Two days following the Gettysburg battle, a Confederate sharpshooter was found dead between the embracing arms of a natural stone wall at Devil’s Den. The stark photograph taken of the man lying on his back, his right hand across his stomach and his rifle leaning against a nearby boulder, has become synonymous with the gruesome three-day battle of Gettysburg.
However, the celebrated image by Alexander Gardner may not be quite what it appears to be according to an excellent story by reporter Chuck Myers of the McClatchy/Tribune News Service. Questions about the photo were first raised in 1961, during the centennial of the war, when a researcher found the same dead Confederate in a different Gardener photograph. In 1975, the same body was discovered in yet several more of Gardener’s Gettysburg images.
Apparently, Gardener did what was often done at that time and has been done since. He arranged the body at the scene of his choosing in order to make a more striking photograph and one that better told the story of what had happened during the battle. Photography was still new in 1863 and it was well before a prohibition on arranging a scene for a news photograph was to become a standard of journalism.
So, that leaves us with a staged photograph, but one that delivered the story at the time and continues to do so today. Maybe if we consider his work in the same category as a painting where the artist has control of all the elements, we can rest a little easier. On that hot July 5, 1863, after Gardener had seen hundreds of dead soldiers who were yet to be buried, he decided to tell the story his way, with one dead Confederate.