Meadow strewn with Confederate dead, photographed by Alexander Gardner two days after fighting had ceased during bloodiest battle of Civil War. Source: (Photo by Alexander Gardner/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Photography was a brand new invention at the time of the American Civil War and this new media was used to document the tragic results of battle. Alexander Gardner was one of the most famous Civil War photographers and the images he captured of the dead soldiers littering the battlefields are some of the best reminders we have about the devastating war. Gardner’s photos were published in newspapers around the country and helped to showcase the brutality of war. There was just one problem…it seems that many of Gardner’s photos were faked.
Who Was Alexander Gardner?
Born in Scotland in 1821, Alexander Gardner learned the techniques of photography before journeying to the United States in 1851. Portrait photography was very fashionable at the time and Gardner found full-time work as a photographer. When the Civil War broke out, Gardner was even busier with his work as families wanted photographs of their sons before they went off to war. Mathew Brady, a well-known photographer of the day, witnessed the Battle of Manassas and realized he could document the war with photos. He sent a team of photographers, including Gardner, to photograph battles and the aftermath. Gardner became the leading Civil War photographer and his images helped historians learn more about the fighting.
Alexander Gardner's sharpshooter photograph. Source: (historynet.com)
A Researcher in 1975 Noticed Odd Discrepancies in Gardner’s Photos
Fast-forward more than one hundred years to 1975. A historian named William Frassanito was pouring over old photographs from the Battle of Gettysburg that were taken by Gardner. In one poignant scene, a Confederate soldier was shown lying dead on the ground. A few images later, Frassanito saw a familiar face. It was the same Confederate soldier, but this time, he was propped up in a trench next to a rifle. In yet another photo, this same dead soldier was in a different spot on the battlefield and lying in a different position. What was going on?
This Confederate Soldier Appeared in Six Gardner Photos
Frassanito discovered six of Gardner’s photographs featured this same soldier. In Alexander Gardner’s book, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, which he published in 1865, he captions these six photographs with his own observations of the scene. In one, he notes that the sharpshooter waited long hours in his trench. In another, he comments that the soldier fell where he was hit, advancing up a hill. It seems impossible that this one man was both a sharpshooter and an infantryman…and that he died in six different places on the battlefield.
Evidence is Found in an 1893 News Article
In 1893, a reporter was interviewing J. Watson Porter, a man who had worked as Gardner’s assistant during the Civil War. Porter told the reporter that, although Gardner tried to reach battle scenes as quickly as possible, travel was slow going in those days. The famed photographer often arrived days and weeks after the fighting. By the time he arrived, he found that the dead had been removed and buried. The bodies that remained were in no shape to be photographed.
Battle of Gettysburg. Source: (battlefields.org)
Gardner Moved Dead and Posed Dead Bodies
Porter explained to the reporter that when he and Gardner arrived at Gettysburg, they didn’t find much left to photograph. But then they spotted the intact body of a Confederate soldier in a spot on the battlefield known as Devil’s Den. Gardner photographed the fallen soldier where he was found but decided to use him to get more diverse photos of Gettysburg. The men moved the body to several different locations on the battlefield and posed him in different ways. They even added a rifle to make him look like a sharpshooter. Porter added that this idea of moving bodies and staging photos was a common practice for Gardner.
Gardner's image from Gettysburg. Source: (Ohiohistorycentral.org)
Was it Fake News or was it Drama?
Journalistic integrity in photographs was not a concept in Gardner’s day so he probably never thought that staging photos was unethical and deceitful. Gardner’s goal in taking his photographs was to show the horrors of the war. He felt that staging some of the photos, adding props, and creating a narrative around the image was the best way to evoke an emotional response in his audience. In doing so, however, he failed to capture the authenticity of the scene.
Gardner’s Photos are Still Some of the Best Civil War Battle Scenes
Even though we now know that many of Gardner’s images were stages, his body of work remains some of the best photographic images of Civil War battles that we have. They may not be as historically accurate as we once thought they were, but they nonetheless show the tragic outcome of the war.