"The Devil's Den Sharpshooter Re-Discovered"
A Summary for the paintings "The Shrine" and "The Desecration" By James C. Groves
Photo of Captain Augustus P. Martin (Gil Barrett Collection, US Army Military History Institute)
Eyewitness account of Captain Augustus P. Martin, commander of the Union V Corps artillery at Gettysburg (From "Gettysburg Compiler", October24, 1899)
"Among the interesting incidents that occurred on Little Round Top was the summary way in which a sharpshooter was disposed of in rear of Devil's Den. He had concealed himself behind a stone wall between two boulders and for a long time we were annoyed by shots from that direction, one of which actually combed my hair over my left ear and passed through the shoulder of a man a little taller than myself who was standing behind me for a cover. At last we were able to locate the spot, by the use of a field glass, from whence the shots came by little puffs of smoke that preceded the whizzing of the bullets that passed by our heads. We then loaded one of our guns with a percussion shell, taking careful and accurate aim. When the shot was fired the shell struck and exploded on the face of one of the boulders. We supposed the shot had frightened him away, as we were no longer troubled with shots from that location. When the battle was ended we rode over to the Devil's Den and found behind the wall a dead Confederate soldier lying upon his back and, so far as we could see, did not have a mark upon his body, and from that fact became convinced that he was killed by the concussion of the shell when it exploded on the face of the boulder."
The Halfway Point, May, 1997, Gettysburg Military Park- Devil's Den
Carolyn and I had gone to York, Pa, for some framing supplies and I wanted to stop in at the Park on our way home. It was late in the day but still the place was crowded with tourists.
I left my wife and truck in the only parking spot still open and began walking to the "Home"
site. There were buses and the grounds were literally filled with school kids of all ages. On my
way I had to pass through several groups of the young people; each led by a tour guide and one
or more chaperones. They were climbing around on the rocks and, in general, just enjoying the
sunny warm day and their freedom from the school-room.
After arriving at the "Sharpshooter's Home", I began examining the northern front boulder on its
Eastern face. I was prepared. Simply put, I was looking for something which would match a
"dent" made by Goliath swinging a 50 pound sledge-hammer. I sort of knew what to look for
from years of using sledges against sandstone ( I've built a lot of stone walls). But this mark would be much bigger than anything produced by my puny efforts.
Then too, this granite was different from sandstone. Worse, it had cracks and was often
"alligatored" on its surface from its cooling stage of formation. The granite in the area has an
"onion skin" cleavage. What this means is, through weathering and exfoliation, it scales or peels
off in layers like an onion. The outermost layer eventually falls away to reveal a "new" skin
beneath. The web of alligatored cracks can be easily seen upon and throughout the oldest outer
Exfoliation has been picking away at these granite "scales" since their beginning. Sheets and
singular scales had fallen away from the outer hide of these rocks over the eons. In addition, I
was aware that old graffiti had been once removed by the work of stone chiseling. Of course I
should be able to spot such markings and easily so. Stone chiseling leaves a certain generally
obvious surface texture. Still, I had to be very careful in any appraisals.
In no time, a curious and (to my eyes) out of place pockmark in the granite face drew my
attention. I bent down to examine it. I ran my fingers across it . Tiny hairline cracks extended across the mark--to my eye, an almost certain sign of impact. I could tell by the mark's patina that it wasn't ancient. But it wasn't anything close to new or recent either. The most impressive thing about this scar was that it extended below the first "onion skin" layer. That was odd and very noteworthy. I turned and looked East across the intervening Plum Run gorge. The old battery monument on Little Round Top plainly presented itself in the sunlit distance. I knew Rittenhouse's Battery had "worked" up there 134 years ago. His six 10-pounders would have been belching long plumes of smoke along that golden summit on Friday, July third, 1863.
I was excited about this hole in the rock because I was expecting it to be right where it was. An
old story by an artillerist named Augustus Martin had essentially said it should be here. I had
come across that story almost a year before in a book on old Gettysburg photography published
in '95 by Gettysburg author William Frassanito.
I walked around the "Home" looking for other visual clues that I had questions about. A thought
kept banging around in my head. It was the rather obvious one that would hit you if you thought
you might be on the verge of some new discovery. Essentially, it was a Q&A debate going on something like this: "Am I the first to ever notice that pockmark in this boulder....maybe.... still....somebody else should have noticed that spot and well before me..."
I had to move aside as a group of fifth-graders led by their guide approached and were herded into a half-circle formation where the photographers once stood on that day so long ago.
I promised myself to be good and quiet and listen along as the guide gave his lecture about the
"Home" of the sharpshooter. He told it just the way I was expecting him to and the kids only
groaned a little at the end when he said the "F" word. With slight disdain, he announced this
"Sharpshooter's Home" photograph was a "FAKE".
It hit me a bit harder than the kids. My heart beat picked up. I thought I was big
enough to take it. I was expecting to be calm about the whole thing. After all, I knew what the
guide was going to say even before he had dropped the bomb. I had read it over and over
for the past year. But I had never been "guided" before. Now I was actually hearing those same words-and it hurt to hear them said. The younger side of me wanted to step forward and correct the
injustice. The older part knew better. There was nothing to be gained by being loud and reckless.
And so I remained a quiet witness to a whole-sale indoctrination of youth to the idea that this
fellow in the "Home" photograph was moved to this site by the photographers and this soldier
was anything BUT a sharpshooter. It dawned on me that this indoctrination would occur over
and over, en masse, every day and I was bothered by that thought. I stayed and listened to some
final remarks delivered by the guide. I was glad I did. The guide pointed at the rifle propped
against the rock wall in the old photograph. He spoke: "Look at this rifle in the old photograph. Is this rifle the kind that a sharpshooter would use?"
To which one of the braver lads waved and said, essentially, "No, it should look like one of
them we saw at the museum". Now here was something interesting and I made a mental note
of this newfound tidbit.
Shortly thereafter, the cluster of kids broke rank and assaulted the site, climbing all over the
place and really making a rowdy pushy ruckus while the guide conversed with a couple of the
more interested types at the display.
Then they were off to the next site, leaving me alone with my thoughts and my study. I stayed
for another half-hour, walking around, looking, musing, wondering. I had resolved myself
months before to "let sleeping dogs lie"; that there was nothing to be gained by bringing this all
out. But my artist's soul was now telling me to go for it. What's more I had found myself mentally viewing the scene as a painting. That was trouble. Worse, I was already searching for the perfect composition.
We had a long trip ahead (back to Frostburg, Md.) and I could not stay longer. Reluctantly, I
departed the site returning to my parked vehicle and my waiting wife. Carolyn doesn't like to
explore the "Den"- she says the place is creepy. I think its spooky too, but I also think it has
great potential for the sort of work I do best.
I got in and looked across the seat at her. She looked up from her book and asked if we could
now get out of here. I gave her a brief overview of what I had just been exposed to at the
"Home". Then I dropped my own bomb.
"Hon, I think I'm gonna do another Civil War piece....and its not gonna be the battle view from
Little Round Top." She rolled her eyes, "Not the Sharpshooter?" I announced that I was "going
for it", just to see her reaction. She grinned knowingly.
I started the old truck and we were soon heading toward Thurmont on 15. I drove carelessly and thought carefully, allowing Carolyn to play her usual role of watch-out. Among the old rehashed
thoughts crowding my brain was a brand new one. I had luckily overheard a remark about
sharpshooter's rifles on view at the Park Museum. I now had something new to check out in the
What about those rifles the youngster had mentioned....I had been to the museum before and I had noted the lengthy displays of CW-era rifles. But just barely. At that time they were not necessary to my "Battlescape" project . Now I wondered....were they the uncommon specialist sharpshooter's type.... by any chance were any found on this battlefield....what did they look like.....and , above all else, did any of them have a scope?! I would dearly love to find a sharpshooter's rifle with a scope!
A Philosophical Introduction to ....myself
I am not an expert on anything excepting myself-- thoughtfully adding that my wife thinks she knows me better than I do. I would much rather be labeled an independent thinker and astute observer. I can only hope to be.
The Sharpshooter's Home
More than two years ago, while researching old photographs taken around the LRT/ Devil's Den
area, I came across the infamous photographs of the dead sharpshooter in his "Home". The
"Battlescape" painting I was working on at the time did not include this section of Houck's
Ridge, but I was still very much interested in reading all about the discovered movement of the
"sharpshooter's" body from one photo position down the hill, to the final position up the hill. In
all, there were six photographs/stereos taken by Gardner and O'Sullivan of the body. A third
man, Gibson, apparently was somewhere else entirely or simply served as helper, as his name is
not recorded upon any of the six photographs. Let me add here that there is no written log or
journal existing to help us identify the order these six photographs/stereos were taken.
Of course, I had seen the photo of the dead "sharpshooter" lying before his stone wall between
the large boulders many times over the years. It really is doubtless the greatest photo shot of a
dead soldier to come down to us from the Civil War. And it has become more known since it
was "discovered" to be a fake. Until 1995, I wasn't aware of a stereo view that also existed
showing the same scene. The four photos taken down the hill were new to me also, and I was, of
course, in awe that the photographers had moved the body to make them. The information I was
reading was in the book "Gettysburg, A Journey in Time" published in 1975, by William
Frassanito. According to the author, the discovery of the different location photos/stereos showing the same dead soldier was made by the art-director for "Civil War Times Illustrated" in 1961. Frassanito further wrote that the body was first photographed DOWN the hill and then, on inspiration, the photographer's carried the body some 75-yards UP the hill to make the much more interesting composition at what would become known as "The Sharpshooter's Home". Not surprisingly, this "Home" photo became one of the best known of the entire war.
All things considered, it truly IS one amazing photograph. In fact it is more amazing than even
Gardner, O'Sullivan or Gibson knew it to be. This single photograph contains all the necessary
ingredients or tools for solving a 135-year-old mystery and changing the history of the Devil's
Den. More on these subjects later...
A Popular Notion
I have since discovered that many Civil War authors since 1975 who are current with established thinking have picked up on this "the body was a common soldier moved up-hill' theory and carried it into their own books. Other authors do not use the photo, I suppose because of its' "faked" and thereby worthless nature. Some excellent CW artists have also examined the photos and carried away visual information for their works. Still, no CW artist would dare portray the "sharpshooter" at his "home" as a genuine happening. That belief would be taboo and solidly against current CW religion. Further, when asked, CW Re-enactors will tell you the body is that of a Georgian, Texan, or Alabamian infantryman-but never a sharpshooter.
In short, after 23+ years, most every CW enthusiast in the know now agrees. The "Sharpshooter's Home" has been proven to be a fake. The body is not that of a sharpshooter but rather just a common infantryman. The National Park Service (GMP) has erected a display at the site
showing the soldier to be probably some photographers' trickery. Additionally, all of the many licensed tour guides operating in the park today will make sure you learn all about this staged sharpshooter position. Today, upon the Gettysburg battlefield, this fake sharpshooter is the "rage"- a must see battlefield phenomena.
And so why would I choose to paint this "sharpshooter" as an actual combatant operating on the
third day of battle and being clobbered by a parrott shell while in his home?
Because I'm convinced he was doing just that the day he met the effects of that shell.... and his fate.
The Proof against the Sharpshooter?
Here's the problem with the current mode of thought: There is not one visible proof to justify the
finding of this body down the hill and its subsequent movement up the hill to the wall and boulders where the famous photo was made. As already mentioned, there was no journal recorded by the photographers. Nor are the plates and stereos numbered in order. The fact is, the only proof of fakery found in the last two decades is a RATIONALE.
Essentially, that rationale (to give credit it was first put forth by historian and author William Frassanito in his 1995 book "Early photography at Gettysburg") is this: There is no good reason to move the body from the perfect position at the wall and boulders site to a much visually inferior position down the hill. Therefore, the photographers would have no purpose to do so. Conversely, there is everything to be gained in moving an 'excellent' body- found in a mundane position DOWN the hill-- UP the hill to the much more visually interesting position between the boulders and wall of the "Sharpshooter's Home".
I should say that this is a good rationale. And, in its effect, very powerful. Still, it must be added, it is nothing more than a rationale. Aside from the rifle propped against the wall in back of the "sharpshooter"--which Frassanito notes is very obviously a fake in itself-- there is nothing further visible to show this famous photograph of the "Sharpshooter's Home" to be anyone else but a sharpshooter whose body was indeed found precisely in this sharpshooter location. [In fairness and in case I have erred in my summation, I recommend everyone to place themselves in contact with Mr. Frassanito's excellent books about the historical photographs at Gettysburg. It would never be my wish to be deceptive about any further and differing arguments put forth from any other artists, authors, historians, or experts in the CW field]