Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Antietam Up Close: The graves at Burnside Bridge

This enlargement of Gardner's image clearly shows another man, probably a soldier, on Burnside Bridge. 
The names of both men are lost to history.
On Sept. 21, 1862, famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner took this image  of a soldier near
 12 freshly dug graves at a stone wall near Burnside Bridge  at Antietam. (Library of Congress collection.)
In an enlargement of Gardner's image, the graves are easily seen. In his ground-breaking book,
Civil War photography expert William Frassanito first revealed the names of four of the
 51st New York soldiers buried at the wall. 
Another enlargement of Gardner's image shows the grave of a soldier in Company I  of the  51st New York, 
which stormed Burnside Bridge at 1 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1862. William Frassanito identified
 the soldier as Corporal Michael Keefe.

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One of my favorite Antietam images is the one at the top of this post by Alexander Gardner, whose haunting photograph graphically shows the terrible toll of war. On Sept. 21, 1862, four days after the Battle of Antietam, Gardner posed a soldier at a stone wall near the freshly dug graves of 12 of his comrades. Burnside Bridge, the scene of heavy fighting on the morning and early afternoon of the battle, appears in the background. The secrets of this image were long ago revealed by William Frassanito in his brilliant 1978 book, "Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day." If the book is not on your Civil War bookshelf or in your Kindle, it ought to be. Get it here.

My favorite Antietam book.
A former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, Frassanito did much of his photographic sleuthing with a magnifying glass, long before digital technology made such work a whole lot easier. Using a remarkably well-preserved original negative of Gardner's photograph, Frassanito determined from the writing scrawled on the wooden headboards that nine of the graves in the image were for soldiers in the 51st New York, who along with the 51st Pennsylvania and other units stormed the bridge and finally chased the Rebels from their perch across Antietam Creek.

Frassanito presumed that the three other graves were also for 51st New York soldiers. Profiled in June in the Washington Post, he was even able to decipher the names on four of the headboards: Sgt. George Loud of Company C (buried at the feet of the posed soldier); Private Edward Miller of Company H (three graves to the right of Loud); Private John Thompson of Company B (three graves to the right of Miller) and Corporal Michael Keefe of Company I (second grave to right of Thompson).

Using a digital copy of Gardner's image from the Library of Congress Civil War photography site, I was unable to read the names on the wooden headboards, but enlargements of the image reveal some pretty neat detail. Company I and NYV (New York Volunteers) are easily discernible on Keefe's wooden headboard, and another man, probably a soldier, can be seen on Burnside Bridge, over the right shoulder of the man posed in the foreground. The permanent graves of Loud, Miller, Thompson and Keefe are about a mile away, in the beautiful grounds of Antietam National Cemetery. Stop to think about those four men and their eight other comrades the next time you visit Burnside Bridge.

That's me, your humble blogger, posed at the approximate position of the soldier in Gardner's image.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. These photo study posts are great. The soldier leaning on the musket may be wearing a straw hat.

  2. I hope they don't try to erase this history, great pictures