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Photo Op: The Secrets Behind a Remarkable Photograph

By Jerry Morelock
10/5/2016 • America's Civil War magazine

James F. Gibson’s photo of four Union officers in the Army of the Potomac’s Horse Artillery Brigade (left) is regarded as one of the Civil War’s most iconic images. According to the Library of Congress, it dates from June 1, 1862, near Fair Oaks, Va.—the second and final day of the Battle of Seven Pines, the deadliest battle to date in the Eastern Theater and the closest Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan would get to Richmond in his ill-fated Peninsula Campaign.

Gibson, a 34-year-old native of Scotland who was working for Mathew Brady, had accompanied McClellan’s army throughout the campaign, beginning in April. On June 1, a typically hot, humid day on the Virginia Peninsula, he gathered the four officers of Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery, around one of the unit’s six 3-inch ordnance rifles. As the photographer removed his camera’s lens cover to begin the carefully timed process of capturing the image, a bearded soldier leading one of the battery’s horses in the background seems to have “photo-bombed” the scene. Gibson waited the necessary time to complete the exposure, then replaced the lens cover. Frozen in time on the glass plate he removed from his camera and developed in his horse-drawn darkroom was a striking photo.

Exactly when Gibson made this image has never been confirmed. Although it might seem odd that the officers of the brigade, which had supported Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke’s Cavalry Reserve at Seven Pines, would find time to pose for such a photo on the day of a battle, if the June 1 date is accurate, it stands to reason that they did so after the fighting had concluded around 11:30 a.m. Three of the men, Captains John Caldwell Tidball and Alexander Cummings McWhorter Pennington Jr., and 1st Lt. William Neil Dennison, are dressed for field duty—a rare glimpse of Civil War troops in “combat” uniforms. Their natural-looking poses and overall air of confidence, what we’d refer to today as “attitude,” also contribute to making this a standout image.

Officers of Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery, pose for photographer James Gibson during the Peninsula Campaign. (Library of Congress)

Exquisite Details

The photo shows (left to right) 2nd Lt. Robert Clarke, Tidball (battery commander), Dennison and Pennington. The identity of the enlisted man in the back is unknown. Two of the officers were West Pointers: 37-year-old Tidball (Class of 1848) and 24-year-old Pennington (Class of 1860). The other two were commissioned as Regular Army officers after the war began. Clarke and Dennison served in the 2nd Artillery throughout the war, and both eventually commanded Battery A.

Despite having fought in some of the Eastern Theater’s bloodiest battles, all four officers survived the conflict. Clarke resigned from the Army in February 1865, but the others remained in uniform for lengthy periods: Dennison resigned in 1870 to pursue political and business interests; Tidball, regarded as the Army’s premier artillery expert, retired as a colonel in 1889; and Pennington, a brigadier general of volunteers during the 1898 Spanish-American War, retired in 1899.

Under magnification, some remarkable details are visible, as shown above: 1. The tiny number “2” (for 2nd Artillery) superimposed on the crossed cannon insignia on the kepis worn by Clarke, Tidball and Pennington; 2. The horse-shaped gold or silver stickpin on Pennington’s plaid tie; and 3. The distinctive “eagle and wreath” design on Clarke’s and Pennington’s regulation U.S. Army officer belt buckles.

The differences in their uniforms are revealing. Only Clarke, the junior officer, wears the regulation dress/service uniform—a nine-button, knee-length frock coat with white collar insert over his sky-blue trousers, with a thin red cord along the outer seam denoting that he is an artillery company–grade officer, and ankle-high brogans. The other three are dressed more informally, reflecting individuality and personal preference, and also demonstrating their desire for practicality and comfort in the field. Dennison, for example, wears a broad-brimmed hat—practical on a hot summer day—and sports knee-high leather riding boots rather than the regulation ankle-high brogans.

All three are wearing civilian-style pinstriped or plaid pullover shirts with a scarf or necktie, but each has on a different type of coat or jacket—to which his shoulder strap rank insignia has been sewn. Dennison’s appears to be a standard-issue enlisted soldier’s four-button “sack coat”; Pennington’s is a waist-length, tab-collar “shell jacket”–style worn by mounted soldiers; and Tidball’s coat has a wide fall-down collar and lapels, with an external pocket at the left breast. Both Tidball and Pennington wear the heavy leather gauntlets favored by mounted officers for rough field duty. Dennison’s and Pennington’s swords appear to be 1860 light cavalry sabers, and Tidball’s, though somewhat obscured in this image, is likely either that model or an 1840 Light Artillery (Horse Artillery) saber.

Gibson also took this memorable photo of Captain Horatio Gibson’s Battery, 3rd U.S. Artillery, at Fair Oaks, Va., in June 1862. (Library of Congress)

Mobile Support

Civil War horse artillery had evolved from the so-called “flying artillery” of the Mexican War, where American field artillery batteries commanded by officers like Samuel Ringgold and James Duncan led their guns to exposed positions well in front of U.S. infantry lines and blasted attacking troops in battles such as Palo Alto and Resaca del la Palma. Their tactics so impressed senior commanders that veteran officers like Tidball and Pennington were prohibited from leaving their artillery regiments to accept higher-ranking volunteer unit commissions as colonels and generals until 1863 (unlike cavalry and infantry officers, many of whom became generals early in the war). At Gettysburg, for instance, Tidball and Pennington were still captains, while infantry and cavalry branch juniors (including George A. Custer) were already briga-diers or major generals. Once those restrictions were lifted, Tidball, Pennington and other Regular Army artillery officers rose quickly in rank.

Horse artillery units, created to give Union cavalry mobile firepower, offered a signifi-cant advantage for Federal forces when concentrated in powerful brigades. Horse artillery differed from standard field artillery units in that each artilleryman was mounted on his own horse, rather than walking or riding into battle on the cannon’s limber and accompanying ammunition limber and caisson, or mounted on the six horses pulling the cannons and limbers. This gave horse batteries a tactical advantage, allowing them to rapidly close with the enemy in order to maintain attack speed and momentum, or to be quickly shifted to a threatened sector of the battle line to repel an attack.

By 1863, Union horse artillery was organized into two brigades, one commanded by Captain James M. Robertson and the other led by Captain Tidball, with each battery’s strength at 85 cannoneers and officers. Tactically, each battery was organized for combat into three sections (each of two guns) led by one of the battery’s three subordinate officers. When the Battery A photo was taken, Captain Pennington was in charge of the battery’s Lead (right) section, 1st Lt. Dennison led its Rear (left) section and 2nd Lt. Clarke controlled the Center section. This left battery commander Tidball free to 
oversee the deployment of his battery as he saw fit.

The Union horse artillery favored the 3-inch ordnance rifle because it was relatively light and maneuverable, highly reliable and extremely accurate at long range. (National Park Service)

The Firepower

The 3-inch ordnance rifle, pictured in Gibson’s photo on P. 40 with Virginia mud clinging to its wheels, was the U.S. field artillery’s state-of-the-art muzzle-loading cannon during the war. Invented in 1855 by Phoenixville, Pa., iron works’ superintendent John Griffen, the wrought-iron, hammer-welded-barreled cannon was favored by gunners because of its excellent range, accuracy and extreme reliability. It was also valued for its comparatively light weight over equivalent artillery cannons—its 69- to 72-inch barrel with seven rifled grooves weighed 816 pounds, 100 pounds lighter than a 10-pounder Parrott rifle and fully 400 pounds lighter than the war’s ubiquitous fieldpiece, the bronze 1857 Napoleon 12-pounder howitzer.

Propelled at 1,215 feet per second by a one-pound charge of black powder, the 3-inch rifle’s 8- to 9-pound projectiles (solid bolt, case, common shell and, for close-in fire from about 400 yards, canister) could reliably hit targets a mile away. While the smoothbore Napoleon provided its greatest service in defense—firing single- or double-loaded canister rounds to mow down oncoming infantry—the 3-inch ordnance rifle’s accuracy at maximum range made it a formidable offensive weapon. The Union’s second-most-common field artillery cannon, it was pulled into combat by a six-horse team and manned by a gunner and five or six cannoneers.

The Photographer

James F. Gibson was born in Scotland, probably in 1828. Details of his life are sketchy, but he possibly immigrated to America with fellow Scot Alexander Gardner in 1856. He first appears in U.S. records on the 1860 Census, which lists him and his wife, Elizabeth, as Washington, D.C., residents, and his employer as Mathew Brady. Gibson is the least well known of Brady’s wartime employees, who notably included Gardner (1821–1882), Timothy O’Sullivan (1840–1882) and George N. Barnard (1819–1902). He photographed the battlefields of Bull Run (with Barnard), Antietam (with Gardner) and Gettysburg (with Gardner and O’Sullivan), but his best-known images are from the Peninsula Campaign. After the war, while he was managing Brady’s Washington Gallery, Gibson filed lawsuits against both Brady and Gardner, mortgaged the gallery, allegedly pocketed the cash and headed west to Kansas, where he disappeared.

Brigade officers of the Horse Artillery commanded by Lt. Col. William Hays. Standing, left to right: Lt. Edmund Pendleton, PLt. Alex C. M. Pennington, Capt. Henry Benson, Capt, H. M. Gibson, Lt. James E. Wilson, Capt. John C. Tidball, Lt. William N. Dennison. Seated, left to right: Capt. Horatio Gibson, Lt. Peter C. Hains, Lt. Col. William Hays, Capt. James M. Robertson, Lt. J. W. Barlow. Seated on the ground, left to right: Lt. Robert H. Chapin, Lt. Robert Clarke, A.C. Vincent. (Library of Congress)


Lt. James B. Washington, a Confederate prisoner, with Capt. George A. Custer of the 5th Cavalry, U.S.A. Photo by James Gibson. (Library of Congress)


Jerry Morelock is a senior editor of America’s Civil War and the co-author, with Robert J. Dalessandro and Erin R. Mahan, of 100 Greatest Military Photographs (Whitman, 2013). Morelock served in the U.S. Army with the 2nd U.S. Field Artillery, a unit descended from the Horse Artillery Brigade, featured in this article.

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