In light of the recent Virginia text book controversy I wanted to tell you about the book Gettysburg: A Battlefield Atlas which I picked up at a local yard sale. I am always eager to read a book about the battle and this small book looked interesting and it was cheap.
This 103 page book was written by Craig L. Symonds and was published in 1992. One of the nice things about this book are the battle maps and illustrations. According to the book, the author is a Professor of History and the chairman of thee history department for the US Naval Academy.
Now, while I know a few things about the Battle of Gettysburg, I am by no means an expert. With that being said, I turned to page 28 of the book and saw the following photo:
The caption of the photo reads,”The bodies of Union soldiers from the Iron Brigade blanket the slope of McPherson’s Ridge. These were members of the 24th Michigan regiment which lost more than 80% of its complement in the day’s fight. McPherson’s Woods are visible in the background. (Library of Congress)” (Symonds, 1992, pg. 28)
The original photo was taken by Alexander Gardner on July 5, 1863 and is titled “A Harvest of Death.” So, why would this author say that this photo is of the Iron Brigade and that this photo is from the 1st day of the battle? If you look closely, you will notice that one of the dead soldiers has a hat over his face. This hat looks very similar to the hats worn by the famed Iron Brigade and the landscape looks like McPherson’s Ridge. The Library of Congress states that this is in fact Union dead ready for burial near McPherson’s Woods and the Chambersburg Pike. Makes sense, you have the hat, landscape and a caption all pointing to the Iron Brigade. So what is the problem?
Let’s look at this photo (also from the Library of Congress) that was taken in the Rose Woods:
Notice the bodies on the left of the photo. Here is a close up of them:
Notice the hat? How about the blanket on the body at the top of the image? Now let’s compare a close up of the photo from the book with this photo:
You can now clearly see that these are in fact photos of the same bodies taken from two different angles. Compare the hat, the blanket and the raised knee on the one body. Look closely and you will see a belt wrapped around the feet of one body to help drag it for burial. According to William Frassanito (1975) these photos actually show Confederate dead from the 2nd day of the battle. He further states that they are probably from the 15th South Carolina or the 53rd Georgia (Frassanito, 1975). Frassanito published this fact in his 1975 book Gettysburg: A Journey in Time.
Mr. Symonds is a noted historian, professor and author but how could he made such a mistake? Frassanito’s research had been out for many years prior to Mr. Symonds book and this information was not exactly unknown to those who study the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps his publisher added this photo and caption or perhaps he was unaware of the incorrect location. I cannot say for certain. What I can say is that this bothers me. It bothers me that someone (either Mr. Symonds or someone associated with him) did not do his research and that this simple photo is misleading to his readers.
So why is this such a big deal? Because we must teach our students to be information literate. We must have them dig deeper into these resources to find the true meaning and source. They in fact, must become the historian. Do this with your students — using the links I gave above, take these two photos (there are more of these bodies) and show them to your class. Ask them who they think they are and why. Ask them if they are the same bodies and why or why not. Then, ask them why historians (and history textbooks) have misidentified these bodies. Frassanito says that the error started in the 1880s and then propagated more in 1911 with the publication of the Photographic History of the Civil War