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.
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.”