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

There are several points to consider in our attempt to identify the regiment to which the deceased “sharpshooter” belonged, which also tells the story of his death on this hillside at Devil’s Den. The first begins with the Confederate regiments that fought in this specific area- the 1st Texas followed by the 15th, 17th and 20th Georgia regiments passed through or were positioned here on July 2-3, and suffered casualties here. That leaves a wide choice of units though we can also narrow this to the regiments remaining here after the initial fight on July 2 when the area was occupied by General Benning’s brigade and the handful of sharpshooters attached to Hood’s Division sent here to do harm against the Union soldiers occupying Little Round Top. Those clues, as discussed in our last blog entry, come from the official reports and first-hand accounts from battle participants, favoring the final battle action at this location that involved the 15th Georgia Infantry.

Half of Gibson stereoview

One of several photos taken of the body where the photographers found it. In this view, discarded clothing has been thrown into the foreground to add more content to the scene. (Library of Congress)

More clues can be derived directly from the photographs taken by Gardner’s crew at the initial or original location of the body on the western slope of Devil’s Den. Reliant upon Bill Frassanito’s timeline as published in Journey in Time, and the action that occurred in this area on July 3, the initial series of four photographs were exposed where the soldier fell in battle. As previously noted, southern dead on this western side of the slope of Devil’s Den were carried away and buried by General George Benning’s men overnight of July 2, so it’s doubtful this man would have remained here uncared for if he had been a casualty on that day. Indeed, what appears to be the remains of a small campfire is no more than a foot or more above the deceased’s head, the small patch of white ashes prominent in the flattened grass surrounded by sticks and branches not used to feed the fire, giving weight to the idea that this area was one of brief refuge and safe enough to have at least had a small fire for preparing a meal. Few soldiers would have bothered to find some small comfort by a campfire with a dead comrade but a few inches away. Likewise what appears to be a discarded square bottle or flask, the round spout of the container obvious in the debris of the foreground, is another clue to what may have been consumed here and then the container tossed aside. Did this dark colored flask hold liquor, molasses, powders or was it a bottle of liniment taken from a nearby home?

Detail of the Sharpshooter's Last Sleep

Detail of O’Sullivan’s photo with the remains of the small campfire (white area), unused sticks, the bottle or flask, and wandering tin cup.  The discarded clothing item in the foreground will be shifted again for the Gibson stereoview image, shown at the top of this blog entry. (LOC)

Unlike the series of images of dead southerners taken by Gardner on the Rose Farm where the burial process had been interrupted, the body was not dragged into a row with others for a burial never completed or any attempt made to leave an identity with his remains. His clothes are in disarray, frantically pulled aside in his final minutes to locate the injury he suffered while most of his equipment and other belongings are strewn about him, indicating a hastiness displayed by his comrades in withdrawing from this area. With no time to do anything more for him, his fellow soldiers raced away from his side, leaving his corpse as the sole testament to the last fight that occurred at this location on July 3 when the 15th Georgia raced through this area in their fighting retreat.

Another clue as to the time of his death has to do with the level of decomposition that has occurred. The shattered, bloated bodies photographed on the Rose Farm and in the nearby “Slaughter Pen” exhibit all of the grotesque details of decomposition, accentuated by the warm, humid conditions of the area during and after the battle. The case of the Rose Farm dead has to do with the interrupted burial process on July 3 while the situation in the Slaughter Pen was markedly different. Southern troops who occupied the Pen area and the foot of Big Round Top were constantly exposed to the deadly accuracy of Union sharpshooters positioned around Little Round Top, making any movement outside the protection of boulders and trees an invitation to certain death. Concern for the dead in that area was outweighed by the conditions of battlefield survival, so the results of July 2’s battle action remained. The marked difference between those bodies and the lone soldier in Devil’s Den is obvious and does add some weight to the timeline of his death, twenty four hours after those men killed on the Rose Farm and in the Slaughter Pen.

Rose Farm image

Southern dead on the Rose Farm, probably photographed the same day as the Devil’s Den “sharpshooter”. (Library of Congress)

As Frassanito theorized, the physical condition of the dead soldier may have influenced Gardner and his team to take so much time photographing the initial scene followed by the relocation to the “sharpshooter’s covert” several yards away. But there was obviously something more about this setting that attracted Gardner and his men, possibly the loneliness of the soldier’s death site, isolated from the other locations where battle scars were so evident? There are evidently no other bodies scattered nearby on the hillside; otherwise Gardner would have also included them in his series of photographs. Union dead left behind from the fight on July 2 were buried by details of Union troops on July 4-5, leaving the southern dead for later work. Photos of Union graves near this area were not Gardner’s priority at Gettysburg when there were other opportunities to capture, such as this lone figure.  Gardner’s labors did, however, alter evidence as to when and where he fell in battle including the addition of items to the scene as each of the four photographs was taken here. Discarded clothing appears in the foreground of one of the Gibson stereoviews while these same items are not there in a second photo from the same camera position. Relocating the tin cup or an adjustment of the discarded rifle’s placement were simple attempts at artistic license.

Gardner photo of dead Confederate

The body from another angle. A discarded garment lying on a rock in the background will be moved by the photographers to the foreground for subsequent photos. (Library of Congress)

In all probability, it was a combination of things that made the scene so photographically interesting though it was not until the body had been moved uphill to the “sharpshooter’s covert” when the head was turned toward the camera that the youthful face of the dead man could be seen by the viewer did the body display something more than the loneliness of a battlefield death some 72 yards away. And again, additional personal and military items were added to the scene- a cartridge box, broken bayonet scabbard, a discarded knapsack under the man’s head; a combination of many things that would tell a different story to the viewer than just the sight of a bloated, abandoned corpse. Though it’s impossible to know what Gardner’s thoughts were at the time this series was taken, it was probably not long after when he realized the potential story he could fabricate that made “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg” so romantically tragic and typical of many published sentiments of the Victorian period.

Was this man actually a “sharpshooter” as identified by Gardner? Since members of southern sharpshooter battalions were not uniformed differently from other infantrymen, there is nothing in this man’s dress to identify him specifically as a member of the small sharpshooter group that occupied this area during the second and third day of battle. Nor does the equipment scattered about him make his role in the army specific other than that of a volunteer infantryman. Likewise, the rifle, a US Model 1861 Springfield, a prop weapon carefully placed by the photographers for composition purposes, finishes the scene.  As we know now from memoirs and studies, the Springfield was not a favorite of southern sharpshooters who relied on a wider variety of specialized weapons, including imported rifles such as the highly valued Whitworth Rifle and this rifle had no personal connection to the dead soldier.

With nothing specific in any photograph to point to, we can conclude that his only specialty was that of a regular Confederate infantryman. It’s only the soldier accounts and post-battle guide books describing sharpshooting activities at Devils’ Den that identifies the deceased as a sharpshooter, the genesis of which came from the pen of Alexander Gardner. But is there more in this soldier’s uniform to tell us about who he was and perhaps where he came from? To be continued…

-John Heiser
Gettysburg National Military Park

Addenda to this post, March 10, 2017

In response to several inquiries regarding this blog post and others in this series, evidence of the body of the sharpshooter having been moved from behind the barricade downhill to the middle of the Triangular Field is, in review, highly speculative at best. This alternate scenario states the barricade was collapsed on this particular soldier by an artillery shell fired by Battery D, 5th United States Artillery from the summit of Little Round Top, the stones flattening and smothering the soldier where his body was later discovered by Gardner and company who rebuilt the barricade to photograph the young soldier. The proof offered is a heavy stone lying on the right leg of the body as it is photographed behind the barricade.

As we responded earlier to one of the comments, careful examination of the Gardner series of photos taken of the man behind the barricade shows no such thing. What is misidentified as a heavy rock is, in fact, the lower part of the soldier’s trousers, a fold in the cloth mistaken for the end of said rock. Closer examination reveals the material on both sides of this fold matches the rest of the trousers.


Detail of LOC-00073u photo of the sharpshooter at Gettysburg. Details of the photograph reveal there is no stone or rock pinning the deceased’s right leg beneath the stone works. (Library of Congress)

High resolution versions of the Gardner series is available on line through the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cwp/.

-John Heiser
Gettysburg National Military Park


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7 Responses to “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” Revisited, Part II

  1. Jimmy says:

    Good read! Thanks for the incite!

  2. Craig says:

    John – I’m curious whether you have pondered this – if Gardner’s men discovered this corpse tucked away out of sight back behind Devil’;s Den vis-à-vis the Union positions and this area represents the actual spot where he fell dead, then (1) how was he killed there (alone, without any comrades? in close quarter combat? why would he have been in that spot on the 3rd, let alone in the line of Union fire? from where would an enemy combatant have been able to fire a projectile which killed him there?), (2) what trauma killed him, as there appear to be no marks on him or his clothing and not even any evidence of the beginning stages of any semblance of bloating?, (3) what crushed an area in his lower left left leg below his knee when he died (plainly visible in other views) and why does that crushed area seemingly disappear in the sharpshooter views?, (4) why did Gardner’s men first photograph a Confederate corpse in near-pristine condition with his face completely obscured from the camera in each of several views before dragging it up the hill to make the sharpshooter views prominently exposing his face? (did they preconceive of the sharpshooter views even before taking the very first photo of the corpse?). I have a hard time getting my head wrapped around the notion that these initial views represent exactly where this soldier fell. And if Gardner first found him there & intentionally obscured his face where he fell, then Gardner MUST HAVE previously discovered the sharpshooter’s home location and preconceived of dragging the corpse up the hill before taking the very first view of the corpse, In which case, I cannot imagine why Gardner, in a fit of excitement, didn’t first drag the corpse up the hill to first create his iconic, staged sharpshooter images while conditions were good, and then drag it back down the hill afterwards to take the far less interesting series of views from different angles in which the corpses’ face is obscured from the camera in each. Thanks!

    • The Staff says:

      Thanks for your comments. As stated in part one of this blog post, this individual was most likely killed on July 3 in the running fight through this area between the 15th Georgia and the Pennsylvania Reserves, the 15th losing over 100 officers and men in that brief but intense action. His comrades simply did not have time to recover his body, but left him here. Likewise, he did not fall in what you refer to as a “Union position” but a site held by southern troops (Benning’s Brigade) until late on July 3. Union soldiers did not search this area or recover discarded ordnance until July 4. I suggest you read part one of the blog post.

      As to your other points, the soldier was probably not killed until late on July 3, over 24 hours after the others photographed in the Slaughter Pen, etc., and it is impossible to tell from these images what caused the man’s death. There are no visible wounds though he may have injuries in the back or side that we cannot see from the camera positions.
      I’m uncertain what you’re referring to as far as a crushed lower leg. Careful examination of all of the images, both the location where he fell and in the sharpshooter’s covert, do not show any evidence that his lower extremities were crushed, flattened, or underwent any changes before or when the body was moved. Apart from the corpse’s left leg being in an awkward position, the lower section appears proportionate to the right leg, which is lying slightly up hill.

      We cannot answer what motivated Gardner to spend so much time on the body where it first lay, then to shoot just two images (a stereoview and single plate negative) in the sharpshooter’s covert other than there was something in his mind that the views taken at the first location, two of which are inferior as far as focus is concerned, offered more than what we believe from our perspective. As noted in the blog article, Gardner’s men did add material items during the photographic process at the first site before moving the corpse to the sharpshooter’s barricade, which made for, in Gardner’s mind, a more interesting scene. As to the track of moving the corpse, the evidence is in the photographs themselves and discussed thoroughly in Frassanito’s books.

      Few people, including Gardner and his team, wished to touch a corpse let alone carry it any distance to pose a scene and I seriously doubt whether they would carry a body uphill to the sharpshooter’s covert for two photos and then carry it back downhill as you propose. Time for the photographers was precious and the amount of time spent doing the basics of the first photos, carrying the body and dressing the scene followed by additional photos, took up more time than we can imagine, especially when they were intent on photographing other areas of the battlefield. This is one of the extreme cases where the corpse was relocated to compose a photograph and, with the exception of “live” bodies posing as dead at Gettysburg and later at Petersburg, no further cases of this kind have been uncovered.

      Hardly is the corpse’s face “intentionally obscured” in the images taken at the first location, two of which reveal the left side of the man’s face as the body lay in its first position, most likely as the man fell and was found. We do not know what the photographers only chose two camera positions for the four images other than, as Bill Frassanito theorized, Gardner interrupted the process to move the body uphill to the stone barricade. It is only when the body lies behind the barricade that the man’s head could be turned and propped up with a discarded knapsack toward the camera.

  3. mcrdl76 says:

    That also looks like a Kepi type cap laying brim up beyond the soldier. I read an account many years ago from a diary about some troops from Arkansas getting bombarded by Union artillery & sharpshooters and being pinned down for a considerable legth of time in between some rocks not far from the Devils Den, on the 2nd (or 3rd?) day of the battle, (many of them wound up captured), because they felt it impossible to move w out risk of injury or death. Any more info on this ?

    • The Staff says:

      That is probably this soldier’s cap, a common style of head wear in the Army of Northern Virginia. Unfortunately we cannot tell much about the cap from any of these photos.
      The 3rd Arkansas Infantry under Colonel Van Manning, fought in the area of Devil’s Den and Rose’s Woods adjacent to the Wheatfield on July 2. We are unaware of the account you refer to though the 3rd was in close contact with Union troops until withdrawn from that area on July 3.

  4. Dave says:

    There is a rock on his right leg visible in one of the Gardner’s shots of the sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den, near his ankle. If you look at the photo of the “soldier in the field”, you will notice a prominent indentation in his right leg at that same spot. I worked for the Baltimore County Forensics Section, and asked a crime scene investigator (who was later selected to help extricate remains from the CSS Hunley) about that. She said that a rock lying on a dead body would leave just that sort of indentation. Which means the body was originally at the sharpshooter’s nest, and dragged down the hill by Gardner, wanting to turn an ordinary field photo into something more visual. Why would Gardner drag the body up a hill and bother to put the rock on the leg in what would just happen to be same spot as the indentation in the field photo? Which also explains why they did not photograph the face full on, because they had already shot it that way at the Sniper’s Nest. Also all the stuff they threw around the body in the field was stuff they gathered up and brought down from the sniper’s nest. I have a great deal of respect for Frassanito, but as he says in one of his books, he’s not a Forensics scientist. So I asked a prominent one. Being in the shady area of Devils’ Den, out of the sun, also helps explain the slower decomposition. I think Frassinito has it wrong this one time… and this poor fellow died at the Sniper’s Nest.

  5. The Staff says:

    Close examination of hi-resolution versions of the photographs taken at the sharpshooter’s nest, which are available on line from the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/, show no such thing. The corpse’s legs are both exposed to the camera and there is no rock or boulder on the right or left leg.

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