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

Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg

The body behind the sharpshooter’s “covert” with extraneous equipment placed in the scene by the photographers for better effect. (Library of Congress)

Can the uniform of the dead soldier in “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg” provide us with additional details about his identity? Possibly, but understanding how Lee’s vast army was uniformed in the summer of 1863 is a challenge unique to itself.

By the spring of 1863, a majority of the soldiers in the “Army of Northern Virginia” were clothed in uniforms provided by their home states, shipped to the army from state-operated depots located in major southern cities. Georgia, for example, had clothing depots in Atlanta, Columbus and Athens where uniforms based on a state-adopted pattern were manufactured, gathered for inspection and shipment to Richmond where these items were then distributed to Georgia units serving in Lee’s army. When compared side by side to the uniform patterns adopted by other southern states such as North Carolina and Virginia, there were distinctive differences.  “Uniformity” of the army was anything but and without doubt, the variety of styles and intermittent issue of clothing were some of the primary reasons for the somewhat ragged appearance of southern ranks; that as well as the different material and dyes used for coats, jackets and trousers made from southern manufactured cloth or material imported from Europe. Even so, the logistical nightmare of getting clothing to Richmond warehouses followed by transport to the army caused countless shortages and more often than not, soldiers were forced to improvise by acquiring clothing through other means, primarily from sources directly at home, by purchase or even through theft. Though the old commutation system (towns and counties provided uniforms for their own volunteers) had failed by early 1862 in favor of the state depot system, home-made uniforms still came to the army through the kindness of ladies’ support groups, sewing circles, and individuals. As it turned out there was little on any Confederate uniform that identified its source other than a distinctive pattern or a state seal impressed on the buttons.

The individual in this photograph wears a skirted coat (commonly referred to as a frock coat) of a design often seen worn by troops from states where skirted coats were first adopted in 1861 as a state pattern- Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia troops come to mind. And though the typical short-waisted jacket was more common by the summer of 1863, contemporary photographs of Confederate soldiers from Tennessee and Texas reveal men from those states in skirted coats as late as 1864. Yet those examples appear to be a state-issue pattern and quite different from the coat on the Devil’s Den “sharpshooter”, which appears to be made of a coarse jean material with an uneven six button front, large exterior pocket on the left breast and unadorned collar and cuffs. Large exterior pockets similar to this example show up in photos of Confederates wearing battle shirts (a large overshirt, meant to be an exterior garment) and some early commutation jackets, but those examples slowly disappeared after a few month’s wear and it’s doubtful any could have existed in the Army of Northern Virginia’s ranks at this time of the war.

Uniform detail

Detail of the uniform coat with its large exterior breast pocket.  The black canvas bag at the shoulder is the deceased’s haversack. (Library of Congress)

A very good examination of this  soldier’s uniform has been previously offered at “Blue and Gray Marching”, a site hosted by James M. Schruefer specializing in study of army uniforms and logistics at http://www.blueandgraymarching.com/bennings-brigade.html and many others have also tried to analyze the coat and compare it with known examples. Mr. Ben Tart, who has a degree in textile history and many years of research into southern cloth and historic dyes, has likewise studied these photos and points out that the material composition of this soldier’s coat and trousers appear to be the typical jean cloth produced by southern mills- a wool mix on a cotton warp, the pattern having an effect of “dizziness” with its single direction of weave. Unfortunately, it is impossible to identify what mill produced this cloth or the region from which it possibly came since this style of weaving was common in numerous southern mills. Remindful of the early commutation days of supply for southern regiments, the coat is quite possibly one manufactured by the ladies of a small town, shipped with other coats of a similar pattern to the army quartermaster for eventual issue to Georgia soldiers serving in Virginia. Or could the uniform be one made specifically for the soldier who wears the garment? In either case, the coat’s details are certainly not typical when compared to uniform coats and jackets in photos of soldiers taken in 1863, including those that still cling to the bodies of dead southerners photographed elsewhere on the battlefield.

21st NC INF, Mast, p. 45

Cousins Nathan Gwynn and Alexander Chatham, 21st NC Infantry in 1861. (Mast, State Troops & Volunteers.)

Is this soldier’s coat truly a-typical? Maybe not. As Mr. Tart pointed out, a remarkably close match to it appears in a wartime photo of two cousins from Surrey County, North Carolina, published on page 45 in the excellent study by Greg Mast, State Troops & Volunteers, A Photographic Record of North Carolina’s Civil War Soldiers of North Carolina (NC Division of Archives & History, Raleigh, 1995). Cousins Nathan Gwynn and Alexander Chatham both served in Company H, 21st North Carolina Infantry and stand for the camera in uniforms that certainly do not fit any typical pattern of the style provided by the North Carolina state quartermaster, and are very similar to the coat on the body of the individual in Devil’s Den. The dress and equipment in the Gwynn and Chatham photo suggests it was taken sometime in the summer months of 1861- Chatham was elected 3rd lieutenant in September 1861 and Gwynnn was discharged that December. But could any coat like this have survived after two years of hard campaigning and wear? It’s possible, but given the conditions of average field wear, a uniform item such as this would exhibit a lot more discoloration and wear to the material’s finish than what is revealed in high resolution versions of the Gardner photographs.

So does this possibly identify the man as a North Carolinian? Doubtful, since there were no soldiers from North Carolina in Hood’s Division or in the battalion of sharpshooters that occupied this area of the field on July 2 and 3, 1863, and the uniform is not typical of North Carolina-issue clothing in 1863. As noted before, Devil’s Den was occupied by Georgians. Could this soldier have acquired this early, non-typical coat from a North Carolina soldier? Also doubtful, given that Georgia (like North Carolina and Virginia) was very successful at manufacturing and providing clothing to its native troops on the east coast throughout the conflict. Why would a Georgia soldier draw clothing from the North Carolina quartermaster’s stores?

Thomas Kitchen, 8th GA INF

Cpl. Thomas Kitchen, 8th Georgia Infantry, sits for his portrait in the Georgia state regulation uniform. (Library of Congress)

As discussed previously, this deceased soldier was most likely a member of a Georgia regiment, a state that in 1861 adopted “a single breasted frock coat of Georgia Cadet gray, with a skirt extending one half of the distance from the top of the hip to the bend of the knee,” as the official dress uniform for enlisted men. The early coat, seen here as worn by Corporal J. Thomas Kitchen, Company I, 8th Georgia Infantry (at left), indeed has some similarities in style and design to the uniform coat in question. In an effort to stretch the supply of material, the regulation was modified in 1862 or early 1863 and the short-waisted jacket adopted for enlisted men, but that first regulation coat evidently survived within companies of Georgia regiments as well as among some individuals. While the sharpshooter’s coat is not a 100 percent match, it does have some characteristics of the early Georgia regulation coat and unlike the common depot pattern jackets, was most likely produced by seamstresses in a small Georgia town, meant for one of the native sons from their area.  (For more on early North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia uniforms, visit the informative pages at http://confederateuniforms.org).

Little can be discerned from the trousers or additional clothing items other than being examples of Confederate-issue trousers and private purchase clothing (the shirt), though this individual’s shoes are not typical of the examples of Confederate shoes found on the battlefield that have survived in museum collections, including those at Gettysburg National Military Park. A well-known post-battle account written by Isaac Moorhead about his visit to the battlefield in October 1864, included his discovery of a skeleton in Devil’s Den and retrieval of one of the dead man’s shoes, “a ‘Georgia state shoe’ made from canvas, with leather tips and heel stiffeners.” (Isaac Moorhead, “A Visit to Gettysburg – October 1864”, GNMP Library) It’s unclear how Moorhead knew or could identify that relic shoe’s heraldry to Georgia. The state had 125 shoe and boot makers producing footwear for the state’s troops during the war, but any specific pattern in Georgia that substituted canvas for the leather top is unknown to this author. Moorhead’s discovery of the bones and shoe in 1864 was most likely not this individual. Our deceased soldier’s footwear is a low-quarter shoe with leather tops, more common to civilian attire than military.

Though nothing in particular about this man’s uniform can help identify the state from which he came, it does technically provide us with a possible clue when combined with other data gleaned from the Official Records and objects found in the series of photographs taken by Gardner and his associates. We rely on the course of battle action and subsequent events that occurred in the area where his body was first discovered and where casualties were incurred as late as the afternoon of July 3, 1863, when the 15th Georgia Infantry made a desperate race to extricate itself from the grasp of a substantial Union force.

Was this man a Georgia soldier? Most likely, yes. Was he member of the 15th Georgia Infantry? Again, the answer is most likely yes. Was the 15th Georgia Infantry uniformed in the same fashion as this soldier? Possibly, but photographic evidence outside of these images at Devil’s Den have not yet come to light. Will we ever know the true identity of this “sharpshooter” whose image in death is so closely identified with Devils’ Den and the Battle of Gettysburg? Probably not. His name, company and regiment were lost the moment his comrades raced away to safety on that warm July afternoon, leaving him on the field to the care of other men who only saw him as just another “dead Rebel”. His living record lost, only later would the riddle of his post-mortem service at the site where he fell and later as the primary subject of “the covert of a rebel sharpshooter”, (Gardner, Sketchbook, plate 41) be recognized by Frederick Ray and explained by William Frassanito.

Home of a Rebel Sharphooter, Gettysburg

A long time battlefield curiosity, the stone barricade where the “sharpshooter” was photographed stands today, though not in its original form. Re-built several times after the war, the stones were last cemented in place during the 1950’s.

Comparable to the subjects in other pitiful scenes of the dead photographed at Gettysburg, this young southerner had a name, unit and state affiliation. His family lived somewhere in Georgia, praying for his welfare and for a safe return home possibly on the same day and at the same hour these images were being preserved on glass, their son or father destined to become the dead sharpshooter in “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” at one of the deadliest sites on the Gettysburg battlefield- Devil’s Den.

Yet, did he ever sit for a likeness in some photographer’s studio or field camp and could that photo, with a faded name scribbled on the back or in the case that holds the glass, be hidden away, long forgotten in a box in someone’s attic or closet? The possibility of such a discovery keeps us searching and hopeful to finally answer the question, who was that young Rebel sharpshooter found by Alexander Gardner and his photographers in Devils’ Den so long ago?

John Heiser
Historian
Gettysburg National Military Park

About The Staff

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

9 Responses to “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” Revisited, Part III

  1. George Connell says:

    Nice writing, John.

    Thanks,

    George

  2. What a wonderful post! This story is a very sad one to me, as I would love to know each and every name of the men who died here . . . I greatly enjoyed this series.

  3. Martin Husk says:

    Excellent series of articles, John. Keep them coming!

  4. wildninja says:

    Absolutely fantastic!

  5. Keith S. Bohannon says:

    John,
    Thanks for some fascinating and provocative posts. I found a document some time ago in the Georgia Governor’s Incoming Correspondence at the Georgia State Archives that confirms that the state was issuing canvas tops shoes to its troops at the time of the Gettysburg Campaign. The letter is dated July 12, 1863, from Williamsport, Md. and was written to Governor Joseph E. Brown by Major A.H. McLaws, a quartermaster on the staff of his brother, General Lafayette McLaws. Major McLaws says that the brigades of Semmes and Wofford need 600 pair of shoes and that they now had 300 barefoot men. He also adds that “Our Government furnishes the best of clothing; but shoes and hats are worthless.” A notation at the bottom from Georgia Quartermaster General Ira Foster says “The Gov. says forward the shoes- canvas tops- immediately, to wherever you may find the troops to be- no charge for them as they come under the state act.”
    It seems possible that the Georgia Brigades (Benning and Anderson) in Hood’s Division might have received an earlier shipment of these canvas top shoes and that would account for the one found in the Devil’s Den that you describe.
    I also thought I would share a sentence from an unpublished, privately owned letter from a member of the 15th Ga. describing the July 3 action. He says “Late in the evening [on July3] we fell back six hundred yards to the crest of a considerable [probably forgot to write “hill” here] bounding the valley on the west, during our fall back we were considerably cut up on account of failure to receive orders. . . . There is one thing I regret- we lost our colors at Gettysburg.” This flag was later returned to the state of Georgia and is in the Capitol Collections today.
    Keith Bohannon
    Dept. of History, University of West Georgia.

    • The Staff says:

      Thanks for the great information, Keith! Though canvas top shoes were known to be issued to some troops, verifying it through primary sources has been difficult and this really helps us better understand the conditions experienced by the Georgians in Lee’s Army. Thank you again for sharing!

  6. Richard Chatham says:

    In the referenced photo of “the cousins” above, Nathan GWYN was my cousin and Alexander Chatham, my great grandfather.

    In 1859, Alexander began working for Richard Gwyn at a mercantile business and cotton mill know as the Elkin Manufacturing Company, in Elkin NC. The mill also processed wool that it bartered with farmers throughout Surry, Wilkes, and Alleghany County…
    It may be possible that their uniforms came from the Elkin Manufacturing Company. I can “see” the mill ladies tailoring the uniforms for “the cousins”… prior to their being mustered in 1861.

    As a matter of fact, after the war, in 1877, my great grandfather founded Chatham Woolen Mills in Elkin NC. This was the beginning of Chatham Manufacturing Company, world famous for their Chatham Blankets. Chatham supplied literally millions of blankets to the troops during WWI & WWII. (and at some point, we made woolen material for men’s suits and coats)

    In regards to the uniforms holding up, if indeed they were made in Elkin, our woolen products were known for their long lasting durability and outstanding quality.

    Sincerely,

    Richard Chatham

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