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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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)
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.
Gettysburg National Military Park