Witness to History

When Frederick Gutekunst came to Gettysburg shortly after the seminal events of the Civil War had transpired, the landscape, that had undergone a transformation of historic proportions, was a subject different than that for which Gutekunst was at …

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When Frederick Gutekunst came to Gettysburg shortly after the seminal events of the Civil War had transpired, the landscape, that had undergone a transformation of historic proportions, was a subject different than that for which Gutekunst was at the time well known.  Born in Philadelphia, Gutekunst made a name for himself in the world of portrait photography, becoming a favorite of many notable Northern figures, with Walt Whitman and Ulysses S. Grant among his subjects.

While Gutekunst had established a successful photography business by 1861, following the events at Gettysburg he expanded his subject matter to include many scenes of the devastated battlefield in the aftermath of the battle that would ultimately define the town and the surrounding area.  In a series of photographs taken just three weeks after the battle, Gutekunst captures the devastation that the battle had thrust upon the small Pennsylvania town.

In the above photograph, taken from Cemetery Hill and looking eastward, Gutekunst captures a powerful image of a portion of the battlefield that depicts witnesses to one of the seminal moments in American history.  This photograph portrays three witnesses, both literal and symbolic, to the events and their ramifications for the town and its people.

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The first witness is the individual who can be seen standing on the field (just right of the center), and appears to be surveying the landscape around her.  Surveying the landscape, this individual is witnessing the devastation that came following the battle.  Broken earthworks and ground flattened by countless soldiers marching across it served as a reminder to the devastation that had so recently taken place, although the most pointed reminders, the bodies of all those killed, it appears, had since been removed or relocated from the area.  Identified by sources as Mary Tepe, and more commonly known as “French Mary”, the women surveying the landscape in the this picture had a colorful story.   Traveling with the Zouves, Mary served the army in a variety of roles including seamstress, nurse, cook, and laundress.  Leaving her husband behind to join the Zouves, Mary saw the impacts of many notable Civil War battles, including the events of Gettysburg, even taking a bullet to the ankle during one battle.  The devastation Mary witnessed, clearly had an impact on her and it is believed that after Gettysburg Mary stayed behind to help care for the wounded who also remained in town.

The next “witness” seen in this photograph is not a physical being, but rather the representation of one, as seen in the tent behind the earthworks.  Possibly belonging to an embalmer, this tent would have played a key role in the aftermath of the battle, as the struggle to remove and bury soldiers’ bodies intensified.
Although the tent itself was not a witness to the events of the battle, it represents the thousands of individuals who served as living witnesses.

Those who witnessed the events that occurred on or near Cemetery Hill were numerous, and their experiences varied greatly depending on the side to which they had pledged their allegiance.  Such witnesses may include some of the men of General Ewell’s corps, which on July 1 pursued a retreating Union Army, after their defensive measures had collapsed.

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Still others witnessed Cemetery Hill from the perspective of the Union Army, which after retreating to the hill dug defensive trenches spanning from Cemetery Ridge to Cemetery Hill.   The second day of the battle brought with it an attack from Ewell and his men, as they attempted to expel Meade from this key position.

Still another witness, arguably the most prominent in this photograph, is the tree, just left of the center.  While not a soldier, this tree nonetheless witnessed the history of Gettysburg in a unique way.  Standing before the battle, this tree bore witness to the town of Gettysburg before it became known across the nation.  A town of roughly 2,400 individuals, Gettysburg was thriving, even if only on a small scale.  Still standing when the battle began, this tree witnessed the three days that would transform Gettysburg from a small town in central Pennsylvania, to a historic epicenter known internationally for the events that had occurred there.  Unlike French Mary, or most of the soldiers who fought in the battle this tree would remain to witness the recovery of the town, a process which took decades to complete.  This tree is one of the lone witnesses to the three seminal stages of the history of Gettysburg, giving it perhaps one of the most comprehensive views of this event.

Each of the witnesses in this photograph is unique.  Although the events they witnessed are indelibly linked, the experience of each witness to the battle will remain different.  When looking at this photograph it is interesting to note that none of the three witnesses discussed are in the center of the photograph.  Perhaps this was unintentional or done for aesthetic reasons.  Or perhaps Gutekunst meant to convey a message as to the different tales of each of these witnesses.  By placing none in the center, it is as though Gutekunst is saying that no one witness’ account or experience is more prominent than another.  Indeed all of these accounts – rather than remaining separate – come together to form one larger and more complete picture.  Although we cannot know for sure what Gutekunst was thinking the moment he captured this image, we do know that he captured a compelling snapshot of history and the aftermath of one of the most famous events in American history.  Like much of his work, what makes this Gutekunst photograph so fascinating is the combination of the image itself and the conversation and speculation that it inspires.


FOR FURTHER READING:

Creighton, Margaret S. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle.  Basic Books, 2006.

Frassanito, William A. Early Photography at Gettysburg. Pittsburgh: Thomas Publications, 1995.

Pfanz, Henry W. Gettysburg- Culp’s and Cemetery Hill. Charlottesville: University of North Carolina, 2001.

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