|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.