Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter

Click image to enlarge

Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter
Alexander Gardner
Albumen print from collodion wet plate negative
6 15/16 x 9 1/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Mrs. Everett Kovler

What has the photographer told his viewers about this wounded sharpshooter’s battlefield “home”? While walking the bloody fields of Gettysburg, Alexander Gardner found and photographed this fallen rebel sharpshooter. Such snipers were critical to both armies, and they represented an elite group of crack shots, valued for their ability to kill from far away and under pressure. This man died behind a stone wall between two large rocks, wounded in the head. Gardner said he took this photograph three days after the battle, noting, “The fields were thickly strewn with Confederate dead and wounded, dismounted guns, wrecked caissons, and the debris of a broken army.”

Historians have debated the accuracy of this and other Civil War photographs, and we know that battlefield photographers posed bodies and added items to their compositions. In this case, Gardner may have moved the body and probably added the gun as a prop, simply because soldiers and souvenir hunters were unlikely to have left behind something as valuable as a rifle.

Today, we would condemn such action as deceptive to the public. But in Gardner’s time, people expected that pictures of battle scenes were posed, simply because no artist could capture things exactly as they happened. In the early days of photography, since it was still impossible to capture physical movement, photographers were limited to showing strategic sites, camp scenes, preparations for battle, and the aftermath of fighting. To give a sense of action, they tried to tell a fuller tale of what had occurred by manipulating the position and number of bodies, the tools of war, and the point of view on the scene.

1. Compare this image to Winslow Homer’s The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty. What do these images tell you about the life of a sharpshooter?

2. Compare this image to Timothy O’Sullivan’s A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg. After doing a visual comparison of the two images, consider the meaning of their titles. Read the captions that each photographer wrote for their image and compare them to your visual observations. What are the photographers trying to convey to the homefront viewers about death in war?

Further reading:
Cornell University Library. “Seven-Millionth Volume: Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.” Accessed February 29, 2012. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/7milVol/.

Gardner, Alexander. Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the American Civil War 1861-1865. New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002.

Lee, Anthony W.  On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Library of Congress. "American Civil War Photographs: Does the Camera Ever Lie?” Accessed February 29, 2012. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/cwpcam/cwcam1.html.

© Art Institute of Chicago
For information about reproducing collection images, please contact Image Licensing at the Art Institute of Chicago.