Behind The Stonewall

Sharpshooter At The Devils Den - Gettysburg Pennsylvania

About what you are looking at...

July 2nd, 1863 – 8PM.  A carefully built wall of stones wedged between two boulders and in front of it, between the boulders, the body of a soldier, his rifle leaning against the rocks.  Perhaps the image is the most widely known photograph from the series of pictures taken by the crews of Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and, of course, Matthew Brady.  These three photographers and their assistants all raced to be the first on the scene of the recently fought battle.  The famous photographs were taken by Gardener and O’Sullivan, while Brady’s Gettysburg work focused more on the northern end of the battlefield, scene of the first day’s action, and on the Culp’s and Cemetery Hills area.  There is some controversy about the photograph.  Many have believed for decades that the photograph was posed, that the photographers found a body down hill from the spot where the sharpshooter is said to have done his work, and dragged it to that site, posing the body and accoutrements. 

  There is a rather new school of thought however which asserts the photographs are genuine, and not posed, and through digital analysis of the photographs, seems to have generated the idea that the sniper, who’s identity remains unknown to this day, was killed by the double blast of cannon shells fired from the crest of Little Round Top perhaps a half-mile away, striking the boulders on both sides of the wall, killing the man by concussion.  The rifle in the photographs is the same one which was collected at the spot a few days after the battle by a 15 year old member of the Rosensteel family, and is now resting in the Museum at the Battlefield Visitor’s Center.  It was conveyed to the National Park Service as part of the Rosensteel Collection when the building was ceded over by that family to the National Park Service. 

Indeed, there are marks on the other side of these two boulders which could very well be from cannon shells hitting them.  Photographic enhancements show what appear to be portions of the stone wall laying on the leg of the fallen sharpshooter.  Additionally, some of the objects in the photograph appear to be such things as the cover in which the rifle was carried, and a cartridge box.

Regardless, the position was undoubtedly used as a sniper’s position, but could not have been used much before sunrise of July 3rd.  It would have taken some time to construct the wall, and that would have taken until at least nightfall.  The opportunities to shoot from that position would have been greatly reduced once he opened fire.  Spotters would have located him and directed fire from the artillery pieces on Little Round Top.  Usually, snipers were up in trees, but this time the rocks supposedly offered enough shelter.  Perhaps it did not.

W. G. Davis

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