Photographer Matthew Brady and his assistants arrived at Gettysburg on or about July 15th, 1863, nearly two weeks after the end of the fighting.1 Finding that the debris of battle and unburied bodies photographed by his competitor, Alexander Gardner, were largely cleaned up, Brady set about capturing images of notable buildings and what he believed to be key locations on the battlefield. At some point they encountered a group of three captured Confederates on Seminary Ridge west of town, undoubtably under guard, and took advantage of the rare opportunity. The resulting photograph has become perhaps the iconic image of the Confederate soldier.
The three men stand in varied pose, in front of a pile of rails thrown up as a defense by the Confederate troops who occupied this position on July 4th. In the far distance behind them stands the solitary oak tree that once stood atop an otherwise bare Cemetery Hill until it was struck by lightning in 1876.2
The date of Brady’s activities at Gettysburg may indicate something important about the nature of these three Rebels. The assumption is sometimes made that these men have something to do with the fighting on this, the first days battlefield. But it is important to consider that prisoners did not typically linger in the vicinity of their capture,
and in this case, with the Confederates overrunning this location at the close of fighting on July 1st, the location where these men were photographed tells us nothing about where they were captured. POW’s were usually hustled to the rear of the lines, where they were penned under guard with other prisoners before being marched toward more permanent camps. While some Confederate prisoners were used to help with clean-up operations on the field, even these were likely long gone by the time Brady arrived. So who are these men?
We should remember that there were, by this point in the war, many conscripts in the ranks of Lee’s army. Some of these men were not enthusiastic about the Southern cause and had been fighting for more than a year. Desertions tended to occur with a frequency relative to the morale of the army, and the Battle of Gettysburg was a significant blow to the spirits of many. The confusion of the retreat to Virginia gave disaffected soldiers the perfect opportunity to slip away. A number of accounts exist attesting to the presence of small groups of Rebel stragglers still in the Gettysburg area long after the battle. For example, fully eight weeks after the battle a group of Union soldiers walked into a store in Cashtown, west of Gettysburg, only to find a group of Confederates buying supplies.3 We cannot be certain, but there is a good chance that the three men Brady encountered were recently rounded-up stragglers or deserters. There is a certain irony in the fact that the photo most often used to illustrate the proud spirit of the soldiers of Lee’s army, may well depict men who have turned their back on it.
Besides the often incorrect assumptions made about who these men are, captions of this photo in books typically find the need to note the amount of equipment the men carry. The explanation frequently offered is that these men have been scavenging the field, gathering up things to take with them to Northern prison camps. The motivation for this observation could be that these Confederates are carrying more than folklore typically suggests. But what does this photograph really tell us? Thanks to the incredible high-definition images now available on the Library of Congress website, we can take a much better look at this image than previously possible.
We can see in the composition of the photo that these men have not merely been captured by the camera in a candid state, but carefully posed by Brady for maximum dramatic effect and marketability. It is likely no accident that the tall man is at center, and posed with leg raised, in such a way as to further accentuate his height and lanky build, or that they are positioned in attitudes that convey the proud and rebellious spirit demanded by the imagination of Brady’s Northern customers. If a less skillful photographer had happened upon them the result would likely have been a more casual scene, such as we see in photos of larger prisoner groups. So what can the details of this image tell us about these soldiers, captured for posterity in one of the wars most famous and unusual pictures?
First, it is important to note that we are looking at a tiny sample from among the more than 70,000 Confederates who participated in the Gettysburg Campaign. No one has ever identified these men, and there is no way of knowing to what unit they belonged. They may be members of the same mess, or be from three different corps. We therefore cannot judge how common or unusual various aspects of their appearance are, or read anything into their uniformity or lack thereof. If the beardless young casualty of Hood’s Division photographed by Alexander Gardner’s team at the Devil’s Den had survived and ended up standing beside these men in his frock coat and cap, the photograph would have a very different look. Nevertheless, we can still learn much from looking closely at these three soldiers, and given the lack of similar images of Confederates in the field before the last year of the war it is a precious resource.
The man on the left of the group stands with his gaze is fixed to the southwest, over the fields of the first day battle, toward the general direction of McPherson’s Woods; fields he might even have fought over fourteen days earlier. His white shirt is close fitting, lacking cuffs or a button placket; rather like an undershirt of the period, but with a collar. This fits the description of the regulation U.S. Army shirt. When the Army of the Potomac retreated from Chancellorsville, thousands of knapsacks were left where they had been dropped on going into action, and virtually all of them contained shirts and drawers which would have been eagerly snatched up by the victorious Rebels. While this may be one those garments, the button at the throat is not the metallic one typically expected on U.S. shirts of this type.
The cloth held over his shoulder is certainly a coat. What appears to be the collar is just above his knuckles. It may be some sort of sack coat, because the part visible by his right shoulder seems to show the lower interior of one, with the lining of dark material ending about four inches from the hem, a lining style typical of sack coats. This coat seems to be held up by something behind him, and in fact a leather loop appears near his right elbow. While this should indicate some kind of knapsack, the strap visible on his shoulder is actually a suspender. The wide cloth portion is sewn to a tapering leather strap with adjustment holes. This in turn is attached to a rounded metal buckle on a leather tab that is attached in some way to his pants.
In low resolution versions of this photo, the canteen on his right hip appears to be a U.S. model, just like the one on the man in the center. However, when we enlarge the image we see that this canteen appears to have only a single embossed circle on the body. A similar one is pictured on page 52 of the book Civil War Canteens.4 At his left hip is a U.S. haversack, packed to capacity with something box-like. His tin cup is tied to the strap with string.
Posed with care by Brady, the tall, raw-boned soldier standing in center of the group glares intensely into the distance, his crumpled hat cocked well back on his head. While his jacket is worn open at the throat with the collar turned back a bit, it does not appear to have lapels and has a stand-up collar, so it is likely a military jacket. Certainly it is short enough not to appear below his arm and bedroll.
There is no haversack in sight, and no evidence of a strap over his left shoulder that would hint at one hidden on his right side. His canteen is a U.S. “bulls-eye” model with the cloth cover removed, as it nearly always is in photos of Confederates with Union canteens. A blanket is rolled and hung from the right shoulder. Projecting from behind this blanket is a knapsack. The visible details of the bag and strap on his shoulder indicate that this is possibly a common U.S. M1855 knapsack.
The fact that he is carrying both a knapsack and a bedroll is probably the primary visual cue that has caused so many writers to surmise that these men have scavenged from the field. But the simultaneous wearing of knapsack and blanket roll is often shown in the art of Confederate veterans, like Allen C. Redwood, and shows up clearly in the “Punch Bowl” photo of captured Confederates in 1864. The practice has obvious advantages in weight distribution, and perhaps of allowing the soldier to shed his pack, if necessary, while still retaining his basic ground cover. Also, certain types of knapsacks issued to Confederate troops had no provision for the attachment of a blanket to the exterior.
The soldier on the right is somewhat more difficult to assess due to his dark clothing and the fact that his upper body swayed slightly during the exposure, but he is perhaps the most interesting. His hat appears to have some damage to the crown. He is wearing a dark overshirt over another shirt of lighter shade, visible at the cuffs, and the item thrown over his shoulder is likely a coat of some sort.
His right thumb is hooked beneath the shoulder strap of his knapsack. Below his right hip is a captured U.S. haversack. What at first glance appears to be a cloth covered canteen above the haversack is actually a poke bag (tobacco pouch?). It is hanging from a series of white cloth straps, which look quite confusing if you are viewing a typical low-res version of the photo, or are unaware the soldier wears no jacket. Looking at the higher resolution image, they are clearly his suspenders. The edge of the right suspender can just be made out under his knapsack strap. Under his right hand appears a typical metal suspender buckle, at which point two cloth straps lead to the two unseen buttons on the right front of the trousers. As he is wearing his pants high, there are several inches of extra suspender tab left hanging. One of these dangles against the poke bag, and together the two objects are responsible for creating the illusion of a canteen. He is probably wearing a canteen, though, on his left side. The narrow leather strap over his right shoulder likely leads to it. His haversack is clearly of U.S. make, with a tin cup hung from the closure tab.
After careful examination of the image, and being aware of the amount of equipment typically carried by soldiers as evidenced by other photos and documents, it is difficult to see any clear evidence here for post-battle scavenging (and if these men were under guard, it is unlikely they would have been permitted to simply take U.S. property off the field, something even civilians were punished for when caught). In fact, the only likely U.S. items in the photo are two haversacks, one canteen, one knapsack, and possibly one shirt. Given the numbers of these items captured by Lee’s army in previous campaigns, there is no particular reason to assume the U.S. items in this photo are Gettysburg battlefield pick-ups, nor are these men carrying any more than one should expect of Confederate soldiers on campaign. In fact, the center figure seems to lack a haversack, and given that the other men are in their shirtsleeves, the garments slung over their shoulders may simply be their own coats. And again, the presence of a bedroll as well as a knapsack on the tall soldier indicates nothing, other than showing us one of the many ways Southern soldiers carried their baggage.
So how did we get from what this image actually shows, to how nearly every book it has ever appeared in describes it? All it takes is for one author, historian, or museum to make incorrect judgements about an image. Others follow, simply looking at the previous caption instead of assessing the image anew, and the error is compounded in book after book, caption after caption until it becomes assumed fact. It is a lesson applicable not only to photographs like this one, but to any historical subject. There is no substitute for examination of the primary source.
The image described in this article is available from the Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Images used in this article were drawn from photographs LC-DIG-cwpb-01450, and LC-DIG-cwpb-01451.
1. William A. Frassanito, Early Photography at Gettysburg (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1995): 26.
2. Frassanito, 142.
3. Gregory Coco, A Strange and Blighted Land (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1995): 288.
4. Stephen Sylvia and Michael O’Donnell, Civil War Canteens (Orange, Va: Moss, 1983): 58.