A Rare Glimpse of Gettysburg Field Hospitals

The first two photographs above are by Frederick Gutekunst and were most likely taken sometime between July 9th and 11th, 1863, at the field hospital of the Army of the Potomac???s Second Corps. These images are unique in that they are the only know…

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The first two photographs in this article are by Frederick Gutekunst and were most likely taken sometime between July 9th and 11th, 1863, at the field hospital of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps. These images are unique in that they are the only known photographs taken of any Gettysburg hospital tents besides those at Camp Letterman, and the only photos of any hospital tents taken in the immediate aftermath of the battle.  This is striking in that Union corps field hospitals and twenty-four Confederate field hospitals were present when two prominent groups of photographers, one headed by Matthew Brady and another by Alexander Gardner, made their trips to Gettysburg.  Camp Letterman was also in the process of being established at the time that Brady, the latter of the two to visit Gettysburg, arrived.  Why did these preeminent photographers ignore these potentially powerful subjects? 

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Today we take for granted the availability of images displaying the truth of war.  For Americans during the Civil War, however, these experiences were novel.  While photographs were becoming commonplace, it was not until Matthew Brady’s famous photographic album, “The Dead of Antietam,” that Americans were exposed to the dead of war.  (The photographs were actually taken by Brady’s assistants Alexander Gardner and James Gibson).  Antietam was the first battle of the war where photographers arrived before burial of the dead had been completed.  The public was captivated by these images, which were displayed at Brady’s prominent New York studio.  An October 1862 article in The New York Times captured the reaction:

Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action. Of all objects of horror one would think the battle-field should stand preeminent, that it should bear away the palm of repulsiveness. But, on the contrary, there is a terrible fascination about it that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loath to leave them.

The Civil War occurred following innovations in photography that allowed for the mass reproduction of images, making the purchase of war images affordable for the general public.  However, reproducing images in varying size from the original negative was still a crude process.  To produce smaller, less expensive images a smaller negative needed to be produced.  New stereo images provided these smaller negatives.

Alexander Gardner was the first photographer to arrive at Gettysburg following the battle.  With his experience at Antietam and the subsequent public reaction to his photographs, he had experience with just how “fascinated” the public was with images of the dead.  He also would have known that smaller stereo images sold best.  Gardner and his fellow photographers Timothy O’Sullivan and James Gibson traveled rapidly from Washington, D.C., probably arriving sometime on the morning of July 5th.  From that point on it was a race against Union burial parties to capture images that would sell.  Of the approximately sixty photographs that Gardner took, 75 percent focused on the dead, and 80 percent were in the more marketable stereographic form.  He also rearranged and moved the dead (as in the well known instance of the “sharpshooter’s position” in Devil’s Den) to try to ensure appealing shots.

Principal interest in the dead is also evidenced by Gardner’s actions on his final day.  Burial work had essentially been completed by the night of July 6th.  Gardner and his group had traveled some 75 miles from Washington and yet spent only part of the day on the 7th in Gettysburg, taking far fewer images than they had on the previous two days.  After taking a few images of the town and cemetery the men headed back to Washington probably sometime in the early afternoon.  Surprisingly, they had not exhausted their film for they stopped in Emmitsburg to take an additional seven photographs.  Did they lose interest in photographing the field once the dead had been buried?

Matthew Brady probably arrived in Gettysburg by July 16th.  Because burial had been completed by this time Brady was in no rush to preserve something that was unlikely to disappear.  While he, too, was well aware of the power of the dead and the marketability of images containing them, he had no choice but to photograph prominent features of the battlefield landscape as well as panoramic views more in the romantic line of 19th century style painting.  And Brady also constructed shots just as Gardner did and others would do, having an assistant play dead on Culp’s Hill.

Neither Brady nor Gardner paid attention to the field hospitals that were operating at the time of their visits.  The dead may have been buried but carnage remained in the form of wounded.  Yet neither photographed them.  Were there ethical or moral considerations at play?    These Gutekunst photos are thus unique in providing early images of the tent hospitals.  The earliest photographs of Camp Letterman do not emerge until September of 1863.  Gutekunst seems to stand alone in his disregard for potentially lucrative images, capturing instead ones that displayed the plight of the Gettysburg wounded.  He specifically sold these images “by subscription only” in order to raise funds for the Gettysburg wounded.  A further question is why the photographs, even with their field hospital setting, did not actually display wounded men in a more conspicuous manner.  Between the two photos, there is a single tent in which wounded men are shown, and these men are shown at a distance, sitting up, covered in blankets.  There is evidence of a conscious effort to provide a more sterilized look at field hospitals.  Instead of seeing wounded men, we see more hospital staff and civilian volunteers.  Despite what would have been sweltering summer heat, the tents in the foreground, ones that we might easily see into from where the photo is taken, are covered up or closed off.

Were these photographs intended to reach the same audience as the ones taken by Gardner, Brady, and others?  If so, why are they staged in vastly different ways, with vastly different subjects? Even if Gutekunst was not motivated by profit, why did he not take more poignant images, ones that might have drawn more public attention?  Perhaps in his attempts to help the wounded of Gettysburg he misjudged the public, which might have been more receptive and sympathetic to less sanitized images of field hospitals and their wounded, just as they were so captivated by the dead.  Could the grim reality of their wounding have been a tool that might have aided more in their plight had it been brought more readily to the public eye?

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Above is a close up of the only wounded men shown in either photograph.

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The final two photographs above are of the tents in the foreground that might have been seen into, the view has either been blocked or the tent flaps closed.


For more information on these photographs, see the Gettysburg College Special Collections digital Civil War archive: http://www.gettysburg.edu/library/gettdigital/civil_war/index.html

For further reading on the Gettysburg photographers see William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg:  A Journey in Time, (Scribner, 1975).

1 thought on “A Rare Glimpse of Gettysburg Field Hospitals”

  1. Wow, my G G Grandfather, John B. McCormick, Co. C, 38th Va. Infantry, Armistead’s brigade, Pickett’s division, was wounded and captured at Pickett’s charge on the 3rd day. Wonder if he lies in one of those sinister tents. We’ll never know. Thanks for posting, and bless you.-Andy

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