply focused image most often reproduced in books and magazines.

But why would Gardner choose this particular corpse over the many others probably still scattered about the area for this staged scene? “Ironically,” Frassanito wrote, “one of the primary reasons for this fascination may well have been related to the fact that this body was not disfigured by bloating, thereby providing the cameramen with a more ‘life-like’ subject- or at least a subject that was less grotesque than most of the other bodies they had previously encountered on the field.” (Early Photography at Gettysburg, p. 271) As seen in the other images taken in this area of the battlefield on July 5 or 6, 1863, the unburied dead, exposed to the elements for a minimum of three to four days, were grotesque beyond description. Yet, the corpse found near the large boulders on the western slope of Devil’s Den did not exhibit such extreme disfigurement, so it was almost the perfect model to place behind the “sharpshooter’s covert” that Gardner considered to be “an ideal backdrop for this soldier”. The addition of discarded equipment and a US Springfield rifle made the photograph complete and, more importantly, believable; rather than a disfigured corpse it was a handsome young soldier asleep in death, the perfect tragedy as Gardner described it.

So what does this suggest for historians with little expertise on the science of forensic pathology? To me, it suggests this individual was killed in action much later than those poor souls who fell in the fighting that swept around the Den on July 2. In that case, what additional event occurred here to cause this young soldier’s death?

Benning

Henry Benning, photographed after the war. (Generals in Gray)

The site where the body was first photographed on the western slope of Devil’s Den was occupied by Henry “Rock” Benning’s Georgia brigade after the fighting had ended as evening fell on July 2. During a short span of three hours, the Den and surrounding ground was witness to some of the most savage and chaotic fighting of the battle. Scattered behind boulders at the western base of Big Round Top, the 2nd Georgia was ordered to sleep on their arms while the groans of wounded men lying beyond their reach filled the night. “(We) slept that night… at the foot of the mountain,” Lt. James Lewis wrote, “on ground that there was scarcely a place to lie down without touching a dead soldier.” (Memoir of 2nd Lt. James Ferrell Lewis, GNMP library) The 17th, 20th and 15th Georgia regiments occupied the bloody ground of Devil’s Den, massed in the pasture and rugged low ground on the west side of the ridge. Despite apparent exhaustion, details used the cover of darkness to remove wounded comrades and bury the southern dead. After passing through the danger of that day, Private William Fluker, Company D, 15th Georgia Infantry, remembered the night: “We began to realize that we were surrounded by death and suffering that no pen can picture. Our determination to destroy life had changed to sympathy and sorrow for the suffering ones about us. Men risked their lives crawling on the ground to carry water to their suffering foes. Other spent the night silently digging graves (for) comrades… a dear brother, a loved messmate or officer.”(Robert Willingham, Jr., No Jubilee, The Story of Confederate Wilkes, pp. 33-34.) Among those men involved in that sad task was Private William Ware of Company G, who buried his fallen brother Thomas under a willow tree, scribbling a short prayer in Thomas’s preserved diary as an epitaph. (Thomas Ware Diary, Southern Historical Society Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill). Accordingly, the dead were quickly buried in the woods near the western base of the ridge adjoining the J. Weikert (also known as Timbers) farm and on the nearby John Slyder Farm.

J. Weikert Farm

Fields owned by Philip Snyder on the west side of Devil’s Den where Benning’s regiments sheltered from Union sharpshooters on Little Round Top throughout July 3. (NPS photo)

By the morning of July 3, this western slope of Devil’s Den was one of the few safe areas for Benning’s Georgians where they could remain out of view of Union sharpshooters and cannon deployed on Little Round Top.  If anything, the site where the body was first discovered had been a place for the living to gather, to rest and find protective cover.

It was after the failure of Pickett’s Charge and Elon Farnsworth’s failed cavalry charge that afternoon when orders were received for Benning to withdraw his command with the rest of the division to a defensive line on Seminary Ridge. Yet, Benning had a dilemma- only a few minutes before the dispatch arrived, he had sent the 15th Georgia Infantry, under the command of Colonel David M. DuBose, into the Rose Farm woods on his left flank after receiving word that troops there had been withdrawn, leaving his left uncovered. Benning observed as Colonel DuBose march his men into the woods and reinforced his orders to DuBose by mounted courier- hold that position on the left flank. Now Benning had no recourse other than to begin withdrawing before he could recall the 15th Georgia.

15th Georgia on July 3

The 15th Georgia in Rose’s Woods, late afternoon of July 3, 1863. (NPS Staff)

Orders to return may have been sent but they never reached DuBose, who unknowingly was leading his men to a headlong collision with part of two Union brigades just then on a reconnaissance toward the Peach Orchard. Skirmishers spotted the southerners and one Union brigade quickly turned toward them, sweeping around the Georgians who were just then positioned near the top of the wooded ridge between Devil’s Den and the Wheatfield. An exasperated Colonel DuBose had only received additional orders from General Benning to hold the hill he then occupied, yet, “The enemy came up rapidly in heavy force, turning my left entirely and also advancing in front and moving upon my right in the space between my right and the… position where I had left the balance of the brigade.” (Official Records, Vol. 27, Part 2, p. 423) Faced with overwhelming odds, DuBose ordered his regiment to fall back to the relative safety of the brigade line where his fellow regiments could provide assistance. Unfortunately, DuBose arrived to find the brigade gone along with every other southerner who could offer anything to help with the colonel’s predicament.

Utilizing the stonewalls that divided the fields south of Rose Woods, the 15th Georgia first made a determined stand at the stonewall bordering the woods before retiring to other parallel walls and eventually to the relative safety of the woods on Warfield Ridge, the same woods from which they had begun the attack the day previous. During the course of the withdrawal, the regiment passed through the boulder-strewn hillside where barely a half-hour before they had enjoyed some shelter from Union guns, leaving behind prisoners, the wounded and the dead. Though the running fight was all but brief, the cost paid by the regiment was high. “How any of us escaped I do not see,” Du Bose plaintively added in his report followed by his casualty figures including 101 officers and men lost in the action on July 3. (OR, Vol. 27, Part 2, p. 424.) Though Benning somewhat downplayed this episode in his official report, he did heap praise on Colonel DuBose’s fighting abilities was apparently satisfied that only “about 80 or 90” men were lost considering that it could have easily been a disaster. (OR, Vol. 27, Part 2, p. 417)

Gibson stereoview 02-a

Gibson stereoview of the “sharpshooter” where Gardner and team discovered the body. (Library of Congress)

Two or three days later, Alexander Gardner and his photographers came upon Devil’s Den where they discovered near several large boulders, the body of a single soldier lying as he fell, his haversack slung across his body just as he had hung it over his shoulder on the day he was killed.  Unlike the grisly and horribly bloated corpses found nearby, this lone body exhibited only the first stages of deterioration, his features still youthful and only slightly distorted. Federal soldiers had already passed through gathering arms and burying their own dead, but the ground was still strewn with equipment and personal belongings, signs of a hasty retreat. None of the living standing there that day had any idea of what had occurred on the site, only that a great battle had been fought over this very rugged landscape and one body remained among the scattered refuse on the hillside.

Was this lone man one of the 15th Georgia’s casualties from July 3, 1863? We’ll take a closer look in a future blog post.

-John Heiser
Gettysburg National Military Park

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
This entry was posted in 15th Georgia Infantry, Aftermath, Burials, Historical Memory, Photography and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” Revisited, Part 1

  1. Really interesting! I never knew much about the Georgians’ involvement on this part of the battlefield, it’s always great to learn more🙂

  2. John C. Green says:

    Very informative. Is this the only distortion by Gardner, or can we assume this practice was common in many of his battle scenes?

    • The Staff says:

      This is an exttreme case and the only one we know of where a body was moved to compose a photographic story. The rifle appears in other Gardner photographs taken on or about the same day at Gettysburg, so it was the primary prop used to dress up a death scene, but there is no evidence in any of them the photographers moved other corpses for a photo.

  3. Steve says:

    Really enjoyed the article. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  4. Brett Asselin says:

    Isnt it true that many beleive this to be a member of the 20th Georgia as prior to the campaign they were issued distinctive frock coats with a large exterior pocket on the breast that can be clearly seen in many of these photographs?

  5. Dave Henderson says:

    I happen to think that James C. Groves’ theory is correct. The dead body was originally in the Devil’s Den sharpshooter nest and was moved to the open field, not vice-versa as Frassinito says. A number of reasons why- the haversack is full at the nest, and empty with the items scattered about “in the field” (one item has been identified as a shoe shine brush). The fact that the body had not decayed badly was because it was tucked away amongst the rocks and shade of the Sniper’s Nest. The kicker is that on the Devil’s Den nest photo there is a rock on his right leg near the ankle. If you look at the “in the field photo” you will see an indentation at the same spot. Now I worked in the Baltimore County Crime Lab as a manager for 10 years, and I showed these photos to an ace Forensics Crime Scene Investigator. She told me the above- and that a dead body with a rock on the leg for a day or two would sink into the flesh and leave exactly that kind of mark. Ergo, since Frassinito himself says he’s not a forensics person, I decided to ask someone who is. And her conclusion is the body was moved to the field, to turn a photo of a big open empty field into something more interesting. Notice also how the head is turned away from the camera “in the field” photo.That’s because Gardner had already shot it facing the camera in the sharpshooter’s nest photo, and knew that would give away what he had done- move the body from the Sharpshooter’s Nest to the Open Field. Problem is, Frassinito’s theory is so entrenched, it’s hard to get anyone to even consider he got it backwards…

    • The Staff says:

      The theory proposed by James Groves you refer to has been found to be faulty for a number of reasons, but we can easily address two points made in your discussion. First, the condition of the “sharpshooter” indicates the death of this soldier occurred much later than the others photographed in that area, more than twenty four hours-an assessment provided the author of the blog post by a forensics specialist in 2005. Exposed in the open weather or “tucked away” under the mass of stone that composed the sharpshooter’s barricade would have made little difference in the general condition of the body’s deterioration given the weather conditions over July 3-6, 1863, though the weight and sharpness of the stones from that barricade, if it had indeed been thrown onto the soldier by the impact of a 10-pound shell as Groves theorized, would have had a more significant impact on the body and uniform than exhibited in the photographs. This physical condition was seriously considered while composing the piece. Secondly, the “kicker” as you put it is the stone purportedly lying on the body’s right leg in the sharpshooter’s nest. Careful examination of a high resolution copy of the image, which is available on line through the Library of Congress’ web site at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cwp/, shows no such thing. What is identified as a rock on the right leg by Groves is a fold in the trousers and nothing more. The flat appearance of the soldier’s legs and lack of grotesque swelling in comparison to other bodies photographed nearby, can be attributed to a number of causes in the process of physical deterioration. Author and historian William Frassanito gave careful consideration to the narrative of events that took place with the images captured by Gardner and his team; to date his theory is the most valid and ties in directly with the proposed path of the photographers on the southern end of the battlefield. Based on his proposed timeline, the author of the post believes that the conditions found by Gardner & assistants were not manipulated beyond the adjustment of extra clothing and equipment before relocating the body to the sharpshooter’s nest.

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