Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Antietam: Re-examining Gibson's image of Middle Bridge

Middle Bridge over Antietam Creek (James Gibson | Library of Congress)

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Days after the Battle of Antietam, Alexander Gardner and James Gibson shot several photographs of the Middle Bridge, also known as Antietam Bridge, on the Boonsboro Pike. Although little fighting took place in this area, the bridge was used by thousands of troops in both armies to cross Antietam Creek, perhaps the reason the photographers chose it for subject matter. (The bridge, built in the early 1800s, was destroyed by flood in 1891. A modern bridge crosses the creek today.)

On initial inspection, this Gibson image, taken from a steep bluff on the east bank of Antietam Creek, is unremarkable. But cropped enlargements of the photograph, available in high-resolution format on the Library of Congress web site, reveal cool details you may not have noticed. Click on the image above to enlarge -- the famous East Woods, where fighting raged on Sept. 17, 1862, appear in the right background, just above the farm buildings. Traveling west (to the left), the village of Sharpsburg is about two miles down the turnpike.

What else do you see?

... the ghost-like image of a man, his elbow resting upon the bridge near its east end. To his right, a large piece of cloth or canvas. What could that be?

.... several feet from the man leaning against the bridge, another ghost-like figure and what appears to be a barrel resting on some type of implement ....

.... toward the west end of the bridge, we find three human-like forms, each looking like the grainy figures that appeared in a Nov. 22, 1963 photograph of that infamous grassy knoll in Dallas. ...

.... at the far west end of the bridge, a covered wagon and a horse ...

... at the bottom of the image, this unusual object appears. What was it used for?

... a skiff on the eastern bank of Antietam Creek ...

... and on land in the background, on the west side of the creek, split-rail fencing, apparently with little damage ...

... and in the middle background, more fencing, apparently undamaged. A short distance over the ridge, a sunken road infamously known today as Bloody Lane ...

... and in the upper right, the farmhouse, barn and outbuildings used by tenant farmer Joseph Parks.  During the battle, the farm was well within Federal lines, but no significant action took place there. The farm may have been used as a hospital after the battle, although definitive information could not be found. Accessible to battlefield visitors, the farm is rarely visited. Below are present-day images of the Parks barn and farmhouse (in background). To visit the farm, park at the war-time Joshua Newcomer House on the west side of Antietam Creek and follow the signage for the 3 Farms Trail.

The barn and farmhouse are believed to have been constructed in the 1830s.

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  1. Garry Adelman8:51 AM

    Great stuff as always!

  2. Excellent work and fascinating! I also love examining old photographs. That grassy knoll shooter gets around (That would make a great sci-fi story) although it has been used many times such as in "The Timeshifters" where the same guy is seen at many historical big events through time. Thank you for your posts!

    1. Thanks, John and Garry. Always fun to keep history alive.

  3. Anonymous7:11 PM

    The undamaged fences will lend credence to the conspiracy theorists that the battle never happened, Just kidding! Excellent work and analytical photo segments! I really enjoy what you put on here for us buffs to read and analyze! Thank you so much!

  4. Anonymous7:42 PM

    I thought the bloody lane faced a cornfield?

  5. Cameras of the period lacked shutters. Exposures were made by removing a lens cap, exposing the wet plate for some time, then replacing the cap. Blurred ghostly images of people, and animals, are simply movement during the exposure. The keg is on a single wheel flat cart, like a wheel barrow without sides. The 'canoe' is actually a flat bottom barge/boat. The same one in this picture can be seen, bailed out and moved a few feet down stream, in the photograph called 'The Picnic.' There is a second one on the opposite side of the bridge on the opposite bank visible under the third arch. There is damage to the double rail fence, but not in the middle. If you zoom in on the image, you'll see fence rails removed from the fence due west of Parks farm on the double fenced lane. This opening would give access from the north to the field leading west to Bloody Lane over the hill. The unusual object at the bottom of the picture appears to be a portable bridge that would be used to cross a low creek, wet run off areas, or muddy spots.

  6. As always John, intensely interesting subject matter!

  7. As they say, every picture tells a thousand stories. Incredible in this instance. Thanks John for bringing details to light that I certainly would have missed in looking at this "unremarkable" photo.