Alexander Gardner's Photographs of Antietam

Alexander Gardner's Photographs of Antietam

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Dead Confederates By the Dunker Church

Fallen soldiers were photographed beside a damaged limber. Dead Confederate soldiers near the Dunker Church. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

Photographer Alexander Gardner reached the battlefield at Antietam in western Maryland two days after the great clash of September 17, 1862. The photographs he took, including iconic shots of dead soldiers, shocked the nation.

Gardner was in the employ of Mathew Brady while at Antietam, and his photographs were shown at Brady's gallery in New York City within a month of the battle. Crowds flocked to see them.

A writer for the New York Times, writing about the exhibition in the edition of October 20, 1862, noted that photography had made the war visible and immediate:

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.

This photo essay contains some of Gardner's most striking photographs from Antietam.

This is one of the most famous photographs Alexander Gardner took following the Battle of Antietam. It is believed he began taking his photos on the morning of September 19, 1862, two days after the fighting. Many dead Confederate soldiers could still be seen where they had fallen. Union burial details had already spent a day working to bury federal troops.

The dead men in this photograph most likely belonged to an artillery crew, as they are lying dead beside an artillery limber. And it is known that Confederate guns in this position, in the vicinity of the Dunker Church, the white structure in the background, played a role in the battle.

The Dunkers, incidentally, were a pacifist German sect. They believed in simple living, and their church was a very basic meeting house with no steeple.

Bodies Along the Hagerstown Pike

Gardner photographed Confederates who fell at Antietam. Confederate dead along the Hagerstown Pike. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

This group of Confederates had been involved in heavy combat along the western side of the Hagerstown Pike, a road running northward from the village of Sharpsburg. Historian William Frassanito, who studied photographs of Antietam extensively in the 1970s, was confident that these men were soldiers of the Louisiana brigade which was known to have defended that ground against intense Union attacks on the morning of September 17, 1862.

Gardner shot this photograph on September 19, 1862, two days after the battle.

Dead Confederates By a Rail Fence

A grim scene by a turnpike fence drew attention of journalists. Confederate dead along the fence of the Hagerstown Pike at Antietam. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

These Confederates photographed by Alexander Gardner along a rail fence had most likely been killed early in the Battle of Antietam. It is known that on the morning of September 17, 1862, men of the Louisiana Brigade had been caught in a brutal crossfire in that particular spot. Besides taking rifle fire, they were raked by grapeshot fired by Union artillery.

When Gardner arrived on the battlefield he was obviously interested in shooting images of casualties, and he took a number of exposures of the dead along the turnpike fence.

A correspondent from the New York Tribune seems to have written about the same scene. A dispatch dated September 19, 1862, the same day Gardner photographed the bodies, is probably describing the same area of the battlefield, as the journalist mentioned "the fences of a road":

Of the enemy's wounded we cannot judge, as the most have been taken away. His dead certainly outnumber ours. Between the fences of a road today, in a space of 100 yards long, I counted more than 200 Rebel dead, lying where they fell. Over acres and acres they are strewn, singly, in groups, and sometimes in masses, piled up almost like cordwood.
They lie — some with the human form indistinguishable, others with no outward indication of where life went out — in all the strange positions of violent death. All have blackened faces. There are forms with every rigid muscle strained in fierce agony, and those with hands folded peacefully upon the bosom, some still clutching their guns, others with arm upraised, and single open finger pointing to heaven. Several remain hanging over a fence which they were climbing when the fatal shot struck them.

The Sunken Road at Antietam

A farmer's lane became a killing zone at Antietam. The Sunken Road at Antietam, filled with bodies following the battle. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

Intense fighting at Antietam focused on the Sunken Road, a rough lane eroded over many years to wagon tracks. Confederates used it as an improvised trench on the morning of September 17, 1862, and it was the object of ferocious Union assaults.

A number of federal regiments, including those of the famed Irish Brigade, attacked the Sunken Road in waves. It was finally taken, and troops were shocked to see a huge number of Confederate bodies piled atop each other.

The obscure farmer's lane, which previously had no name, became legendary as Bloody Lane.

When Gardner arrived on the scene with his wagon of photographic gear on September 19, 1862, the sunken road was still filled with bodies.

The Horror of Bloody Lane

A burial detail beside the spectacle of the Sunken Road at Antietam. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

When Gardner photographed the dead at the Sunken Road, probably late in the afternoon of September 19, 1862, Union troops had been working to remove bodies. They were buried in a mass grave dug in a nearby field, and were later relocated to permanent graves.

In the background of this photograph are soldiers of a burial detail, and what appears to be a curious civilian on a horse.

A correspondent of the New York Tribune, in a dispatch published on September 23, 1862, remarked on the amount of Confederate dead across the battlefield:

Three regiments have been occupied since Thursday morning in burying the dead. It is beyond all question, and I challenge any one who has been on the battlefield to deny it, that the Rebel dead are almost three to our one. On the other hand, we lost more in wounded. This is accounted for by our officers from the superiority of our arms. Many of our soldiers are wounded with buck-shot, which disfigures the body terribly, but seldom produces a fatal wound.

Bodies Lined Up for Burial

A line of dead soldiers formed an eerie landscape. Confederate dead gathered for burial at Antietam. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

This Alexander Gardner photograph recorded a group of about two dozen dead Confederates who had been arranged in rows before burial in temporary graves. These men were obviously carried or dragged to this position. But observers of the battle remarked on how the corpses of men who had been killed while in battle formations would be discovered in large groups upon the field.

A writer for the New York Tribune, in a dispatch written late on the night of September 17, 1862, described the carnage:

In the cornfields, in the woods, behind the fences, and in the valleys, the dead are lying, literally in heaps. The Rebel killed, where we had opportunity to see them, certainly outnumber ours greatly. At noon, while a field of corn was filled with a stampeding column of them, one of our batteries opened upon it, and shell after shell exploded in their midst, while an advancing brigade was pouring in musketry. In that field, just before dark, I counted sixty-four of the enemy's dead, lying almost in one mass.

Body of a Young Confederate

An unburied Confederate soldier presented a tragic scene. A young Confederate dead on the field at Antietam. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

As Alexander Gardner crossed the fields at Antietam he was obviously looking for dramatic scenes to capture with his camera. This photograph, of a young Confederate soldier lying dead, next to the hastily dug grave of a Union soldier, caught his eye.

He composed the photograph to capture the dead soldier's face. Most of Gardner's images show groups of dead soldiers, but this one is one of the few to focus on an individual.

When Mathew Brady displayed Gardner's Antietam images at his gallery in New York City, the New York Times published an article about the spectacle. The author described the crowds visiting the gallery, and the "terrible fascination" people felt seeing the photographs:

Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battlefield, taken immediately after the action. Of all objects of horror one would think the battlefield should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes. It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But so it is.

The young Confederate soldier is lying near the grave of a Union officer. On the makeshift grave marker, which may have been fashioned from an ammunition box, it says, "J.A. Clark 7th Mich." Research by historian William Frassanito in the 1970s determined that the officer was Lieutenant John A. Clark of the 7th Michigan Infantry. He had been killed in fighting near the West Woods at Antietam on the morning of September 17, 1862.

Burial Detail at Antietam

The work of burying the dead continued for days. A group of Union soldiers burying their dead comrades. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

Alexander Gardner happened upon this group of Union soldiers working in a burial detail on September 19, 1862. They were working on the Miller farm, on the western edge of the battlefield. The dead soldiers at the left in this photograph were probably Union troops, as it was an area where a number of Union soldiers died on September 17.

Photographs in that era required an exposure time of several seconds, so Gardner apparently asked the men to stand still while he took the photograph.

The burial of the dead at Antietam followed a pattern: the Union troops held the field after the battle, and buried their own troops first. The dead men were placed in temporary graves, and the Union troops were later removed and transported to a new National Cemetery at the Antietam Battlefield. The Confederate troops were later removed and buried in a cemetery in a nearby town.

There was no organized method to return bodies to a soldier's loved ones, though some families who could afford it would arrange to have bodies brought home. And the bodies of officers were often returned to their hometowns.

A Grave at Antietam

A lone grave at Antietam soon after the battle. A grave and soldiers at Antietam. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

As Alexander Gardner traveled about the battlefield on September 19, 1862 he came across a new grave, visible before a tree situated on a rise of ground. He must have asked the soldiers nearby to hold a pose long enough to take this photograph.

While Gardner's photographs of casualties shocked the public, and brought home the reality of the war in a dramatic fashion, this particular photograph portrayed a sense of sadness and desolation. It has been reproduced many times, as it seems evocative of the Civil War.

The Burnside Bridge

A bridge was named for the general whose troops struggled to cross it. The Burnside Bridge at Antietam. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

This stone bridge across the Antietam Creek became a focal point of the fighting on the afternoon of September 17, 1862. Union troops commanded by General Ambrose Burnside struggled to cross the bridge. The encountered murderous rifle fire from Confederates on the bluff on the opposite side.

The bridge, one of three across the creek and known to locals before the battle simply as the lower bridge, would be known after the battle as the Burnside Bridge.

In front of the stone wall to the right of the bridge is a row of temporary graves of Union troops killed in the assault on the bridge.

The tree standing at the near end of the bridge is still alive. Much larger now, of course, it is revered as a living relic of the great battle, and is known as the "Witness Tree" of Antietam.

Lincoln and Generals

The president visited the battlefield weeks later. President Lincoln and Union officers near Antietam. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

When President Abraham Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac, which was still camped in the area of the battlefield at Antietam weeks later, Alexander Gardner followed and shot a number of photographs.

This image, taken October 3, 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland, shows Lincoln, General George McClellan, and other officers.

Note the young cavalry officer to the right, standing alone by a tent as if posing for his own portrait. That is Captain George Armstrong Custer, who would later become famous in the war and would be killed 14 years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Lincoln and McClellan

The president held a meeting with the commanding general in a tent. President Lincoln meeting with General McClellan in the general's tent. Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

President Abraham Lincoln was perpetually frustrated and annoyed with General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan had been brilliant at organizing the army, but he was overly cautious in battle.

At the time this photograph was taken, on October 4, 1862, Lincoln was urging McClellan to cross the Potomac into Virginia and fight the Confederates. McClellan offered countless excuses for why his army wasn't ready. Though Lincoln was reportedly congenial with McClellan during this meeting outside Sharpsburg, he was exasperated. He relieved McClellan of command a month later, on November 7, 1862.