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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
Gettysburg National Military Park