Friday, July 10, 2015

Homes of the Rebel Sharpshooter

On our recent visit to Gettysburg, the DSGT team visited Devil’s Den and the Slaughter Pen, both two different areas of the battlefield which are considered to be “Homes of the Rebel Sharpshooter”.   Is it possible that a soldier could die in two separate locations, and be photographed in both locations, in 1863?  (Of course we had to go there and get our picture taken as well…)

After the battles, in came the photographers…

One of the photographers that is well known for photography of the civil war was Mathew Brady. The other was Alexander Gardner. (Of course I own both of their books—not the original printings though.)

Gardner and his assistants, O’Sullivan and Gibson, arrived on the scene July 5th—two days after the battle of Gettysburg had concluded. Gardner and his assistants are said to have taken approximately 60 photos after the Gettysburg battle. They of course encountered many graves of soldiers who had already been buried—and soldiers that remained unburied, cooking and bloating; decomposing in the hot July sun.

Gardner and his assistant photographed the area and what they found. A couple of his photographs have become very famous. Two of the most famous, “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” and “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” are both very famous and controversial. Did he “fake” one of these photos?

The answer seems to be yes. It is not as if he set-up fake rocks and had a guy lay on the ground in a photography studio to play a dead rebel—or used a computer program like can be done today, but it seems he moved the body of a dead rebel soldier to a better location capable of producing a more dramatic look and even added props and used creative license to move clothing and equipment to a better position.

Here are the two controversial photographs:

“The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter”

“A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep”

There is no record of anyone questioning any of Gardner’s photographs until 1961 when Frederick Ray questioned how or why there were two very similar dead soldiers in two different pictures in an article for Civil War Times Illustrated. This was not revisited again until 1975 when William Frassanito examined this further and utilized battlefield photographs and the photographer’s supposed course taken. It was then that it truly became the controversy it is today.

Disagreements continue today as to whether “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter” or “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” was taken first and why (most agree that it was “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” ); what regiment the fallen man was from (most believe he was from the 15th Georgia Infantry), if the soldier was a sharpshooter at all (most think not; just infantry), as well as if the clothing and gun is his or the coat of a N. Carolinian and prop gun Gardner carried with him and included in many of his photos (most say it is his clothing, but the gun Gardner’s prop). Also questioned is whether Gardner lied about coming upon his decomposed body again in November when he returned for the dedication of the National Cemetery (most say that with profitable relic hunting and scouring the area for bodies to burry this is highly unlikely).

What the investigations into the photographs do all seem to agree upon though, is that the photos both feature the same dead soldier and why he was used in an additional location. Many believe that he died later than the others who died in the area and his death came while or just after his fellow confederates quickly left the area. They believe this and indicate he was photographed more because his body was less bloated and disfigured than the others found nearby (indicating earlier stage of decomposition), graves of others already buried near there, the camp remains (clothing; sticks from a fire etc.)that appear to have been left in haste.

It is said that there Gardner’s team photographed this soldier in these two locations multiple times. Of the Approximately 60 photos taken after the battle of Gettysburg, 6 photos were taken of this fallen soldier in the two locations. -- In the Last sleep location: Famous plate 40, A stereographic camera photo (two lenses and thus two plates), the Alternate view photo. In the Home of location: Famous plate 41 , a stereograph view of this scene.

Here are the additional angles of the photographs of the soldier taken:

(Photo Plate 40 “Alternate view” Note: notice that there are fewer extraneous pieces of equipment and clothing in this shot.)

Stereographic Camera Plates – Sleep Angles
Stereographic Camera Plates- Home Angles (Recently sold at auction for $1265.00.)

Which photograph was taken first? What regiment was the soldier from? Was he a sharpshooter? Why did Gardner move the soldier and then lie about how he came upon the soldier at the two different locations? Why would he say that the soldier’s body and gun were still there in November if they were not? If you were trying to photograph the war as it was, why move clothing and equipment? Why insert props at all? These questions run through my head. What are the answers? Only Gardner knows…and I guess Gibson and O’Sullivan.

For more information:

If you want to read the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Blog about this topic, it is three parts and it can be found here.
If you want to see how passionately some feel about this controversy, you can read some “banter” about it here.
Other Photo info Gardner/Gettysburg

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