“Effect of a Shell on a Confederate”

A few weeks ago, as Brad Gottfried and I were looking through images for his upcoming Emerging Civil War Series book Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg, I came across one particularly grisly image among the many photos archived at the Library of Congress.

Photographer Alexander Gardner titled this image, “Effect of a shell on a Confederate,” although elsewhere, the LOC has this misidentified as a Federal soldier. It’s a graphic image, so I’ll save it for after the page break in deference to anyone with a weak stomach. However, it’s precisely because it’s so graphic that I feel the need to share it.

Graphic-disemboweled Confederate

I’d seen this image before, but thanks to the encouragement of my friend Garry Adelman, I tend to scrutinize at Civil War photos a lot more closely now because of the wealth of detail glass-plate negatives provide.

In this photo, there is much horrific to notice. The soldier has been disemboweled, and the image shows that in stunning detail. The soldier’s hand had been dismembered and lays in the foreground. The face is so bloated that it almost looks like a claymation character. The blood-gorged eyes bulge.

This was somebody’s son. Perhaps somebody’s husband, father, brother, sweetheart.

This was the war.

This is the Civil War we all study and read about and talk about and refight. We visit the battlefields. We walk the ground. We trace the maps. We read the books. And in all those iterations, men like this become anonymities, statistics, abstractions.

This photo, quite literally, lays all that bare.

In his book Gettysburg: A Journey in Time, photo historian William A. Frassanito identified the soldier as a member of Semmes’ brigade based on the location of the corpse, which was photographed on ground covered by the 51st and 53rd Georgia on July 2, 1863. While Gardner rearranged objects in the photo—perhaps even the dismembered hand—it’s doubtful Gardner moved the corpse itself, given its extreme condition, making Frassanito’s identification as close as the soldier is ever apt to get.

The body, Frassanito noted, was most likely interred in an unmarked grave. “There is nothing quite like a name to impart the personalized horror of war,” Frassanito wrote. “Without a name it is all too easy to view this mutilated corpse as an object; as merely one of the countless reminders that was it, in the final analysis, the most disgusting of obscenities.”

15 Responses to “Effect of a Shell on a Confederate”

  1. I have also read that hogs roamed the battlefields, in particular Gettysburg, and some of the images we’ve seen from the battle may have been caused by animals and not necessarily from shells.

  2. I’m wondering if this was actually shot rather than shell? I would think the ground would be more disturbed if it was shot. Not sure about the wounds but seems consistent with shot I would think. I also wonder if the musket was staged.

  3. That’s why I really love the song “Somebody’s Darling”. It gets across this same idea and is a haunting reminder that there was a name and a story behind every statistic. Some are labeled as “Unknown” and lost forever. It’s morbid, but a vivid reality check. It’s what makes this study so interesting and engaging.

  4. Not to re-open a can of worms, but this is the real reason why so many Confederate monuments were originally placed on courthouse grounds throughout the South. So many of these men never came home, and they were all someone’s son, father, husband, uncle, brother, betrothed. These communities were still hurting and grieving and wanted a way to remember. They scraped and saved and held bake sales, etc. to raise the money for these monuments. It was a total community effort, so it made sense at the time to have them erected on courthouse (i.e., public) land. It probably also helped to keeps costs down since land did not need to be purchased.

    These men were not seen as racists or traitors, they were family, neighbors, and friends. And the statues and monuments erected to their honor and memory were actually erected out of love and not some political or divisive or oppressive motive. Of course, most people nowadays refuse to believe that there was ever love behind these monuments/memorials, and that is a terrible shame in our society today.

    1. Amen! We also need to remember that when these monuments were being erected most of the living vets were old men and that’s the time that sees the most interest in remembrance. John Thomas

    2. Spot on. And the courthouse square in rural counties at that time was where much business of the community was conducted. It was the obvious place to honor those from the county who died in a war. The old courthouse in Accomac County,VA has plaques listing the dead from the county in multiple wars.

  5. I think we males especially have to catch ourselves glorifying battles and soldiers when indeed the reality is this photo and thousands of battle injuries and sicknesses that were unnecessary perhaps.

  6. The following gives the description of the mortal wounding of Adjutant Frank Jones of Cobb’s Legion Cavalry Battalion during the battle of Trevilian Station. This was written by Wiley C. Howard in his Sketch of Cobb Legion Cavalry.

    Poor dear comrade! He received his death wound later that same day when (after eating the last sorry meal with some of us he laughingly said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.”) As he stormed the works, leading the men, a piece of shell tore away his side, exposing the lungs and heart. Still he lived nearly two days in that condition. I held his hand when he died, after that last faint smile which I shall never forget.

  7. Poor Bishop Polk took a similar hit when a rifled artillery round struck him from a distance of 600 yards at Pine Top, Georgia on 14 June 1864. A Corps commander took the same risk of frightful mutilation as the private soldiers under his command.

  8. I have seen that photo in the book, “Gettysburg—The Final Fury,” which I have owned for a long time. I have often wondered how that photo got past the editor.

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