Success After Three Decades of Research.
The photographs taken sometime on July 5, 1863, by Alexander Gardner and his assistant Timothy O’Sullivan have both fascinated and disturbed me during my 31 years working with the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park. The series of images depicts a group of Union dead on the battlefield.
Who were these men? Where did they die? The photos did provide some clues. This was a line of battle, not a skirmish line. The soldiers were infantryman, not cavalry. They had also been killed on ground either subsequently controlled by the Confederates or in the contested ground between the armies’ front lines, because Union dead who had fallen in areas controlled by the Army of the Potomac were nearly all buried, or at least prepared for burial, by the time Gardner reached the battlefield on July 5.
Another clue that these men had fallen on ground at least temporarily controlled by Confederate troops was that they had been stripped of their equipment and shoes. This limited the location where the images could have been taken to the July 2 battlefield on the Union left or the July 1 battlefield.
I believed for many years that Gardner had captured his images on the July 2 battlefield. But hard as I tried, I could never get the terrain anywhere on this part of the field to match up with both photographs. This led me to search the July 1 battlefield, where the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place.
Along eastern McPherson’s Ridge, where the 121st Pennsylvania Infantry and 80th New York, also known as the 20th New York State Militia, engaged the 52nd North Carolina of General James Pettigrew’s Brigade, the landscape and the evidence the photographs present matched up.
The first photo is looking northeast, toward the Wills McPherson woods on Oak Ridge. The dead in the foreground, around whom a burial detail are gathered, are almost certainly from the 80th New York. The identity of the burial detail is unknown. The only regiment of Colonel Chapman Biddle’s brigade known to have sent a burial detail out to the July 1 battlefield was the 142nd Pennsylvania.
For the second image, Gardner turned his camera around approximately 135 degrees. The dead shown in the image he labeled “A Harvest of Death,” which is looking south along eastern McPherson’s Ridge, are principally from the 121st Pennsylvania, while the men in the foreground are from the 80th New York. The fallen in this image are consistent with the action that occurred here. The 121st was flanked by the 52nd North Carolina, and attempted to change front to the left to meet this attack, but Confederate fire broke their line. The line of the 121st can be clearly seen where the regiment attempted to change front to protect its flank.
I believe the mystery is solved, but only written evidence will convince some students of the war. Perhaps that will be found in a still-to-be-discovered statement from a member of the burial detail, or Gardner himself.
D. Scott Hartwig is a supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. Visit the park history and news blog at http://npsgnmp.wordpress.com.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.