The underlying truth in a staged image by a Gettysburg photographer

Guest post by Ronald S. Coddington

It is an undeniable fact that Alexander Gardner staged “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,” one of the best-known photographs of Gettysburg. The brilliant pioneer photojournalist is responsible for misleading us into believing that a Confederate sharpshooter was mortally wounded, and, moreover, that the fatally injured rebel calmly placed his musket against a rock, lay supine upon the ground, and cushioned his head on a pillow made from a haversack to await death.

The story that the photo seems to tell is fiction. We know from an analysis of photographs by Gardner and his assistants that this same body and musket appears in several images made during their visit to the battlefield on July 5, 1863. Only three days had passed since the brutal fighting in this sector had littered the landscape with broken bodies and debris, but most of the human remains had been recovered. The Gardner team worked with what they had, and were mindful that they were in Gettysburg to tell the story of what some instinctively understood was the turning point of the war in favor of the Union.

Photo credits: Chuck Myers (left), Library of Congress

Devil’s Den now and then. Left: Ronald S. Coddington at the infamous site; right: Alexander Gardner’s photo of the mortally wounded Confederate sharpshooter. Credits: Chuck Myers (left), Library of Congress.
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I walked through Devil’s Den a few weeks ago with Chuck Myers, a veteran reporter and photographer for McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. A talented writer with a passion for history, Myers is a meticulous planner who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for information. Superintendent J. Robert Kirby of the National Park Service accompanied us. Kirby heads up operations at Gettysburg, and he is clearly at home there among the supersized boulders.

As the three of us stood on hallowed ground and took in the same view that Gardner captured through his lens, I noted the area outside the frame of his iconic image.

Directly behind us was the gently sloping rise from which waves of Confederates descended upon the thin blue line of infantry spread out along the rocks on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. To our right was Plum Run Valley, which became forever known as the Valley of Death after gray infantry advanced along its lowlands to Little Round Top. There they were repelled by hastily organized blue troops arrayed along its heights.

Little Round Top is visible beyond the rock wall in Gardner’s photograph. The view occupies a small portion of the overall composition, but plays an enormous role in Gardner’s story. And he makes it easy for us to fill in the rest of his fictitious narrative.

Gardner’s rebel sharpshooter would have stood silently behind the wall, gazing intently at the hilltop from behind the barrel of his musket, a lion in his lair watching a herd of gazelles. His breathing shallow, he would have taken careful aim at Union artillerymen posted along the exposed crest, then slowly squeezed the trigger to send a bullet on its merciless errand of death.

Instead, we are stunned to see that the predator became the victim. A Yankee sharpshooter was one step ahead of the confident Confederate. We did not see the bullet strike him. But we imagine him recoiling and slumping against the boulder adjacent to the rock wall. Time stood still as the musket slid out of his hands, and he lowered himself to the ground. He would never fire that shot. The Union was safe. Huzzah!

Gardner believed in the ultimate success of the North. “A lover of liberty, he was an abolitionist from his earliest recollection, and remained an enemy of slavery until it was destroyed,” according to A Eulogy of the Life and Character of Alexander Gardner, by Joseph M. Wilson (1883).

No matter how hard Kirby and his army of staff and volunteers try, they will never restore the battlefield to its appearance during those three July days when the fate of the republic hung in the balance, and the future of democracy was far from certain. Kirby knows this. But, like Gardner, he is setting the stage to help visitors to the historic battlefield understand the story of what happened here a century and a half ago.

The contemporary narrative is crafted through rehabilitated landscapes, interpretive plaques, and stone sentinels erected by Civil War veterans. It is intended to impress upon us the valor of citizen soldiers, and the sacrifice of a generation of Northern and Southern sons to settle moral and legal questions that had plagued the nation since its birth. It is a story of triumph and patriotism.

It echoes Gardner’s narrative. His thoughtfully composed scene is rooted in centuries of painters and engravers who created art filled with symbolism. Gardner executed his masterwork not with brush or pen, but with the most modern technology of the times—the camera.

During the Civil War, when photojournalism was in its infancy and no rules existed, Gardner was an artist who understood his audience and told them a masterful story.

It is the same story we’re telling today.

Ronald S. Coddington is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, a contributing writer to the New York Times’s Disunion series, and a columnist for Civil War News. His trilogy of Civil War books, African American Faces of the Civil War, Faces of the Confederacy, and Faces of the Civil Warall published by Johns Hopkins University Press, combine compelling archival images with biographical stories to reveal the human side of the war.