In one of the most famous photographs of the Civil War, three captured Confederate soldiers, likely from Louisiana, pose for Mathew Brady on Seminary Ridge following the Battle of Gettysburg. The extraordinary clarity of the image allows viewers to study the soldiers’ uniforms and accoutrements, but the historian Shelby Foote has focused more on their body language.
“You see something in his attitude toward the camera that’s revealing of his nature,” he told the filmmaker Ken Burns, “… as if he is having his picture made but he’s determined to be the individual that he is.” Other scholars have challenged this romantic view.
Brady, who made about thirty images at Gettysburg and arrived after the dead had been buried, likely took the photograph on or about July 15. If that’s true, as Thomas A. Desjardin has argued, then these soldiers—none of whom seems to be wounded—were likely deserters captured well after the battle. (Prisoners taken in the fighting were marched off the field immediately.)
Meanwhile, a closer look at their uniforms reveals the soldiers to be much better dressed than tradition would have it. According to legend, the Battle of Gettysburg began only when barefoot Confederates entered the town looking for shoes. But Richard Pougher has used this photograph as evidence that “the common Confederate soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia was well dressed in Southern military uniforms, well-shod, and well accoutered … He was not the ragged, barefoot, poorly equipped individual in nondescript mix-and-match clothing so many have come to see him as.”