Thursday, March 24, 2016

What HS students wrote about Gardner's Antietam photo

A fallen Confederate on Antietam battlefield.
(Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)
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Stripped of his dignity, the fallen Rebel soldier in a tattered uniform lay in a ditch on the battlefield, perhaps hundreds of miles from home. Days after the Battle of Antietam, Alexander Gardner captured an image of the unknown young man, who likely awaited a haphazard burial in a trench with the bodies of other comrades. If anything, the photograph is one of the greatest anti-war statements possible.

A month ago, I downloaded a high-resolution TIFF version of Gardner's image from the Library of Congress web site and posted enlargements, some of which revealed details not readily apparent in the original. Blood on the poor soul's forehead, a blanket or bedroll and even scraps of paper with writing are easily seen. Perhaps further examination of that writing could lead to an identification of the soldier, who can't be more than 22 or 23 years old.

One of the more popular posts on my blog, it drew powerful reactions on my Civil War Facebook page and in the comments section below the entry. One commenter took issue with my original headline, writing the soldier "was fighting for a cause he believed in and paid the ultimate price. He is more than a 'dead Rebel.'  Shame on you." Point well taken -- the headline was changed. Another commenter wrote: "I guess I will never truly grasp war & why it is done. ... War. Awful. Hurts my soul. Too many forgotten unknown."

Rotated 180 degrees, this is a close-up of the face
of the soldier in Gardner's image.
The post and accompanying photos even inspired high school teachers Alan McCauley and Pete Yaeger to ask students in their Civil War class at Pius XI Catholic High School in Milwaukee for their reaction. (My reaction? It's great the Civil War is still taught in at least one high school and kudos to Yaeger and McCauley.) Here's what their students wrote:

+ 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."

 Words are tantalizingly out of focus on these scraps of paper that lay
 in the brush near the soldier's head. 
+ "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."


  1. Mr. Banks, Thank you for your post and pictures. One of my ancestors died at Antietam. He was only 21 years old. He was in the 16th Mississippi. As I viewed the picture I though of him. Thank you and may God Bless.

  2. Anonymous2:47 PM

    I have a MUCH different perspective on photographs of the battlefield dead. I don't see this young man as being "stripped of his dignity". You robbed him of his dignity by referring to him as a "poor soul". Most young Americans of the mid-195th century had a sense of self-esteem that today we might define as arrogance. I doubt if he would have felt so sorry for himself as you do for him. And what about his so-called "haphazard burial in a trench with his other comrades"? To be buried with friends who you have grown closer to than perhaps your own siblings is no disgrace or to be pitied. That's how these places have become "hallowed ground". In ancient times dying with a sword in your hand and leaving your bones on a battlefield was considered an honor, not an excuse for the living to engage in self-indulgent pity to justify gawking at the sight of a dead body. The photograph makes no more a anti-war statement than the combat scenes in "Saving Private Ryan" which actually influenced several people I know to become soldiers. A clinical analysis of the picture, a type of visual autopsy, would have been more worthwhile than all the weepy commentary and hand-wringing. What about the hardended bubble of blood coming from his nostril? You didn't even mention it. Despite that, this worthy candidate for Valhalla looks to be completely at peace. And don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to glorify the cause for which he died, nor condemning it either. Partisan politics don't exist beyond the grave. He died a noble warrior's death At the hands of other noble warriors. He looks beautify to me.

  3. Re: "clinical analysis of that picture, a type of visual autopsy ... " that would be here: Regarding the rest of your commentary, I respectfully disagree.

  4. thought it was good and interesting. thanks

  5. If you flip the image of the scraps of paper upside down, the words "NEW Wib ...." are discernible. I can make out several other letters but no additional words.

  6. I too am glad some kids are still being taught about the Civil War. Seeing photos like this is how I became interested in this war as a fifth grader and have been interested in the Anthropology of the war ever since. Unlike “anonymous” above, I think these photos are very appropriate and should be shown. So many lack the empathy for the Confederate as they fail to understand how that culture thought and what they believed. So many judge them based on our 21st century understanding of humanity (thank God we changed—but I don’t believe it’s right to put judgement on a past civilization. It’s not a fair judgement). Photos like this remind us that these men and boys were human. They had good in them. They had bad in them. Just like the rest of us. They had families searching for their bodies. Searching for answers possibly until they died in their old age, as these men went into the haphazard grave without a marker. Many of these men knew as they died that they would never be found or identified and cried out about their poor mother, their poor wife, poor children who would never know what happened to him. Yes this is tragic and yes this should never be forgotten. Thank you for posting these photos. Many I have seen a hundred times but your hi-def images give them more detail and I feel often like I’m looking at them for the first time.

  7. I have been to this battlefield and walked these hallowed grounds. As a mother, and a wife I was forever changed. We must honor their sacrifices by never forgetting them . Freedom will never be free. Thank you for posting these photos.