Ayling’s _Revised Register_ and Me

Augustus D. Ayling (1840-1918) was a Civil War veteran from Massachusetts who served as New Hampshire’s Adjutant General between 1879 and 1907 and was thus responsible for supervising the state militia. In 1897, he oversaw the publication of the Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 which listed abbreviated service records for everyone from New Hampshire who fought in the Union army and navy during the Civil War (about 35,000 men). It is, more or less, the final word regarding the military service of Granite Staters during that conflict (although, as we will inevitably see in some later posts, Ayling’s work does suffer from errors).[i]

This source, which has been digitized and can be accessed on a number of web sites, is invaluable for both genealogists and historians. The book is organized by unit, and within each unit, by soldier’s surname (in alphabetical order). You can see a portion of a page below.

If you are a genealogist attempting to locate a particular person, a digitized copy is all you need; you can just do a simple search and find what you are looking for. However, a historian who wants, for example, to figure out how many men from Claremont, NH, joined the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the fall of 1861 needs to find a way of sorting and searching Ayling’s Revised Register. Do you see where I’m going? Yes, I embarked on the arduous job of copying from Ayling’s Revised Register all the data associated with soldiers who served in the 5th New Hampshire and pasting them into an Excel spreadsheet. And the effort was indeed arduous because around 2,500 men passed through the ranks of the 5th New Hampshire during the Civil War.

I was very lucky because just as I started this task in the fall of 2017, I received some indispensable help from several undergraduates at Saint Anselm College.

Some awesome research assistants gather for a publicity shot in my office. From left to right: Caitlin Williamson ‘19, Gregory Valcourt ‘19, Lauren Batchelder ‘18, and William Bearce ‘19. You can read more about their efforts on the Saint Anselm College History Department blog, One Thing after Another.

In the last four years or so, the History Department at the college has made a really big push to involve undergraduates in faculty research. We have set aside what remains of our limited department funds to pay students to assist us in a variety of ways. That fall, I got the go-ahead from my department chair to hire Caitlin Williamson ‘19, Gregory Valcourt ‘19, Lauren Batchelder ‘18, and William Bearce ‘19. What an embarrassment of riches! Williamson and Batchelder helped me transcribe a large number of letters written by various soldiers who served in the 5th New Hampshire (that story will require a different post). Meanwhile, Valcourt, Bearce, and I bravely tackled the massive task of transferring data about soldiers who served in the 5th New Hampshire from Ayling’s Revised Register to an Excel spreadsheet. To make a long story short, we finished the job in January 2018. I did a third of the names (and checked the work of the others), Bearce did about a quarter, and Valcourt, bless his heart, did the rest.

This is a screenshot of just a small section of the Excel spreadsheet that Valcourt, Bearce, and I produced. I have since checked it pretty thoroughly, and I didn’t find too many mistakes. I can’t tell you how useful this spreadsheet has been so far. If I find somebody’s name in a letter, I can look it up here and locate the person’s record almost immediately. Or if I want to figure how how many men from the 5th New Hampshire were residing in Massachusetts upon war’s outbreak, I can do that in a jiffy too.

The resulting spreadsheet was worth the effort. I can now extract information that was previously inaccessible. For example, in a matter of seconds, I can find out how many men deserted from the 5th New Hampshire and when they did so. Moreover, the spreadsheet has served as the basis for further research.

And that brings me to what I’m working on right this minute. Among other things, I’m interested in what happened to veterans of the 5th New Hampshire after the war. The larger question is, did military service in the Union army’s most bloodied regiment have a lasting impact on these men’s life outcomes? I’ve started using information on my Excel spreadsheet to track these men on FamilySearch to find out. But that is a story for another time.

Whatever happens, I know that I will be returning frequently to my spreadsheet. Thank you August D. Ayling. And thank you Greg and William.

[i] Ayling was born in Boston and fought in the Civil War with the 29th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a company officer (until January 1863, this unit, ironically enough, was the only regiment in the Irish Brigade whose men were not of Irish extraction). When the war ended, he was transferred to the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry which occupied Richmond, VA. There he served as a regimental adjutant and judge advocate until January 1866. During his service, he kept a diary that has since been published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Water and Alexander Rose’s _Men of War_

Last week, in History 103—yes, that class again—we were discussing the first half of the chapter on Gettysburg in Alexander Rose’s Men of War (2016). I’m ambivalent about Rose’s discussion of this battle because I think he overstates his case on several occasions. To name one example, when he explains why the “default tactic of Civil War combat was the straightforward assault,” he resorts partly to a cultural explanation that seems exaggerated to me:

The widespread acceptance of high losses was partly due to the belief that the primary intent of battle was not to kill the enemy while minimizing your own casualties . . . but to endure startling (to us) casualties in order to achieve victory. A willingness to suffer, rather than inflict, high casualties was considered evidence of a muscularly Christian and heroic masculine will to win, not of lamentably poor command, bad planning, flawed execution, and idiotic decision-making, as we might assume today.[i]

While Rose provides many citations to explain why generals were more eager after the Napoleonic era to seek battle and smash the enemy in costly encounters, he doesn’t produce any sources to support the argument that common soldiers embraced high casualties as a measure of their will to win. Clearly, soldiers were proud of their regiments’ achievements, especially if they had proved especially costly. For instance, after the Battle of Fredericksburg, members of the 5th New Hampshire aggressively repeated the claim (much contested by other units) that they had made it closer to the infamous stone wall than any other Northern regiment. This accomplishment was no doubt dear to them because it came at the high cost of about 160 casualties out of almost 270 men engaged. But in the immediate aftermath of the battle, there was very little sign among survivors of that muscular Christianity or heroic masculinity which sought to suffer rather than inflict casualties. Instead, the men were appalled by the dismal leadership that had led to so many pointless deaths.[ii] Rose’s argument, then, seems a bit hard to swallow. I must admit, though, that I appreciate his willingness to think about culture in this context as well as his assumption that Civil War soldiers did not see the world as we do. But, still. . . .

That being said, the section on Gettysburg is well and vividly written. It is not for the faint of heart; almost every page is splattered with blood and descriptions of mayhem. Even if I don’t always agree with the arguments, they are easy to follow—always something to consider in a book for undergraduate non-majors. The book also intersects well with the themes of the course. It’s not the worst thing non-majors could read, and if it kindles among my students some sort of interest in history, well then, I’m happy.

So much for my overall impressions of the Gettysburg chapter. While I don’t always agree with Rose’s judgments, I can still see how he reaches them. Except for one topic.


Rose asserts that many soldiers at Gettysburg suffered from extreme dehydration and sunstroke because they were discouraged from drinking water. Too much water, so the argument went, was unhealthy. Rose refers to a “well-known New York Times letter to the editor . . . that had advised soldiers to consume as little as possible.” He later goes on to write that officers in the 124th New York and the 17th U.S. Infantry “actively prevented their men from refilling their canteens at roadside wells and pumps” which badly undermined the effectiveness of these regiments during the battle.[iii]

Again, Rose refers to few sources to support these assertion. He does produce a citation for the letter in the New York Times. And he provides a citation for the paragraph in which the reference to the two regiments occurs (although it’s not clear if that source refers to the experience of the two regiments or something else in that paragraph).

Winslow Homer, “The Coffee Call” from Campaign Sketches (1863): During the Civil War, a number of drinks were safer than water which was often tainted in one way or the other. The good news about coffee was that one had to boil it, thus killing off any bacteria or organisms that might cause illness. Coffee also provided a nice pick-me-up, and it could warm one on a cold day. The bad news about coffee (aside from the fact that it did require some time to prepare) was that it was a diuretic which meant that it could actually contribute to dehydration.

I have never heard about this prohibition against drinking water. It seems to me that other reasons probably better explain why soldiers were thirsty at Gettysburg. Most obviously, fighting in hot and humid weather was hard work. And in all likelihood, soldiers were already dehydrated by the time they reached the battlefield. Even though Gettysburg was an encounter battle, the days before the fight saw both Lee and Meade rushing to concentrate their forces in that area. Consequently, a number of units found themselves engaged in a series of long, hot marches, urged on by officers who would brook no delay. Under these circumstances, locating untainted water—always a problem for large armies during the Civil War—would have been difficult. It is also hard to imagine entire regiments waiting patiently around a country well or water pump, or even lining up along a small stream, to fill up canteens with water when the army needed them somewhere else immediately.

The experiences of the 5th New Hampshire shortly before Gettysburg may shed some light on these issues. On June 29, in the midst of a week of hard marching, the regiment was ordered to move from Frederick, MD, to Uniontown, MD, a distance of 32 miles.[iv] The entire II Corps (to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged), got off to a late start, so its commander, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, ordered that his units should not be allowed to stop at streams to take their socks and shoes off.[v] Captain Thomas Livermore of Company E in the 5th New Hampshire remembered:

Our pace was rapid and the most rigid orders to keep the ranks closed up were enforced; we even were obliged to keep the regulation twenty-eight inches only between the men and their file leaders in fording streams, and no one of us was permitted to stop long enough to remove our shoes or stockings.[vi]

It was on this same day that Colonel Edward Cross, the regiment’s former commander, who now led the entire brigade to which the 5th New Hampshire belonged, used the flat of his sword to hit a corporal of the 148th Pennsylvania on the neck for dawdling in a stream.[vii]

Cross’s behavior certainly seemed unwarranted to some. Yet when placed in the context of Hancock’s order, this incident says something about the urgency with which these marches were conducted in the days leading up Gettysburg. It seems hard to believe that on a march of this sort men would have been permitted to stop and top off their canteens at this place and that. And that probably meant they were awfully thirsty by the time they reached the battlefield.

Before closing, I ought to return to Livermore who had this to say add about the June 29 march:

The day was lovely, though hot, and the people were demonstrative in their admiration and affection for us and the Union, and in the streets of the villages and at the corners of the country roads the farmers distributed bread to the soldiers from their wagons, children ran along the ranks with pails of water, and every one was open-handed and smiling.[viii]

This aside is revealing. First, the fact that he pointed out people were “demonstrative in their admiration and affection” suggests that such was not frequently the case (especially when the regiment was marching Virginia). Second, it is instructive that he mentioned children “ran along the ranks with pails of water.” The image implies that the soldiers were not allowed to break ranks, so the children had to keep up as best they could with the water so men could serve themselves without breaking stride. In other words, had it not been for the good offices of these civilians, the men would never have been able to obtain water on their own. 

Perhaps I make too much of Livermore’s words. Maybe I’m guilty of overstating my case. Recognizing that possibility, I’m open to changing my mind if I find evidence that soldiers were discouraged from drinking water because their officers or others thought too much H2O was unhealthy. But for now, call me skeptical.

[i] Alexander Rose, Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima (New York: Random House, 2016), 114.

[ii] See Mike Pride and Mark Travis, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001), 176-185. Among many letters that make the same point, see George S. Gove to Julia Parsons, December 14, 1862 and December 20, 1862, Parsons Family Papers, Series 2, Box 2, Folder 11, University of New Hampshire Special Collections & Archives.

[iii] Rose, 132-133.

[iv] William Child, A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 (Bristol, NH: R. W. Musgrove, Printer, 1893), 207; Thomas Livermore, Days and Events 1860-1866 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920), 235.

[v] Pride and Travis, 229.

[vi] Livermore, 234.

[vii] Joseph Wendel Muffly, The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols. (Des Moines: The Kenyon Printing & Mfg. Co., 1904), 533, 716.

[viii] Livermore, 234.

Why Study the 5th New Hampshire?

On “The Project” page I’ve explained what I hope to accomplish by studying the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. I wrote that I wanted to use the ordeal of this regiment “to illustrate the varied experiences of soldiers during the Civil War.” In other words, my work would “capture the many dimensions of Northern soldiers’ military experiences from the perspective of one regiment.”

These aspirations raise an important question. How can the experiences of one regiment, especially a storied unit like the 5th New Hampshire, exemplify the Civil War experience? Undoubtedly, this regiment was not typical. It obtained a reputation as one of the toughest and best drilled regiments in the hardest fighting corps of the Army of the Potomac. It earned this stature at the cost of almost 300 combat fatalities—more than any other Union regiment suffered during the entire conflict (although, to be fair, several other regiments have made good claims to this bloody record). These facts alone would seem to disqualify the 5th New Hampshire as a medium for studying the diverse experiences of Civil War soldiers. And yet, so far from making the regiment unsuited for such an investigation, the unit’s deep and repeated immersion in the brutality of Civil War combat makes it an ideal subject of study.

Indeed, the nature of the 5th New Hampshire’s exposure to combat throws a number of significant issues into high relief. Most obviously, the regiment’s participation in numerous battles provides us with much material from which to make generalizations about how soldiers performed under fire and what they thought of that ordeal. The repeated exposure to physical and psychological trauma also raise the questions about morale and discipline–what exactly bound the regiment together as it suffered such high losses? And what did soldiers in the regiment think about Northern war aims that required such enormous sacrifices on their part? At the same time, the heavy casualties suffered by the unit yield a great deal of information about the experiences of soldiers as they passed through the Union army’s medical system.

Officers of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry at the Federal prison camp at Point Lookout, MD. The regiment guarded Confederate prisoners of war at this location from November 1863 to May 1864. By this point in the conflict, just about all of the company officers were native-born volunteers who had enlisted in 1861, and many had risen from the ranks (the 5th New Hampshire promoted from within). The rank and file, however, increasingly consisted of substitutes, many of whom were foreign-born. Several of these officers can be identified. These include Augustus Sanborn who, depending on the date of this photo, was 1st Lieutenant of Company B or the Captain of Company G (standing top right); Captain Thomas Livermore of Company E (seated center), and Captain John S. Ricker of Company C (seated left).(http://ourwarmikepride.blogspot.com/2013/07/stand-your-ground-circa-1864.html)

Perhaps even more important, the 5th New Hampshire’s high rate of attrition produced important changes in the unit that present in exaggerated form some of the dynamics that characterized the mobilization of Northern manpower in the later years of the war. Starting in the summer of 1863, losses were made good mainly through the Enrollment Act of 1863 (which imposed conscription). This means of raising men transformed the 5th New Hampshire because it produced large numbers of immigrant substitutes whose relationships to their officers and to the home front were quite different from those of the native-born volunteers who had originally filled the ranks. The New Hampshire home front was fundamentally complicit in this transformation as it sought to replace the blood tax imposed on its young men with a money tax that bought strangers. The huge shift in these relationships, along with other factors (including sustained contact with the enemy that started with the Overland campaign), facilitated the colossal rise of desertion that the regiment witnessed during the last 20 months of the war. In other words, the regiment’s experiences are emblematic of developments (albeit in exaggerated form) that characterized much of the Northern army throughout the latter part of the conflict. 

My hypothesis (yet to be tested thoroughly by research) is that the war witnessed an enormous change in the 5th New Hampshire’s composition that fundamentally modified its relationship to the home front. New Hampshire started the war with volunteer units that had deep roots in local communities. These communities took a proprietary interest in the regiments, companies, and individual soldiers that they raised. Small-town newspapers reported the doings of these soldiers in great detail and with much frequency. Friends, neighbors, and family in these towns provided the soldiers they knew with money, clothing, moral support, and, in some cases, equipment. The deaths of these volunteers often became an important event in the life of these men’s home towns. During the second half of the war, however, this connection had eroded badly. People on the home front still awaited anxiously for news about the few volunteers who remained with the regiment and even the small number of draftees who then served (all of whom were New Hampshire natives). Otherwise, they seemed to take little interest in the mass of substitutes who filled the ranks of the unit—many of whom were foreign-born and appeared to be motivated solely by the huge bounties that were offered for enlistment. At the same time, bitter partisan divisions in New Hampshire over Northern war aims also contributed to ambivalent feelings about the cause for which the regiment fought. These factors contributed to a disengagement between the home and war fronts. It is easy to exaggerate this development. For example, evidence suggests that many of the original volunteers were compelled to enlist by more than just patriotism—economic factors appeared to have played an important role throughout the war. Yet, the evidence is clear that as the character of the regiment changed, so did its connection to civilians back home in New Hampshire.

Once Congress passed the Enrollment Act (1863) which implemented conscription, a “draft rendezvous” was built in southern Concord, NH, to hold volunteers, draftees, and substitutes before they were shipped off to their units at the front (the vast majority of soldiers produced by the act were substitutes). The facility amounted to a large pen, 700 by 800 feet, that was meant to prevent soldiers from deserting. New Hampshire authorities seemed to understand exactly what kind of soldier would be produced by the Enrollment Act. (Image from D. Eldredge, The Third New Hampshire and All about It [Boston: E. B. Stillings and Co.], 1893.)

Showing off Some Minié Bullets in Class

My MWF 1:30 History 103 section just raring to go. Today, it’s about the development of firepower. And no, I don’t have powers of levitation; I was standing on the desk at the front of the room. I took my chances, emboldened by the fact that I would be able to extract a workers’ comp claim should I fall down.

Yesterday, my course History 103: War and Innovation met, just as it does every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 1:30 pm. It’s a core course that satisfies the history requirement at the college, so the enrollment consists mainly of non-majors. There are, however, three history majors in the class who sit in the front row and and know the answers to lots of questions—although I do my best to compel other folks to talk. The course revolves around the textbook, Wayne E. Lee’s Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History. I like this book a lot because it manages to deal with a number of complex issues while remaining accessible. I especially appreciate the fact that its definition of innovation is expansive and includes many fields beside technology; that kind of approach gets the students thinking more creatively about what an innovation is. And these days, isn’t innovation an important topic? I’m sure not all of the students would agree that the book is accessible. Having conceded that point, I will also make the following assertion: I do my very best to reach the students where they are, but I also feel that they need to stretch themselves to master the material. That’s the way learning takes place.

Here’s one of the Minié balls I bought at Gettysburg. One can clearly see the hollow base. If I put this bullet in some sort of solution, I’m sure I could make it clean and shiny, but I like how the accumulated filth makes it look old.

In any event, we’ve reached the beginning of Chapter 11, entitled “Men against Fire,” which traces “key changes related to the increase of firepower, especially infantry firepower, and the responses to that increase, culminating in the infamous trenches of the western front in World War I.” This “focus on firepower continues our examination of the consequences of industrialization” which began in the previous chapter. The chapter begins with a discussion of the American Civil War, moves on to the Prussian reforms that facilitated the forcible unification of Germany, continues by assessing the role of “industrialized firepower” in the “scramble for Africa,” and ends up exploring the role of firepower in World War I.[i]

Splat! This is another one of the Civil War bullets I bought at Gettysburg. This Minié ball obviously hit something and flattened out, but one can still see the hollow base of the bullet at the top. When I was younger, I used to imagine that this ball wounded somebody, and I was excited at the prospect. Now it makes my skin crawl just thinking about the kind of damage a projectile like this could inflict on a person.

Every time I teach this course and we start this chapter, I bring a couple of Minié “balls” to class. I think I bought them at Gettysburg when I visited there with my parents in 1982 (I could be mistaken about the date). I also seem to remember that they were cheap. I have this vague recollection that I picked them out of a large glass jar full of Minié balls and that they were 50¢ each. The price seems like a bargain for a piece of American history, but I’ve got to think that bullets at Gettysburg were a drug on the market. In Battle Tactics of the Civil War, Paddy Griffith estimated that at Gettysburg, it required 200 shots fired to produce one casualty.[ii] If you keep in mind that just over 50,000 men were killed or wounded at that battle, we are talking about 10,000,000 rounds expended. No wonder they were only 50¢ each.

Brooke is a Nursing major, and she is engrossed by this small messenger of death. And by the way, this photograph was totally candid.

They are a fun and interesting prop in class. The students get to handle them and feel how heavy one ounce of lead weighs. And the deformed bullet gives them a sense of how how lead spreads on impact and can cause catastrophic wounds. I often find that in this class the Nursing majors are especially interested in discussions about wounds and physical trauma.

Brendan is not a Nursing major (he’s majoring in Marketing), but he’s still interested. And no, this photo was definitely not posed.

In any event, the Minié ball solved an important problem that had bedeviled the muzzle-loading rifle. A rifle bullet had to be loose enough to get rammed down the barrel, but tight enough to take to the rifling. How could one accomplish both feats at once? Claude-Étienne Minié figured it out in 1847. As Lee explains it

His [Minié’s] conoidal bullet fit loosely in the barrel, allowing it to be rapidly rammed down the muzzle, but it had a hollow base with an iron plug. When fired, the base of the bullet expanded to grip the rifling and gain spin, therefore achieving greater range and accuracy. . . . So-called rifled muskets . . . designed to fire the new “Minié ball” could shoot accurately to five hundred meters and more, and were even equipped with long-range sites.[iii]

For a long time, scholars asserted that the Minié ball helped make the Civil War both bloody and indecisive. Because rifled small arms could hit soldiers at longer ranges, so the argument went, attacking units spent much more time in the killing zone than ever before. Instead of being exposed to accurate fire for 100 yards (as during the Revolutionary War), they took casualties at ranges approaching a quarter of a mile. Under these circumstances, the cost of launching a successful attack became prohibitive. As a result, battles became indecisive.

Due to work by Griffith, Earl Hess, Brent Noseworthy, and others, however, this conventional wisdom has been overturned (Lee arrays himself on the side of these scholars as well). These historians argue that a variety of factors limited the effective range of the rifled musket during the Civil War: topography (which rarely gave soldiers an unobstructed view of an enemy 400 yards away), the smoke generated by heavy fighting (same problem), the lack of training soldiers received in firing a black powder rifle at long range, and so on. Indeed, a Civil War firefight typically reached its critical moment at around 100 yards (I write “typically” because there were exceptions to this rule). The experiences of the 5th New Hampshire seem to bear out this view; at almost all the major battles in which the regiment fought enemy infantry—Fair Oaks, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and High Bridge—the effective range of engagement was either just over or under 100 yards (Cold Harbor is probably the big exception). But that’s a topic for another post.

So why was the Civil War so bloody and indecisive? We don’t need to look to the rifled musket for the answer. Think about the Napoleonic wars. Just using regular old smoothbore muskets, Napoleon’s armies and those of his opponents inflicted enormous casualties on one another.

[i] Wayne E. Lee, Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 365.

[ii] Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 84-85.

[iii] Lee, 366-367.

About the Header Image

Before I get to the serious work of discussing the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and the Civil War, I thought that in this inaugural post I would say something about the header image.

I thought long and hard about what I would do on this blog and whether or not I had the time to do it. It took me very little time, however, to choose a header image for this blog.

This photograph is perhaps not as well know as some of the others that Alexander Gardner took after the Battle of Antietam (e.g. the Confederate dead along the Hagerstown Pike or in the Bloody Lane). According to William A. Frassanito’s pioneering work, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloody Day (1978), this image was taken on the northern end of the battlefield, just 60 yards across the Hagerstown Pike from the southwestern corner of Miller’s Cornfield. The view looks north-northwest toward the North Woods.

In this photograph, a Union burial party pauses as it inters dead Northern soldiers. In his analysis of this photo, Frassanito comments:

It is probably because of the presence of a the burial detail that Gardner produced only one negative of this group of bodies. Glass-plate negatives of the Civil War period were not sensitive enough to stop motion, and all movement produced a noticeable blur on the finished plate. The burial party was willing to halt its activities for one exposure, but they probably would not have tolerated successive interruptions (p. 146).

It is worth noting in this context that Frassanito believes this photograph was taken on September 19, 1862, two days after the battle, and no doubt the bodies had begun to ripen a bit. Indeed, one can tell from the image that they had already started bloating substantially. So the burial detail was probably in a hurry to complete its work.

“Ok, but why this photo?” you may ask.

The composition and the lighting of this image intrigue me. More than half of the photograph is consumed by the sky. The North Woods also take up a substantial portion of the image. The burial party only occupies a small part of the photograph, something that seems to diminish the group’s significance. At the same time the lighting looks dim. The forest in the distance appears to be slightly obscured by mist. Was it cloudy or humid that day? Was the glass negative underexposed? Whatever the case, the image is a bit on the dark side.

There is also the attitude of the soldiers in the burial party.

Many of them wear grim expressions, but their postures are casual, and they look for all the world like a department of public works crew watching a steamroller smooth out a newly laid pavement.

And finally, there are the poor dead.

They are twisted, bloated, and mutilated. Some of the bodies are so badly damaged that they are covered by blankets. They are human wreckage.

To my mind (and I understand if others don’t see it), there are several incongruities in this image. On the one hand, there is something awful, special, and portentous here. A small portion of the 3,700 men slaughtered near Sharpsburg are being buried. Collected from where they fell, their broken bodies lie in a sad row. The lighting literally suggests a darkness has descended across the land. And yet, on the other hand, the composition appears to minimize the significance of the event. The burial detail and its task seem unimportant when measured against the size of the sky. Moreover, the stances of the burial party do not suggest reverence. Rather, they look like they are performing a mundane and unpleasant task. Death here, then, is important due to its significance and yet unimportant because it is commonplace.

This image puts me in mind of Snowden’s “secret” in Catch-22. In what is the climactic scene of the novel (sorry, here comes a spoiler), Yossarian realizes in the most awful way that Snowden is not merely suffering from a wound “as large as a football” on his outer thigh. In addition, “a chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his [Snowden’s] other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out.” As a result of this wound, “Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.” It is at this moment that Yossarian makes a discovery.

[He] gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

It’s a prosaic truth but no less awful for being prosaic and true. And for me, this photo captures the awful and prosaic truth of death during the Civil War.