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Photographing the Battle of Gettysburg, O'Sullivan's Harvest of Death

Timothy O'Sullivan's "A Harvest of Death" captures the grim aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. The photograph, a stark contrast to traditional triumphant war imagery, depicts fallen soldiers and the harsh realities of war. The image also reflects the turning point in the war, marking a significant victory for the U.S. army. Created by Steven Zucker, Smarthistory, and Kimberly Kutz.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're looking at one of the most famous photographs in the history of the United States. This is Timothy O'Sullivan's "A Harvest of Death" at the Battle of Gettysburg. It's an image that has been used to illustrate countless lessons on the American Civil War. - [Kimberly] Gettysburg is in the third year of the U.S. Civil War, which started in 1861 when southern states seceded to protect slavery. - [Steven] And Gettysburg is a little town that happened to be the place where the U.S. army confronted the Confederate General Lee's second attempt to invade the North. - [Kimberly] And this battle is a turning point. Things had not been going well for the U.S. army. There's some talk about maybe making peace and allowing the southern states to go their own way. The Southerners are hoping that they'll get international recognition from England and from France that they can continue as a separate country. They make this invasion of the North to try to end the war. This battle takes place over three days from July 1 through 3, 1863. It is the battle with the single highest number of casualties in the entire Civil War. News of the victory of U.S. troops gets to Washington, DC, the capital, on the afternoon of July 4, 1863. So, Independence Day turns into this enormous celebration of an important victory. - [Steven] When we think about victory in the history of art, what comes to mind are triumphant images with flags waving. What we're seeing here is something very different. - [Kimberly] It really turns the whole notion of a history painting of a great battle on its head. We don't have "Liberty Leading the People" here; we don't have Napoleon on horseback. What we have are some dead bodies that have been out in the heat and rain for a number of days. You see that the men laying here have lost their shoes, pockets are turned inside out, belongings scattered around them. There've been battlefield scavengers who have come and taken their shoes, taken perhaps money in their pockets. - [Steven] This is not a random image. The photographer found a perspective that met his criteria. - [Kimberly] O'Sullivan and Gardner thought of themselves as artists and did not hesitate to set the scene or even add props to make the narrative of the photographs more interesting. - [Steven] And we know that in certain cases, the photographer and his assistants would actually move bodies and some of the debris of the battlefield in order to create a more perfect image. We don't know if that's the case here. In 1863, photography was an extremely deliberate process. This is a wet collodion print. The process was a difficult one and required very heavy equipment that had to be brought onto the battlefield- in this case, in a wagon with multiple people working together. This was a very time-sensitive, very labor-intensive process. - [Kimberly] When news of the battle came to Washington, DC, you would have had Alexander Gardner, who was one of the foremost photographers of his era, gather his operators- among them, Timothy O'Sullivan- get into a wagon. They're delayed by rain. It takes them a couple days to get to Gettysburg and then it's a three-man process. And remember that not only has it been raining and it's muddy but thousands of bodies are decomposing. The battle also led to the death of thousands of horses whose carcasses were put in piles and burned. Gardner and his operators would have smeared peppermint oil underneath their noses so that they could bear just how it smelled to stand there. This would have been very unpleasant work. - [Steven] Battlefield photography was new. There had been photographs taken during the Mexican-American War and the very first battlefield photographs were taken during the Crimean War. And so, it was extremely novel to see images like this. We have empty grass in the immediate foreground that allows our eye to enter into the scene. We're stopped, though, almost immediately by this horizontal line of bodies- most forcefully by a man whose mouth is open, whose body is bloated. Our eye then moves across and we see bodies set up in a line moving away from our eye, setting up a kind of measured recession. Once we've reached that further point, we see another line of bodies and debris, a man on horseback, a man standing beside what might be a wagon. Beyond that, a distant hill. And lost in mist or perhaps smoke, trees and hills. The hills dip and create almost a vanishing point. And so, whether or not by chance or by design, this is a photograph- for all of its horror- that is still following the formulas of landscape painting that have come down to us from the Renaissance. - [Kimberly] These bodies of U.S. soldiers would shortly be interred and after that moved into a cemetery for those who fell. And it's at the dedication for that cemetery that Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States, delivered his Gettysburg Address. That address tried to draw a relationship between the people who died at Gettysburg and the great cause for which the United States was fighting. He said, "From these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." This famous photograph tells us so much about death and sacrifice during the Civil War. (jazzy piano music)