On July 2, 1863, the Trostle Farm, located about two miles south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was home to unforeseen destruction. During the struggle for the Union’s left flank, Captain John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Battery was ordered to hold their position at the Trostle Farm no matter the cost. General William Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade had just broken the Union lines along the Emmitsburg Road and engaged Bigelow’s battery. The Union line made an ultimately unsuccessful effort to maintain their position on the farm and was forced to retire. Despite the death of many soldiers, the capture of four out of six of their field pieces, and the death of around fifty of their horses, the 9th Massachusetts’ stand gave the Union enough time to establish a secondary position east of the Trostle House. In the struggle, the attacking Confederate brigade strategically shot Union artillery horses to prevent them from maneuvering their cannon. This deliberate slaughter was not uncommon during the battle, as over 1,500 artillery horses were killed, many in attempts to cripple an opposing battery’s mobility.
Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and James F. Gibson were the first photographers on the battlefield, arriving in the late afternoon of July 5th. Unlike many photographers of their time who focused on depicting the layout of the battlefield and the surrounding scenery, Gardner’s team preferred to capture and record the horrors of the war. Back home, the emotional response to photos of the dead was enormous as many people had never seen images of such large-scale carnage. In the photographers’ Gettysburg Series were close to sixty negatives, almost 75% of which contained images of bloated corpses, open graves, dead horses, and related images of death. The work of Gardner and his associates was unusual in relation to other photographers of the time, which begs the question, why were they so insistent on photographing the dead? Could it have been for the emotional response that such powerful, raw images produced at home? Or perhaps it was based more on humans’ natural gravitation toward, and preoccupation with, the concept of death and dying? Whatever their reason, it can only partially explain the impact of the Trostle Farm photos. Next to depictions of soldiers lying dead on the battlefield, why would anyone back home care about this equine barricade? Those men were someone’s brother, husband, or son; what impact would horses have on the general public?
Photographers of the Civil War era, much like those of today, considered their work forms of art. It is then our job to interpret the images that they produced in order to ascertain their meaning. The Trostle Farm photos captured by O’Sullivan are impressive displays of equine slaughter and perhaps represent the irrationality of war. Horses are innocent victims incapable of defense against firearms. Their deaths thus hold little strategic purpose aside from an attempt to prevent the movement of artillery. This effectively communicates the idea that war can oftentimes be senseless and cold-hearted. If one presumes that horses represent innocence, then their large scale murder at the Trostle Farm indicates the death of virtue and purity as well as a movement away from rational, civilized human behavior toward more animalistic and savage tendencies.
Or perhaps O’Sullivan did not intend to make a statement about war at all. Maybe these depictions were meant to represent the destruction of civilian property. After the battle, Catherine Trostle filed a claim for damages sustained on the farm during the battle. Her list amounted to $3,188 and included 27 acres of destroyed wheat amounting to $600, 32 acres of destroyed grass she valued at $650, and the loss of 50 chickens worth $12. In her claim, she noted that 16 dead horses were left by the door of the house and probably 100 lay around the farm. Even though all Union dead on the battlefield proper were buried by the Army of the Potomac before its departure before dawn on July 7, 1863, a July 10th dispatch to Washington by Captain Willard Smith notes that prisoners buried over 100 horses with the assistance of citizens and 30 rebels. Thus, the horses were among the last of the dead to be disposed. With so much carnage on the Trostle Farm, one can only imagine the damage, odor, and health hazards posed by so many deceased animals. Even with all of this devastation, most Civil War families, including Catherine Trostle, had their damage claims rejected by the federal government. Of Trostle’s claim, Major George Bell, Depot Quartermaster in Washington DC determined that the “losses sustained by the claimant in this case are in the nature of damages and are, therefore, not entitled to consideration under the [Compensation] Law of July 4, 1864.” This law provided reimbursement only for civilian property damaged or destroyed by Union forces, not those victimized by Confederates or as a result of battle. In January of 1899, the farm was sold to the United States Government for $4,500.
Certainly the sight of so much equine death would have stood out on the Gettysburg battlefield. Perhaps it was this unique situation that caught O’Sullivan’s eye. Of course there were dead horses strewn across the battlefield, but the decimation at the Trostle Farm certainly posed a concentrated and breathtaking spectacle. Could the incentive to document this area have derived from the incredulity of these circumstances? Photographs were necessary to convey the horror of the battlefield to the public. O’Sullivan was therefore simply bringing these unrefined scenes of war home to people who would otherwise be ignorant of the consequences of human conflict.
Gardner, O’Sullivan, and Gibson were the first to photograph the battlefield after the armies left and therefore captured the heart and essence of this engagement. Whatever their motivation, the photographers’ focus on fallen soldiers and mounds of dead horses provides a unique perspective on the war. No flowery, written description or published poem could have ignited the same response as the uncensored images of the dead at Gettysburg and few images could relay the chaos and irrationality of war as well as the Trostle Farm photos. These innocent victims of such a brutal war are unsung heroes of battle. Their sacrifice altered peoples’ views of the American Civil War. It was a time of confusion and illogical death, of triumph and defeat, and it was because of photographers such as O’Sullivan that we can begin to comprehend just exactly what took place 150 years ago.
Frassanito, William A. Gettysburg: A Journey in Time. Pittsburgh: Thomas Publications, 1975.
Frassanito, William A. Early Photography at Gettysburg. Pittsburgh: Thomas Publications, 1995.