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The true story behind the Gettysburg sharpshooter

Today’s post comes from curator Bruce Bustard. These photographs and documents are on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, until July 15 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

"A Sharpshooter's Last Sleep" on the Gettysburg battlefield (165-SB-40; ARC 533314)

On July 5, 1863, photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, arrived at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle had ended two days earlier. On parts of the battlefield, bodies were still unburied.

Over the next three days, Gardner did not hesitate to photograph the carnage. On July 6, when he saw the body of a Confederate soldier in an area called “Devil’s Den,” he photographed it. He and O’Sullivan then saw an opportunity for another, more dramatic photograph. They moved the corpse more than 40 yards to what they believed to have been the sharpshooter’s position, and O’Sullivan made another exposure.

"The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" (165-SB-41; ARC 533315)

The photographs became two of the most famous of the Civil War, but for over 100 years historians did not question the captions Gardner wrote for them in his Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. These described a “sharpshooter” who had died a slow death and who had spent his final moments thinking of his family. Gardner also wrote that when he returned to Gettysburg in November 1863, the body and the gun were still there.

Text from "Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War" describing the photograph above.

In 1975, historian William A. Frassanito proved that it is always possible to learn more about history by studying the records. He examined the photographs, which are among the records held by the National Archives, and compared them to the modern Gettysburg battlefield terrain. He demonstrated that the body in both was the same person. The gun, not one a sharpshooter was likely to have used, was probably a prop. Furthermore, it was impossible that a body would have remained unburied for months or that a rifle would have escaped relic hunters.

By questioning Gardner’s captions, Frassanito reminds us to critically examine historical documents. Historians and citizens continue this questioning, always hoping to better understand the ferocious battle that raged from July 1 to 3, 1863.

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