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The Siege of Petersburg: 1865

The Siege of Petersburg: 1865

April 3, 1865. Petersburg, Virginia. "Dead Confederate soldiers in trench beyond a section of chevaux-de-frise." Wet plate glass negative. View full size.


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Fort Mahone

This photo is one of 22 "death studies" taken by T.C. Roche at Ft. Mahone on April 3, 1865. According to William Frassanito in his book "Grant and Lee, The Virginia Campaigns". There are 2 bodies in the photo and in the next photo in the series taken from further away the photographer has placed 4 rifles as props.


Brock Townsend

He was a member of the 53rd NC stationed at Fort Mahone directly across from Fort Stedman. They were in the assault that was Lee's last gamble of the War. My great grandfather and great uncle were also in this unit which had begun the retreat to Appomattox the night before. Additionally, my uncle's body servant was there.

Lee's Surrender, By My Great Grandfather, April 9, 1865, 146 Years Ago

Petersburg National Battlefield to commemorate Battle of Fort Stedman Saturday

1861-1865 = 1914-1918

I have read that European observers during the Civil War were particularly impressed by the defensive works erected by the Confederates at Petersburg, and figured that vast trench systems would be a great idea for any future European war.

Change the uniforms and substitute barbed wire for the chevaux-de-frise, and the photo could have easily been taken at the Meuse-Argonne or Somme some 50 years later.

Uniform ID

Looks like some of his wear is British import of 100% wool kersey. The flap on his right pocket is the "mule ear" which an indicator of CS military trouser design. Jacket looks like it may have been a 9-button British blue kersey jacket. Shoe possibly a high ankle British import blucher. I note he is also wearing a captured US Greatcoat. The right coat cuff is folded back (design feature)and you can see the cape laying out by his left shoulder. Shirt looks well made and newly received. And no one needed cover as his slouch hat is at his feet.

Devil's Den

The book to read about restaging photographs of battle scenes is Errol Morris's Believing is Seeing, which traces the trickery all the way back to the Crimean War, the first war in history to be photographed.

One more little correction: Mathew Brady spelled his name with one t.

Re Dead & half-buried soldiers

Darkhour's memory is correct. Bodies were moved sometimes by photographers for their own purposes, but not just by Civil War fotogs. The dead sniper photo is the very famous "A Sniper's Last Sleep" in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg image, taken not by Brady but by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan. Historian William Frassanito provided this analysis.

ALSO: To answer Chinawanderer's question about another body in this photo, I am reasonably certain he's right, per the attached.

re: Dead & half-buried soldiers

darkhours, you're thinking of Devils Den. It has been questioned if the picture was staged. IMHO it was.

Dead & half-buried soldiers

I think that Chinawanderer is correct - it sure looks like another corpse is almost buried - possibly by artillery - just below the above ground guy's feet. Looking at these old Civil War photos I always have to ask myself if it was staged or not. I've read that the famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady often moved corpses around for a more dramatic photo. One photo that I'm thinking of in particular was of a sniper in a place that had Devil in its name. I did a quick search and didn't find what I was looking for. If anyone knows which photo I'm talking about I'd love to know what it's named.

Civil War Photos

I've always found it curious that in every Civil War photo I've seen of the dead, they are without exception on their backs. Did none of them fall face forward? Or were photos always taken after they had been turned over and identified?

WW II photos show the dead in all kinds of positions, not just on their backs.

Morbid thinking perhaps, but still somewhat curious.

The Great Tragedy

Whenever I see pictures like this, I have this instinctual reaction like, "Why couldn't the South have just given in on slavery? Was it really worth wrecking their entire civilization to keep alive this great evil that so many, even of the time, knew was evil?"

But then my brain kicks and I see how trapped they were -- their entire economy and way of life was based on slavery. There was no way forward and no way backward. They had to culturally convince themselves that blacks were animals and the rest of the world was crazy for wanting to give blacks the same rights as whites.

And after their civilization was wiped out, the attitude that blacks were inferior with an undercurrent of seething hatred still took another 100+ years to finally start to make some progress, and today we still have much hatred.

It's just such a tragedy. The South had such a great civilization, but somehow couldn't get out of this cultural trap. It just seems like someone of the time could've negotiated a transition from the slave economy to a mechanized economy over, say, a decade and avoided such a horrible war.

And there are still people today in the South who think it was a "War of Northern Aggression" and still can't see how, frankly, the South brought it on themselves.

A bit personal

The siege of Petersburg became a bit personal for me a bit over a decade ago when I discovered that my great-great-great-grandfather died during it. A member of the 26th South Carolina, he died from wounds suffered at the Battle of the Crater in July 1864.

I learned that he and others in his regiment were buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, and so paid Blandford a visit. Although there was a specific record that he had been buried there and that the grave had once been marked, in the intervening years the markers had gone missing. All that remains is a large area in Blandford marked "South Carolina Troops" that is for all purposes a mass grave.

All in all a very moving experience for me.

This stuff breaks my heart

It's never far enough away or long enough ago to mitigate the sadness to me for some reason. Looks like he or someone else put a cloth under his head to keep it from the dirt so maybe there was a little comfort there.

If you visit the comforting

If you visit the comforting side of Virginia history at Williamsburg take the short drive to Petersburg for a different, perhaps much more evocative experience.

Comment and question

Photos like these really do belie the idea of the glory of war.

My question is, is that a second dead shoulder, mostly buried, just below the man's feet?

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