Can a Photograph Tell the Full Story of War’s Horror? This Antietam Ambrotype Just Might
What can we learn from an old photograph, a moment in time captured on a glass plate negative? In the case of the image above—taken by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan on September 19, 1862, two days after the Battle of Antietam—the answer is quite a bit. It appears to be a burial detail, but we will discuss this more later. The granite outcropping and boulders piled on it make the identification of this site straightforward. It is marked today by the unique 90th Pennsylvania Infantry monument of three stacked rifles supporting a water or coffee bucket with the inscription: “Here fought the 90th Penna (Philadelphia) Sept 17, 1862 A Hot Place.”
The last three words of the inscription are an apt description of this spot on September 17. Few locations on the Antietam battlefield saw more sustained combat than what swirled around this point. It is located about 50 yards south of David Miller’s famed Cornfield. The camera is facing slightly southwest with the Cornfield directly behind the viewer. The woods visible behind the group of four living soldiers on the right are the West Woods. Midway between the outcropping and the West Woods the line of occasional brush marks a fence line that ran east- west from the Hagerstown Pike to the southern tip of the East Woods and was used as cover by Colonel Marcellus Douglass’ Georgia brigade in its fierce engagement with the Union brigades of Brig. Gens. Abram Duryée, John Gibbon, and George Hartsuff.
The first troops heavily engaged near this point were the 97th, 104th, and 105th New York of Duryée’s 1st Brigade in Maj. Gen. James Ricketts’ 2nd Division, 1st Corps. They would be relieved by the 12th Massachusetts, part of Hartsuff’s brigade, also in Ricketts’ division. Around this outcropping, they engaged the 13th and 60th Georgia, and Brig. Gen. Harry Hays’ Louisiana brigade, which launched a counterattack that was repulsed with significant losses. “Never did I see more rebs to fire at than that moment presented themselves,” recalled Corporal George Kimball of the 12th Massachusetts—hit hard, too, with 49 killed, 165 wounded, and 10 missing.
Typically, struck soldiers drop their weapons and/or equipment (belts, canteens, cartridge boxes, haversacks, etc.), lose their hats, tear off pieces of clothing to locate their wounds, or grab for blankets to help carry wounded to the rear. Walking this ground on September 21, physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. found it “strewed with fragments of clothing, haversacks, canteens, cap-boxes, bullets, cartridge-boxes, cartridges, scraps of paper, portions of bread and meat.” We can see in the foreground what Holmes is referring to. The ground is literally covered with discarded clothing and gear.
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There are seven dead bodies and, on the far right, what looks like a dead horse. All appear to be Confederates, but who? Numerous Rebel units passed this point or fought in its immediate vicinity: the 2nd and 11th Mississippi of Evander Law’s Brigade; the 1st and 3rd North Carolina of Roswell Ripley’s Brigade; and the 28th and 23rd Georgia of Alfred Colquitt’s Brigade. All had high casualty counts—the 3rd North Carolina suffered an appalling 116 killed or mortally wounded and the 1st 50 in this area alone. Illustrating just how lethal the fighting was, the 3rd North Carolina at one point had to change front to the northeast to counter an advance by the 128th Pennsylvania, a maneuver in which seven of the regiment’s 10 companies had every officer killed or wounded.
What seems odd is that no dead are visible beyond the outcropping, but they may already have been picked up for burial, or buried, by the time the photographers arrived. That no Union dead appear in the image is evidence that burial details had already been at work here.
We can presume that the five living soldiers looking upon the dead are a burial party, but unlike another set of soldiers Gardner and O’Sullivan photographed near the Miller Farm, these men have no tools. Jeff Dugdale, who produced a fascinating book about Confederate uniforms during the Maryland Campaign, believes the two men sitting and crouching in front of the two men on top of the outcropping are prisoners, based on their clothing. If they are Confederates, which might explain the one Union soldier behind them holding his musket, they may have been stragglers, captured when the Army of Northern Virginia retreated the night of September 18 and put to work gathering the dead for burial. Perhaps the four bodies in front of them had been moved, laid out in a rough line. The other three bodies seem to have remained where they fell or where they were dragged by comrades during the fighting.
It is remarkable that members of the burial detail—if that is what this is—seem grim but otherwise unaffected by the carnage before them. September 19 was warm—75 degrees—and the rapidly decomposing bodies were emitting an offensive odor. A Massachusetts soldier in a West Woods burial party described the work that day as “very unpleasant,” that he “tasted the odor for several days.” And according to civilians from Lancaster, Pa., who visited immediately after the battle, “the stench…from the decomposing bodies was almost unendurable.” The soldiers here have made no effort to ward off that odor by covering their mouths or noses with a handkerchief or bandanna. Perhaps they believed it would make no difference, as the smell penetrated everything.
Because the photographers made no known effort to identify either the living or the dead in this image, we are left to speculate, which perhaps makes it easier for a viewer to remain emotionally detached from the scene. It is horrifying, but we do not know who the dead are. One conceivably is Anson W. Deal, a 25-year-old private in Company B, 3rd North Carolina, who in the summer of 1862 had been conscripted from his family farm in Duplin County, N.C. Deal was initially listed as missing and presumed captured, and his family surely held out hope that he had survived. Months later, though, the remarks on his fate were changed to “supposed to have been killed in battle at Sharpsburg” and then to “killed at Sharpsburg.” He was almost certainly buried as an unknown soldier in a mass grave with other Confederates. His name, and the family that grieved his death, are a reminder that every anonymous body we peer at in photographs from that fateful day had a story to tell and deserves to be remembered as a person and not a prop.