Monday, September 16, 2013

Antietam: Alexander Gardner's images of death

Enlargement of Alexander Gardner image of Rebel soldiers gathered for burial
at Battle of Antietam.  (Library of Congress collection)
Enlargement of Gardner image of dead Rebel soldiers along Hagerstown Pike.
This enlargement of a Gardner image shows Confederate dead gathered for burial
 on the D.R. Miller farm. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
This enlargement of a Gardner image shows body of a young Rebel soldier next to the freshly dug
grave of Lieutenant John Clark of the 7th Michigan
In October 1862, at Mathew Brady's photo gallery on Broadway in New York, Americans first laid eyes on images of the dead of Civil War. The photographs, taken by Brady employee Alexander Gardner in the days after the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, were horrifying ... and mesmerizing. "You will see hushed, reverend
In this Alexander Gardner image, Rebel dead, probably soldiers
 from Louisiana,  lay along Hagerstown Pike. The second photo
 above is an enlargement of the dead Rebel at left.
groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes," a New York Times reporter eloquently wrote of the patrons at Brady's gallery. "It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But so it is."

Gardner's photographs included many images of Confederate dead, some grotesquely deformed from their wounds or from exposure to the elements, laying along Hagerstown Pike, in Bloody Lane, on the Joseph Sherrick farm and on other parts of the battlefield. In one especially awful photograph, more than 20 dead Rebel soldiers were gathered for burial. The most poignant image showed a dead Rebel, probably only a teenager, next to the freshly dug grave of a Union lieutenant. So great is the detail in the image that the name on the wooden headboard can be read: "J A Clark, 7th Mich."

The son of Lovonia and Thomas Clark, Lieutenant John Clark, in his early 20s, was from Ida Township, Mich. (This detail was first revealed in William Frassanito's excellent 1978 book, "Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day.") To my knowledge, none of the Confederate soldiers in any of Gardner's images was ever identified. The first four photos in this post are enlargements of Gardner photographs taken at Antietam, each revealing remarkable detail. High-quality Antietam images in TIF format may be found on the Library of Congress photographs site, a terrific resource for those who aim to uncover secrets of Civil War images.

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