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Confederate Dead at Gettysburg
Alexander Gardner et al.
Students are accustomed to thinking that photographs are more "real" than other kinds of graphic depictions. These two photos suggest that might not be the case. Mathew Brady and his fellow photographers, in this case probably Timothy O'Sullivan, did more than capture the aftermath of Gettysburg.
The photo at the bottom was probably the first one taken. For whatever reason-the dead man's youth, the fact that excessive bloating of the corpse had not occurred, the prospect of a better setting, the photographer thought that the subject presented a unique photo opportunity. So, he posed the corpse. Moving the body approximately forty yards, the photographer placed the it below a Confederate stoneworks in Devil's Den. (The views here are but two of six; in one, the photographer forgot to remove the blanket from under the body, necessitating another shot sans blanket.) He tidied up the uniform to disguise the incipient bloating, turned his subject's face to the camera, placed the knapsack under the corpse's head and his cap nearby, and propped the rifle against the stone wall. The two large rocks, wall, and Little Round Top in the background formed a "composition" in contrast to the jumbled scene caught in the first photograph.
The net effect is that of a fallen youth cut down in his prime, bravely arranging himself to meet death--a much more sentimental interpretation than the chaos represented in first shot. The various titles given to the picture in published accounts reflect the effect of the new pose: "The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" or "A Sharpshooter's Last Sleep." Unfortunately, the subject was probably not even a sharpshooter; the gun is not one a sharpshooter would have used. The photographers probably toted it along as a handy prop for those compositions in need of a firearm.
The Civil War was the first conflict documented extensively by photographers, and the American people saw war in all its realism for the first time. Or did they?
Questions to Consider
- Examine each picture carefully and answer the following questions:
- What are the similarities between the two pictures?
- What are the differences between the two pictures?
- Which of the photographs is more realistic? Which is more romantic or sentimental?
- What kind of message about the nature of war does each photograph convey? What photographic details could you offer in support of your interpretation?
- Why do many Civil War battlefield photographs depict the aftermath of battle rather than the conflict itself?
"The home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg" In Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (Reprint; New York : Dover Publications, Inc. 1959), plate 41.
Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1977. No. 0205
- Civil War Page
Probably the most comprehensive gateway site on the Civil War.
- H-CIVWAR Home Page
A searchable site of the H-Net discussion list about the culture and history of the Civil War - includes syllabi and bibliographies.