Another Look at the “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter”

Readers of the park’s blog may remember my previous discussions in 2014 regarding “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter”, the famous photograph of the dead Confederate soldier in Devil’s Den taken by Alexander Gardner and his photographers in July 1863 and my interpretation of the regiment to which the deceased soldier belonged- the 15th Georgia Infantry of “Rock” Benning’s Brigade. I based my analysis on not only the series of photographs taken of this particular body but textural resources including post-war recollections, reports in the Official Records, and photographic studies by experts including Bill Frassanito and Garry Adelman.  Since those posts, I recently revisited the circumstances regarding this series and had the fortune of discussing my premise with a number of individual researchers including Mr. Scott Fink, currently undertaking a study of photography at Gettysburg and with whom I’ve discussed the sharpshooter series specifically. Scott recently offered a hypothesis and further analogy of the individual in these famous images on Facebook and has allowed me to share it with our readers.

Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg

The final scene captured by Gardner’s camera at Devil’s Den, the fallen sharpshooter behind the stone barricade above Devil’s Den.  The photographers carried the body to this location from where they had found him approximately 40 yards downhill from this position. (Library of Congress)

The focus of my previous posts was to try and identify, at minimum, the brigade or regiment to which this young man belonged. Any further attempt to identify him by name is a near impossible task given the lack of photos of soldiers in the units that fought in this area to compare with the subject in the Gardner images, almost non-existent information on the uniform details and comparisons, and few surviving accounts of exactly who fell in that area on July 3, 1863. As I lamented, he had a name, a family, and a profession before winding up as a photographic subject but uncovering an identity to associate with the body is, and will always be, a shot in the dark. (One footnote to this discussion is that I am also aware of claims the body has been previously identified as William Langley of the 1st Texas Infantry, a soldier in the 4th Virginia Infantry, and a “real sharpshooter” who died on that exact spot, crushed by the collapse of the stone barricade, all of which I’ve evaluated and ultimately found to have little merit or could not be historically supported.)

Remarkably, Scott may have uncovered a probable candidate- a Georgian named John Rutherford Ash: “As the topic of the Devil’s Den Sharpshooter is brought up often, I thought I would put in my two cents,” Scott wrote in this January 10 post. “I have noticed that whenever the subject comes up, that the same controversy is discussed about what order the photographs were taken and the role the soldier played in his unit. What is lost here is the tragedy of this iconic photograph. Regardless of where the body was moved to or from, the young soldier lost his life in Devil’s Den. I’m more interested to find out who this soldier was, rather than the movement of the body or whether he was a sharpshooter or not.”

Scott’s mention of the controversy surrounding movement of the body is inconsequential to this discussion, but I will add that I stand by the order of the photographs based on Bill Frassanito’s research, noted as such in my previous posts on this subject and the heart of the matter in that order is how this soldier’s body wound up in the location where Gardner and company found it, near the remains of a small bivouac behind large boulders on the southwest side of the ridge.  Was this lone casualty the result of combat more than a day after the intense fighting had taken place at this site on July 2? I believe so, and Scott explains his hypothesis further:

“In short, the Georgia brigade (Benning’s) occupied both camera locations (in Devils’ Den where the subject was photographed by Gardner) till 7 pm on July 3rd. It is doubtful that any bodies from the fighting of the 2nd would be left unburied throughout the 3rd. (Benning’s) Brigade was the last… to withdraw and they were being surrounded on both sides by McCandless on his left and the US Sharpshooters on his right. In order to get out of this predicament Benning decided to “Pike Out”… called his guidons to post and for his regiments to form up behind them. The area he chose was the exact spot where I believe Gardner discovered the body at the downhill location (where the body was first photographed). By doing that genius maneuver Benning saved a lot of lives and got his brigade out with slight loss.”

(A note about the time of the retreat. General Benning’s report in the Official Records states the withdrawal occurred at 4:30 PM, but he later corrected that to 7 PM, the factual time frame when Hood’s and McLaws’ Divisions of Longstreet’s Corps withdrew to a designated defensive line on Seminary Ridge and its southern extension, Warfield Ridge. )

Though brief, Scott provided a well-constructed analysis of the incident.  It would have natural for Benning and his commanders to take advantage of the reverse slope of Devil’s Den to quickly reform their regiments to begin the withdrawal, but the troops did not get out unscathed.  Both the 2nd and 20th Georgia Infantry regiments reported casualties during this process. Both had been in positions exposed to Union sharpshooters and artillery from which to extricate themselves before the rally to begin the retreat.  Apart from mention of the losses in reports published in the Official Records (Volume 27, Part II), Scott mentioned an account by William Houghton, Company G, 2nd Georgia who testified years later that his regiment “formed up under ‘heavy fire’ where ‘a few went down here and there.’”

Was one of the “few” from Houghton’s regiment who fell on the hillside late on July 3 this soldier, discovered by Gardner and photographed three or four days later? It’s intriguingly possible since the 2nd Georgia had to withdraw to this area from its position in the Devil’s Kitchen and Slaughter Pen, exposed all the while to a number of parting shots from Federal skirmishers and a small group of the 1st US Sharpshooters, detached to the Fifth Corps to counter the activities of Confederate sharpshooters.  The reverse slope of the ridge and specifically the large boulders where the body was first discovered would have provided the soldiers of the 2nd Georgia the cover needed to form ranks prior to racing to the protection of the trees on Warfield Ridge.

Unfortunately, documenting Scott’s proposed location as the first where the regiment formed is a near impossibility given the lack of Confederate testimony regarding the events on July 3 but I tend to agree with Scott’s premise based on the natural features of the landscape at that location which offered brief but necessary protection and quite possibly where some of the “few who went down here and there” had fallen or were hastily carried to by comrades, only to have been forced to leave the dead or dying man behind. And a reminder to reinforce this point; as I described the scene in previous posts, the remains of a small campfire and bivouac near the body when first discovered lends me to believe the soldier fell at that location during the last of its occupation by friendly troops. Though we tend to believe Civil War soldiers were nonchalant about the dead who lay scattered about the battlefield, I think it highly doubtful the men who sat around that small fire could have been so blatantly cold as to not have removed the body or made an attempt to bury him since other casualties had been carried away and buried by comrades overnight of July 2 and during the morning hours of July 3.

Having proposed the area where the 2nd first rallied, Scott then presented an intriguing photographic comparison between the “sharpshooter” and the soldier mentioned earlier in this post:  “Among the dead was John R. Ash from the 2nd Georgia, Co. A. By comparing a photo of John Ash from most likely 10 years earlier the similarities are striking. They share the same nose, mouth, eye brows, chin, hairline and ears.”

Ash-Sharpshooter comparison

Detail of comparison between portrait of John Rutherford Ash, Company A, 2d Georgia Infantry, and the face of the deceased soldier in Devil’s Den. The arrow denotes a detail in the hairline of both. Ash was approximately 13 when the portrait was made and two months shy of his 26th birthday when he was killed at Gettysburg, an age comparable to the dead soldier. (Georgia State Archives, LOC, Scott Fink, 2018)

Born on September 28, 1837, John Rutherford Ash resided in Banks County, Georgia, where he enlisted on July 10, 1861, in the “Banks County Guards”. Assigned to the 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment as Company A, Ash and his comrades were sent to Virginia where the regiment was engaged in all of the Army of Northern Virginia’s campaigns, from Yorktown to Gettysburg during that fateful summer of 1863. Ash was marked as present or accounted for until wounded during the Seven Days battles, but rejoined his regiment in time for the 1863 campaigns. Noted as killed at Gettysburg July 2, 1863 in the Roster of the Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, 1861 to 1865, the date of his death is inscribed on a memorial headstone in a Georgia cemetery as July 4, 1863 (See Travis and John Busey, Confederate Casualties at Gettysburg, A Comprehensive Record, Vol. 1, p. 266). Is the difference in dates based on information sent the family from Ash’s comrades versus the official roll of casualties sent to the state’s adjutant general? It would seem so but further research into the family’s records and the possibility of a surviving letter would confirm my suspicion.

Scott also provided additional analysis of a detail in the image: “(T)he soldier seems to have the number ‘2’ and the letter ‘A’ etched into the coating of his haversack. Could this mean the 2nd Georgia (C)ompany A, the unit in which Ash belonged to? Perhaps, but this is still a working theory.”  Likewise, I have looked at the details on the items attached to the soldier and the markings that he propose are difficult to discern given the amount of dirt scuffs and light reflection off the paint of the haversack’s finish, but the figure of a “2” is certainly visible in a blow up and the high resolution image.

detail of haversack

Though difficult to discern, the form of a painted “2” appears on the soldier’s haversack in this detail of the original image. (LOC; Scott Fink, 2018)

It was not uncommon for unit numbers to be painted on knapsacks and haversacks. Though surviving examples are quite rare, especially with a provenance to a Confederate soldier, the practice of marking maybe more widespread than at first believed.

Scott’s research that he willingly presented on his Facebook post is not only intriguing but also offers we historians an opportunity to re-evaluate the events that took place in the evening hours of July 3, 1863 at Devil’s Den. Such is the positive power of the internet and how we can communicate in our study of the past, to uncover and discuss incidents glossed over in reports and recollections as minor details, which are not so minor when it was a matter of life or death and the loss of a loved one whose likeness has appeared in countless books and magazines as an illustration of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I wish to thank Scott for allowing me to share his hypothesis and image comparisons with our readers. “Regardless if I’m correct or not,” Scott wrote on his January 10th post, “please remember that this soldier had a family who lost him in this terrible costly battle.” And in the end, isn’t that why we study these photos again- the young soldier whose family was saddened by the news of his death on a far away battlefield, where his regiment and name were lost in the chaos of battle? Ultimately, we may be getting closer to knowing more about this young Georgian than ever before, not only his regiment but a name as well.

-John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park




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15 Responses to Another Look at the “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter”

  1. Phil Spaugy says:

    Another thoughtful and intriguing post. Thanks John.

  2. Keith Bohannon says:

    John- Thanks for an intriguing post, especially the observations about the withdrawal of Benning’s Brigade on July 3!! The place in the sharpshooter image that is supposedly a painted number 2 on the haversack seems more likely to be a worn spot on a tarred canvas haversack. Note similar spots near the seam at the bottom of the haversack. John R. Ash had a brother, William McCracken Ash, who was also in Co. A, 2d Ga. Lt. William M. Ash was not at Gettysburg, however, having resigned from the army in April 1862. William Ash was involved in veterans’ affairs after the Civil War, attending reunions of Benning’s Brigade held in 1883 and 1899. William Ash died in 1904 and is buried in Homer Presbyterian Church in Homer, Banks Co., Ga. The same cemetery contains what is undoubtedly a memorial stone to John R. Ash rather than a tombstone. I just skimmed through Dr. J.C. O’Neal’s lists of Gettysburg C.S. burials and didn’t find John R. Ash listed there, although there are a few other members of the 2d Ga. that do appear on the lists, inclulding Col. William T. Harris. Unfortunately, I’ve never located an 1863 newspaper casualty list for Gettysburg that includes all the companies of the 2nd Ga. Regt. John R. Ash’s compiled service record, like many for the 2d Ga, is woefully incomplete and contains no details about his death.

  3. Robert B. Angelovich says:

    I just read your article on the Gettysburg Blog. I could not stop. I came away intrigued that we may be able to put a name on that young man who lost his life at the Devil’s Den area so long ago. It all seems to fit together.

    Thank you for your fine effort.

    Bob Angelovich

  4. Keith Bohannon says:

    I actually just found and read back over a detailed Gettysburg letter dated July 7, 1863 I have from a member of the 2d Ga. Regt I am editing this soldier’s correspondence for publication and would prefer not to share the entire letter. The letter casts doubt on the likelihood that John R. Ash was killed on July 3 since the writer says that only one man in the 2d was killed and two lieutenants wounded on July 3. If the dead sharpshooter was indeed killed on July 3, he might have been from one of Benning’s other regiments or the Texas Brigade. Here is what the soldier says:
    “At daybreak on the 3rd our wounded had all been conveyed from the reach of the enemies bullets, and ambulances were buisy [sic] in conveying them to temporary hospitals. During the night, our Brigade and the line confronting the slaughter pen, had availed themselves of the darkness to change their position slightly and securing themselves behind rocks, from which they exchanged shots with the enemy throughout the day- if a head was visible in either line it was not so long. . . . This move [of portions of Anderson’s and Semmes’s Brigades later in the day to support Pickett, apparently post-Pickett’s Charge] was seen by the enemy from his lofty eyre and advancing his line to the vacant space was about flanking our Brigade, compelling it to fall back the fighting was principally with the 20th and 15th . . . We were exposed to a furious enfilading fire as we retreated, but fortunately, as far as is now known, there was only one man killed in the 2nd and two Lieuts wounded- some five or six others taken prisoners. Our line was speedily reformed, but slightly retrenched.”

    • Thank you for sharing this detailed letter with us, Keith! As John wrote in his previous blog posts, there is the possibility this solder was a member of the 15th Georgia Infantry, which fell back through the valley east of the Devil’s Den ridge during the fighting on July 3, but a continuous search by he and others has turned up little to support an identity either texturally or photographically. In any case, the loss of “five or six others” mentioned in this letter can be verified in the report of Lt. Colonel Casper Trepp, 1st US Sharpshooters, who reported the capture of “a squad of rebel sharpshooters that greatly annoyed our artillery”, taken by some of his sharpshooters after the Confederate withdrawal. (OR, Vol. 27, Part 1, p. 518). Though Ash’s name is not mentioned specifically in the letter you have, through experience we know that details of losses, etc., depended on the author’s knowledge of losses in his own and other companies. Of course this does not discount the author’s experience and description of what he knew at the time he wrote the letter.

      As noted in previous blog posts, Heiser highly doubts the soldier was from the 1st Texas or any other unit; one of Benning’s regiments is more likely. It was not until this recent post by Scott Fink that a possible match could be made with a soldier in the 2nd Georgia Infantry based on the early photo of Ash and confusion in records regarding actual date of his death. That, combined with the loss of members of that regiment in the location where the body was found, is intriguing but certainly not conclusive.

      Thanks again for sharing a portion of the letter and best wishes on your forthcoming book.

  5. Paula Hammond says:

    Absolutely fascinating article! I think this is a very plausible guess as to the identity of the “sharpshooter.” It would be my hope that he is someday identified so his family can rightfully claim their hero!

  6. Scott Fink says:

    Keith, fascinating letter thank you for sharing it. It is actually consistent with my research. There was only one soldier that I could find through any source to be killed in action on July 3rd from the 2nd Georgia, and that was John Ash. He is listed as KIA on July 3rd in “Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead” by Robert K. Krick & Chris L. Ferguson. I was never able to confirm this with Mr. Krick but was able to contact his son who said he would pass along my inquiry to him, but I never received a reply. He was listed as killed in battle from the casualty lists printed in a couple of newspapers shortly after the battle but no specific date was given. As you may know, he was listed in the regimental records as being killed on July 2nd and his memorial marker has the date July 4th. John Bowden from Company B had mentioned that a soldier who was retreating with him and Lt. Franklin was killed while crossing the “danger point” but there was only one soldier from his company that was wounded and captured. I found that he was captured at the hospital and not in the field. Of course one of the Lieutenants wounded was most likely Lt. Franklin. He was mortally wounded in the head, but the records have him being killed on July 1, but it is most likely he was mortally wounded on July 3rd as was told by John Bowden. As for those captured by the US sharpshooters in “the cave of rocks”, the numbers are consistent with those from Benning’s Brigade and not the 3rd Arkansas as in Berdan’s history. I could find no soldiers being captured from that regiment on July 3rd, and Col. Manning who confirmed with them that it was his men (3rd Arkansas) captured on that day, was wounded and taken from the field on July 2nd. His next in command’s report for July 3rd is absent from the records but they were withdrawn from the area at about 4:30, long before the prisoners were captured. My hypothesis that John Ash is the soldier in the famous photo, is only that, a possibility. Since comparisons are subjective and absolute proof remains elusive, we may never know for sure, but I am hopeful that information will turn up to help determine one way or the other. One day perhaps.

    • Keith Bohannon says:

      Mr. Fink,
      I am unsure what you mean by John R. Ash being listed on the “regimental records” of the 2d Georgia as being killed on July 3. What are these regimental records? I just double-checked his compiled service record, which is very incomplete, and it makes no mention at all of Ash’s death at Gettysburg. This isn’t unusual, as there were very few muster rolls of the 2d Georgia available to the U.S. War Department at the time that clerks there compiled the CSRs. I would guess that most of these rolls were destroyed during the war, probably during the Appomattox Campaign.
      John R. Ash’s tombstone in Homer, Ga., probably erected long after the war based on its physical appearance, has a death date of July 4, 1863. I’ve never seen a newspaper casualty list for Gettysburg for the 2nd Georgia that includes all the companies, but there is certainly a possibility that I overlooked or missed it. I think John R. Ash’s exact date of death is very much in question.
      The 2nd Georgia soldier whose letters I am editing said that his regiment sustained 115 casualties on July 2, twenty-four of them “dead on the field,” and “about seventy wounded.” The balance were missing. HIs letter makes it clear that these were separate from the casualties sustained on July 3, which I listed in an earlier post.

      • Scott Fink says:

        Keith, Thanks for your reply. The roster for the Banks Guards has him listed as being killed on July 2nd and not July 3rd, but I am not sure where the person who compiled the list got that information as I could only find records of Ash being wounded in another battle and nothing about Gettysburg. The only source I could find that has him being killed in action on July 3rd was Krick’s “Gettysburg’s Confederate Dead” published in 2014, but as I said before I could not confirm his original source for this information. However, I have found the information in his book to be very reliable and is one of the most up to date lists so far (with Confederate Casualties at Gettysburg c. 2017 but that has him listed KIA on July 2nd. A side note, I contacted one of the authors who was unable to confirm that date as well). I have also confirmed that John Ash’s tombstone and that of his younger brother killed at Vicksburg in April of 1863, are memorial markers as they are listed as that in the cemetery’s history. His older brother was discharged because of heart problems in 1862, so the date of July 4th on the marker most likely did not come from him but maybe a comrade who was present when Ash was killed. John Bowden from Company B had also mistaken the date as being July 4th that they had retreated from Devil’s Den and when the soldier from his regiment was killed. If Bowden was the source of the information to the family, it would make sense, but there is not enough information to make that leap and Ash was in Company A and not B as Bowden was. Although I could find no one from Bowden’s company killed on July 3rd, or whose date of death was in question. The newspaper that had the casualty list for the regiment was the Memphis Daily Appeal, July 22,1863 (page 2). The information was said to have come from Adjutant Beecher and Ash was listed as killed in battle but no specific date was given. The date of his death is very much in question and I have been unable to confirm any date of death for him so I must still consider July 3rd as a possibility. It is interesting though that two (with the letter you posted) separate sources had stated that a soldier was killed on July 3rd (Bowden had mistaken the date) but there is no record of anyone from the second being killed on that date, except for Robert Krick’s book that is (John Ash). What is also very intriguing to me is that a Confederate soldier had used the term “Slaughter Pen” that soon after the battle just as Gardner and Alfred Waud had used it. Waud went even further by saying that the name derived from the soldiers fighting in that area. I always assumed the name came from Union soldiers but now Gardner and Waud may have gotten the name from a Confederate prisoner on burial detail. Another mystery perhaps?

      • Keith Bohannon says:

        Mr. Fink,
        Thanks for your reply and the tip on the casualty list in the Memphis Appeal. I had not seen that list. If I ever stumble upon any sources that might shed additional light on t his topic, I’ll post them here. Thank you also for sharing your very interesting research.

    • chuck darrow says:

      Hi Scott!

      What is the best way to contact you? I have some information about the “Sharpshooter” you might find interesting or even useful. I promise you have not heard this before.


  7. Scott Fink says:

    Thank you, much appreciated. Look forward to your upcoming book, it seems fascinating.

  8. Mr. Ross Wiest says:

    I believe that the man was from a Texas regiment , was older than 25 yrs. old . I also believe he was from Austin , Texas .

    • As stated in the blog post, previous authors and guides have speculated the body was that of Pvt. William Langley, 1st Texas Infantry, but historical evidence weighs heavily against this soldier. According to an eyewitness account written after the battle by James O. Bradfield, the 1st Texas was crossing the stream below and west of Devil’s Den when it was struck by the first rifle volley: “The first man down was my right-file man, William Langley, a noble, brave boy, with a mini-ball straight through the brain. I caught him as he fell against me and laid him down, dead.” [J.B. Polley, Hood’s Texas Brigade: Its Marches, it Battles, Its Achievements, pp. 168-169) The body of the purported sharpshooter was found at a location on or about July 6-7 approximately 300 feet away from where Langley probably fell and it makes little sense that his body would have been carried to that location by his comrades who then ignored giving their comrade a proper burial during the ensuing 24+ hours they remained near that location. Likewise, close examination of the body in the photos does not show major trauma to the head as would have been the typical result of a gunshot injury.

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