A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg

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A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg
Timothy O'Sullivan
Albumen print from collodion wet plate negative
5 13/16 x 8 13/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Mrs. Everett Kovler

Can you imagine the horror of walking through this field? The somber mood and stark, lonely scene shown here reveal the death and destruction that resulted from the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is considered a turning point in the war and was one of its bloodiest. Overall, it had the highest number of casualties (51,000) of any battle ever fought in North America. This photograph depicts the aftermath of the fighting. The shoeless dead soldiers lie scattered across the field with their pockets turned inside out, evidence that survivors often removed items of clothing, valuables, and weapons from dead soldiers since supplies were scarce. The bodies are bloated in the hot summer sun, causing the buttons on the men’s shirts, jackets, and pants to pop open. The photographer has captured this “harvest of death” as the early morning haze burns off the landscape.

The American Civil War was the first conflict to be thoroughly photographed. Over 7,000 images were made. Today pictures are taken digitally but in the 1860s photography work was awkward and conditions were difficult. Bulky cameras, glass plates, and chemicals needed to be carried on site. Processing took place in cramped tents or special wagons that served as portable darkrooms. Photographers used collodion-on-glass technology, also called wet-plate, in which images were captured on large pieces of plate glass that had been chemically coated. Timothy O’Sullivan played a key role in documenting the conflict. He first worked as an apprentice to photographer and businessman Mathew Brady then joined the studio of Alexander Gardner. Forty-four of O’Sullivan’s photographs, including this one, were published in 1865-66 in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, one of the first published collections of Civil War photographs.

1. What do you think the photographer meant by calling the photograph “A Harvest of Death”? Use your observations from the image to support your answer.

2. Compare this image to Alexander Gardner’s Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter. After doing a visual comparison of the two images, consider the meaning of their titles. Read the captions that each photographer wrote for their image and compare them to your visual observations. What are the photographers trying to convey to the homefront viewers about death in war?

3. Look at two other images from this website that depict the military experience (Thanksgiving in Camp and A Bayonet Charge)—one that depicts life in camp and another that illustrates a battle scene. Compare these two images with A Harvest of Death and use your visual observations from the three images to write a description of life on the front lines.  

Further reading:
Cornell University Library. “Seven-Millionth Volume: Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.” Accessed February 29, 2012. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/7milVol/.

Gardner, Alexander. Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the American Civil War 1861-1865. New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002.

Lee, Anthony W. On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

© Art Institute of Chicago
For information about reproducing collection images, please contact Image Licensing at the Art Institute of Chicago.