If you have even a mild interest in the Civil War, you’ve probably seen this photo at some point. But exactly where was the photo taken and who are these dead men?
These are Confederate dead killed at the battle of Antietam in 1862, lying by fence on Hagerstown Road, which at that time was known as Hagerstown Pike.
The photographer, Alexander Gardner, recorded five photographs of the same group of bodies. Of the five photos, this one was the most important in establishing the scene’s location as well as the unit identity of most of the dead portrayed.
The precise location of this and several other Antietam photos remained unknown until several years ago when a Civil War historian, William Frassanito, painstakingly tracked down the exact location of the after-battle photos taken here at Antietam, and many more taken after the Gettysburg battle.
This photo was taken from a point along the western side of Hagerstown Pike, five hundred yards north of the Dunker Church, a famous landmark in the battle. The dirt lane seen to the left in the period photo is not the Hagerstown Pike but rather it’s one of farmer David Miller’s farm lanes. The Hagerstown Pike is located to the immediate right of the post and rail fence. At the time of the battle, the Pike had fences on both sides of the road in this location.
The land adjacent to the Hagerstown Pike in this area was the scene of fierce fighting from the opening of the battle through the attack and repulse of Sedgwick’s division of the Union II Corps later in the morning. But during the entire battle only one Confederate brigade actually formed its line behind the rail fence at this specific site and sustained heavy casualties while positioned in this particular north–south configuration. That unit was General William E. Starke’s Louisiana brigade, comprising the 1st, 2nd, 9th, 10th and 15th regiments of the Louisiana infantry, together with the attached 1st Louisiana Battalion.
Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s men were among the first Union soldiers to be thrown into the battle on the morning of September 17. They engaged Starke’s men from the opposite side of the Pike on the right in the photos.
The advanced Confederate brigades held the position for nearly 45 minutes. but were forced to fall back upon the approach of Union reinforcements coming to Gibbon’s aid. By this time, the main thrust of the Union pressure was being applied from the eastern side of the Pike, to the right in the photos, particularly in and around farmer Miller’s cornfield – “The Bloody Cornfield” – which is up the road on the right, about where you see that tall monument.
Photos and discussion excerpted from the book, Showdown at Antietam: A Battlefield Tour of the Bloodiest Day in American History.
Photos taken at GPS Coordinates: N39° 28’797″ W077° 44’897″ Looking north.