Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Antietam: Another look at image of a fallen Rebel

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

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You may have seen this Alexander Gardner photograph of the body of Rebel soldier at Antietam scores of times in books, magazines and elsewhere. According to Civil War photo expert William Frassanito, who explored the photo's secrets in his ground-breaking 1978 book, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day, it probably was taken on Samuel Mumma's farm days after the Sept. 17, 1862 battle. Frassanito partly based his determination of the location on the row of Confederate bodies gathered for burial in the upper right background of the image, which may be seen in more detail in the cropped enlargement above.

Of course, images by Gardner of Antietam dead caused a sensation when they were viewed at Mathew Brady's gallery on Broadway in New York -- the first time Americans had seen such carnage of the war in photographs. "Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. " a New York Times reporter eloquently wrote about the gathering at Brady's gallery in October 1862.

I have viewed the original photo above hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Sadly, it's no longer as mind-numbing or shocking as when I first viewed it decades ago. Enlargements of the high-resolution TIFF format of the photo available on the Library of Congress web site, however, provide a fresh perspective, revealing much more about the image and the young Rebel soldier in the ditch on the battlefield.  

... The caption on the negative sleeve for the image in the Library of Congress reads, "He sleeps his last sleep. A Confederate soldier who after being wounded evidently dragged himself to a little ravine on the hill side where he died. Sept. 1862." As you can plainly see here, the soldier's head rests in a depression. One arm is bent at an extreme angle while the other rests on his chest. Rigor mortis, which typically occurs three to four hours after death, has long since set in, causing the soldier's limbs to stiffen. Although Gardner was known to have posed images of dead soldiers -- see his famous Gettysburg sharpshooter image -- there is no obvious evidence that he did here. ...

... this cropped enlargement shows a temporary resting place of briars, weeds and clover. Sometime after this photo was taken, this man may have been tossed into a shallow grave or trench dug by Union soldiers, who buried their own dead first and with much more care ...

... what appears to be a bed roll or blanket rests near the soldier's leg ...

... the words are tantalizingly out of focus on these scraps of paper that lay in the brush near the soldier's head. Could these be clues that could identify him?

... an extreme close-up, flipped 180 degrees,  reveals the terrible face of death. It's difficult to view. This soldier, who has a tuft of  whiskers on his chin, may only be in his late teens or early 20s. His face is bloated and bruised, not unexpected after lying for days on the battlefield. Dried, caked blood appears by his nostrils, near his mouth and eye, on his cheek and from his forehead across the bridge of his nose, perhaps evidence of a fatal wound in his matted hair.

Somewhere in the South a family mourned this soldier, who, like most Confederate dead at Antietam, was probably never identified. If this soldier's remains were recovered after the war, he may have been re-buried in nearby Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, W.Va., or Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Md., with hundreds of other unknown Confederate dead.


  1. I guess I will never truly grasp war & why it is done. Having gone to Gettysburg,Antietam & Appomattox in 2011....all that death/carnage in just hours...and in some cases no one gained any ground while thousands die. War. Awful. Hurts my soul. Too many forgotten unknown.

  2. I guess I will never truly grasp war & why it is done. Having gone to Gettysburg,Antietam & Appomattox in 2011....all that death/carnage in just hours...and in some cases no one gained any ground while thousands die. War. Awful. Hurts my soul. Too many forgotten unknown.

  3. Your tag line is disgusting. The soldier is a man, a brother, a father, a son. He was fighting for a cause he believed in and paid the ultimate price He is more than a "dead Rebel." Shame on you.

  4. Hi, Mark. Thanks for writing. My aim was to show war in all its ugliness, not demean or diminish any soldier, North or South. A larger aim is to eventually identify this soldier -- perhaps someone online will see this post and provide further information. Or perhaps the piece of paper with writing on it that lay next to this young man could lead to an identification. My blog is partially devoted to uncovering stories of common soldiers of the Civil War -- those men and boys whose stories have been pushed to the margins of history. Much like this Southern's soldier's story: http://john-banks.blogspot.com/2015/03/lost-and-finally-found-grave-of-5th.html

    1. Anonymous10:00 AM

      A courteous and dignified reply. It simply isn't possible to put "man, brother, father, son" every time and it is abundantly clear that you mean no disrespect, quite the opposite in fact.

  5. Anonymous1:04 PM

    War is an ugly thing....I wish we would learn from it.

  6. We are teaching a class on the Civil War. We showed our students this blog post and asked them to write a blog response. The following are a few of the comments.

    Alan McCauley and Pete Yaeger, Pius XI Catholic High School, Milwaukee WI

    "After seeing and reading the information under the photos, it's very hard to see something so clear from so long ago. It's amazing how it is possible, but in this case, gruesome. I personally did not want to look at or analyze into the photos.... but they were an eye opener that bodies were just left on the battlefields as is. I couldn't imagine what was going through the soldier's mind as he laid there dying."

    "Those pictures provide a reality to the Civil War. The fallen soldier shows how brutal battles are and how costly each battle is. We see evidence of a life outside the war and know the young man probably had a family he was never able to return to. These pictures are the sad truth behind the stories."

    "I found the image very shocking... To anyone else this picture shows either a dead brother, father, or family member. I can only see the death of war which has changed our thinking. We have experienced so much death that we won't all feel sympathy for the soldier. We would acknowledge just like the title 'another one' out of so many fallen here's one more. It's the reaction we now have to shootings when on the news 'another one', we have grown used to them too much now."

    "I thought that this is a very good perspective of the Confederates and their losses. It really humanizes the war because it puts a face to match up with the massive amounts of dead from the Civil War. While it may be hard to look at, photos like this one could potentially serve as a deterrent for future wars and educate people as to why war is a monstrous creation of man."

    "The photograph of the dead Confederate soldier brings to life the brutality of the Civil War. The dead man is no longer just a number on a casualty list, but someone with his own story, someone who died fighting for a cause for which he believed. Although, we may never know his name or his true story, his sacrifice will always be remembered."

    "I think the photograph really portrays the individuality that was lost when each soldier, either Union or Confederate, died. You look at this photo and feel sad for the soldier and wonder what he left behind. Did he have a tight-knit family, or maybe even a child or two? It really helps show the impact of the brutality of the Civil War on the individual families."

    "Now days we have become desensitized to dead humans. It looks like any other dead body. Now, you search Isis online and videos pop up of guys getting their heads sawed off or kids being burned alive. This black and white photograph really isn't jarring once you've seen a kid get murdered in front of his parents because he missed the evening prayer."

  7. Alan and Pete: Very cool! Thanks for sharing. If you don't mind, I may turn these responses into a blog post. Our youngest daughter, a high school senior, will definitely get a kick out of it. History doesn't have to be boring, so I am glad you used the photo as a teaching tool. This made my day. If you'd like, be happy to Skype into your class to talk more about CIvil War photos -- images a a lot less gruesome than this one. Tell your class I said hello and great job! Jb

  8. My great great grandfather was at Antietam with his three brothers and some of his cousins...One of his brothers died in that battle...The other brothers suffered wounds and imprisonment from various battles but made it home alive after the war...They said the last time they saw their brother that died, he was on the battlefield wiping blood from his eyes so they think he may have died from a head wound....Whenever I see pictures of dead rebels lined up at Antietam I always wonder if one of them is him...I doubt if the young man in the picture is him even though he died of a head wound...My grandfather's family all had olive skin and straight black hair...Some family mourned this young man and probably never knew what actually happened to him....

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  9. Dianne,

    Was your ancestor that was killed named William?

    I can plainly see with my young eyes that the name William is written on one of the bits of paper.

    Mr. Banks, what Confederate regiment fought in the area that this photo was taken?

  10. I guess it was roughly 45 years ago that I first came across these images and the many more of fallen soldiers from other battlefields. The Gettysburg images and the Overland Campaign images of death come to mind. The original repulse eventually loosened its grip on me to a point. But for every time I see them there is still that wave of initial emotion. The clear illustration of the demise of a individual who stood for his own cause. And what of the politics and greed that brought him to this place? Was any of that in his thoughts or whispered in his last breathe? Likely not but who am I to say for we will never know. What I feel most when looking these images over is a sense of loss of a future, a loss for those who waited for their boy to come home, the loss in the value of a human life, a loss in every conceivable way. I don't feel any victory for a cause, only betrayal from being led down that path.

    I am a long time student of the war and history surrounding it. I am a painter and am truly touched by such images and inspired by the stories of those individuals strong enough to endure such monumental horrors. Horrors that I have never had to face in my lifetime. I have also collected artifacts for 50 years and with each one that I add to my collection there is an aura that surrounds it. I extol a reverence to the soldier who last held it in his hands. Sometimes an artifact invites research that leads to uncovering the story of an individual from long ago. Sometimes these stories end in death on a battlefield or in a life continued long after the war.

    In all of these things it is the individual who draws so heavily on our emotion. Can we afford to let the repetitive nature of history and likelihood of our future numb our senses to the point where these lives mean little to us. I am so very impressed that a teacher has used these images and more impressed by his students reactions. Mr. Gardner's work has hit home150 years later as much as it did 150 years ago. Cheers to you Mr. Yaeger and to your class!

  11. Anonymous8:17 PM

    It seems pretty clear that those scraps of paper are printed-- at lower right the word "NEW", upside-down, is not only clear but clearly in headline typeface made to look three-dimensional, as was sometimes done in posters, broadsides, handed-out advertising and the like back then. With more detail from the negative-- no certainty, since it's amazing we have even this much detail-- the printed work miiiight be identifiable. I doubt it, but it's conceivable. But I'd be truly flabbergasted if the soldier could be-- not least since there's no certainty the body and the paper are associated.

  12. Anonymous2:36 AM

    The tragedy of the War Between The States is primarily the fault of Lincoln the traitor who violated his oath of office and his duty to uphold the Constitution of These United States. His monument should be taken down and his image removed from all currency.

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  14. M. Williams, I can answer. :)
    The units that was in that area at one point or another, was basically three brigades from DH Hills Division of Jacksons Corps:
    Ripleys Brigade (4th and 44th Georgia, 1st and 3rd North Carolina)
    Colquitts Brigade (6th, 23rd, 27th, 28th Georgia and 13th Alabama)
    Garlands(McRae) Brigade (5th, 12th, 13th, 20th, 23rd North Carolina)
    The place is just east of the Mumma Farm and no imidiate action took place there.
    A few other confederate units also passed through the area, Trimbles Brigade for instance, but the brigades mentioned was stationed there at som points, recieving devastating Union artillery fire. Especially Ripleys Brigade.
    The area also had some Confederate artillery units stationed there during the fight in the cornfield.

    Tom V.G.Nilsen, Norway