Photographers' Blog

On the gruesome battlefield of Gettysburg

July 11, 2013

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

By Gary Cameron

The 150th anniversary and reenactment of the U.S. Civil War battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a story suggested months ago by Reuters Pictures Editor Mike Fiala. Lasting three days, it would include thousands of re-enactors dressed in blue & gray wool uniforms who would live in historically accurate camps with canvas tents, and include 400 horses for cavalry units, with over 200 cannons from both sides to effectively blast each other off the battlefield. Add thousands of rifles and side arms to the mix (all weaponry fires black powder but no shells or bullets in re-enactments), and you have the makings of one very loud display of history, carnage and destruction.

What I did not know is that NO re-enactment battles of Gettysburg would be played out on the actual “hallowed” ground of the 1863 conflict. Two separate re-enactment groups would have their own events, each with versions of the July 1, 2, and 3 battle days, on large nearby farms. Stadium seating similar to those used at professional golf tournaments would accommodate 10,000 fans and border the battlefields.

All of this would follow immediately after President Obama’s trip to Africa that fellow staff photographer Jason Reed and I were assigned to. While looking forward to the Gettysburg assignment, Africa (three countries in seven days with numerous events and time zones) would have to come first. And the temperatures experienced in Africa would break me in for the sweltering heat and humidity of 12 hour days in Pennsylvania. Not quite….

While warm in Africa, nothing came close to the 110 degree Fahrenheit battlefield temperatures in Gettysburg. Photographers lean towards beautiful light, and with most battle events held mid-day, I needed something else to add to my report. Getting out the door at 4:45AM would allow me to arrive at the soldiers’ camps as they woke up. “Cool” (around 80 degrees Farenheit) and dark, with nice light quality would soon drastically change within an hour or two to stark sunlight and oppressive heat. One morning, in the Confederate camp, I could literally feel the sun going up my back behind me as I moved around. But at least I wasn’t wearing thick, gray wool.

The first battle I covered, from a required photo stand, really left me feeling like I was reaching for images. The battlefield was immense, and even a Canon 200-400mm zoom lens with an internal 1.4 extender, seemed to be short of the mark. On day two, I received permission to hide in a forest on the far side of the field, and as long as I wore dark colors and stayed away from the battlefield edge, I could work. The forest was cooler too.

Civil War battles were a mix of newer weapons that just tore bodies and limbs apart, coupled with ancient Napoleonic battle strategies that just had line after line of soldiers firing at each other until no one was left standing, or one side retreated. That is, if you survived the one to two hour cannon barrage that “softened” up the enemy before the actual soldiers fought. Surgeons and medical staff were overwhelmed by the vast amount of injuries they could do little for. Amputations were the norm, as a soldier being hit by a minie ball round, if fortunate, would have a fracture of at least six inches to the bone of the limb struck. At the time, doctors did not realize the tie-in between infection on the wound site, and also being overworked, would merely wipe off their cutting instruments and move on to the next amputation. It was gruesome, horrific work that would go on for days during a battle such as Gettysburg.

The last battle of the Gettysburg conflict, Pickett’s Charge, was the Confederacy’s big push on day three. Historians continue to debate whether the generals, specifically Lt. General James Longstreet, who served directly under General Robert E. Lee, fully embraced his plan to attack the Federal (Union) line of Major General George Meade. Many consider Gettysburg the turning point of the U.S. Civil War, and Pickett’s Charge (named after Confederate Major General George Pickett, one of three generals who led Lee’s assault), to be the turning point of the Battle of Gettysburg.

After the cannon batteries had done their work, 12,500 Confederate soldiers charged the Federal (Union) lines. Some reached the stone wall that shielded the Federal (Union) troops, and hand to hand combat ensued. The Confederates could not hold this northern most position of the war, and suffered 50% casualties. Falling back, the Battle of Gettysburg was now over for the South. The Confederate forces would never venture this far into Union territory and be on “the offensive.” Food and munitions were severely depleted. The human toll was far greater. Morale and the belief in General Robert E. Lee, always the Confederacy’s strongest attribute, had suffered greatly. While many consider the Battle of Gettysburg a “draw”, it was the turning point that put the Federal (Union) forces on the offensive for the first time in the conflict.

3,155 Federal (Union) soldiers died at Gettysburg. 4,708 Confederate soldiers died at Gettysburg. The North had an additional 14,531 wounded; the South, 12,693 – in just three days.

Lee’s wagon train heading back south with the wounded and casualties stretched out for 17 miles. Many were without water and suffered immensely from their wounds. Watching a battle on day two, “The Wheatfield,” I wondered, even in its shortened, re-enacted version, how anyone could imagine the strange mixture of horror, pain, confusion, and yes, honor, of being on a Civil War battlefield. Cannon smoke filled the hot, humid air; with no breeze – it hung over the foot soldiers causing difficult breathing and vision. As you charged, or repulsed a charge, and heard the screams of the wounded dying right next to you, how did you keep going? For hours on end?

At the end of “The Wheatfield” and “Pickett’s Charge” battles, the re-enactors got up and went back to their respective camps. At the end of the real 1863 battles, the town of Gettysburg was left with the burial and disposal of 7,863 human corpses and over 3,000 dead horses. The stench in the summer heat was overwhelming. The civilian population of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (and not by their choice), was left an enormous but necessary task.

Wars continue, but fortunately for the foot soldier, Napoleonic tactics do not. Watching “Pickett’s Charge” from behind the Federal (Union) cannons, I could see how the officers in-charge, from an elevated rear position, moved their men into place and then adjusted columns as the battle ensued. Everything was presented in the open; there was no hiding or sneaky warfare. Communications were slowly done by couriers. Drummer boys and flag bearers were no more than twelve-years old. Women carried water buckets in the middle of battle to give relief to the troops.

Gettysburg was an atrocious, gruesome, fragment of the conflict that changed the course of U.S. history. Matthew Brady and his staff’s wet plate images, taken after the battle, show the bloating corpses in the fields. A terrible, terrible, thing this Gettysburg.

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I first started going to the Gettysburg battlefield in 1956. My sister attended the small but by then prestigious Gettysburg College. At that time you could still (if you were lucky) find artifacts laying hidden on the site. Civil war veterans, albeit drummer boys, were still living. Several local private collections were easily accessible to tour and view weaponry and memorabilia. As a young boy I relished the history of this place. The stories of the horror and carnage were at odds with the modern day tranquility of the place. I attended the Centennial celebration of the battle. My repeated connection to this battlefield forever instilled in me a sense of history and a desire to read and learn more. 50 years later I found myself taking graduate level seminars on civil war history. Gettysburg is unique and significant for more reason than I can state here, but somehow grandstand seating for “off site” reenactments sends the wrong message.

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