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Staging War

June 2024
1min read

One of the earliest and most evocative photographs of the killing fields at Gettysburg is not what it seems

On July 1, 1863, Robert E. Lee and his seventy-five-thousand-man army of northern Virginia collided at Gettysburg with the ninety-three thousand troops of the Army of the Potomac led by George Meade, whom Lincoln had placed in command just three days before. The three-day fight resulted in fifty-one thousand casualties, and the town’s twenty-four hundred residents were left with ten times their number in dead and wounded to care for.

Only four known photographs of Gettysburg existed before July 1863. Within days of the battle a small army of photographers descended, and the place became one of the most photographed in the world. The shot above depicts the aftermath of battle in the area of boulders known as Devil’s Den, where the fighting was so close and fierce that soldiers’ clothes caught fire from the blaze of enemy rifles. The image was long attributed to either Mathew Brady or his assistant, Alexander Gardner, and in an 1865 article The Atlantic Monthly said it had been taken one day after the battle.

More recently, thanks in large part to research by the photo historian William A. Frassanito, the truth has emerged. The older picture is one of a group of seven photographs taken on November 11,1863, four months after the battle, by a local man named Peter S. Weaver. In others of the set his “dead” soldiers can be found posing in different locations and looking very much alive. Eight days after Weaver’s photo session, President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Since large crowds were expected to attend, it may be safely assumed that Weaver was hoping to sell copies of his pictures at the event. Even though the photo is staged, it remains the earliest known view of both the boulders of Devil’s Den and, in the distance, Little Round Top. Gettysburg became a tourist attraction the moment the battle ended. Today the ground in the far right of both pictures, once called the Valley of Death for the hundreds of bodies strewn across it, is a parking lot, allowing direct access to the site. Visitors in 1999 can easily spend a quiet day among hillocks and boulders that for three days were a perfect hell on earth, when blood stood in pools upon these very rocks.

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