Class of 2014 Bio: Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is a recent graduate from the Gettysburg College Class of 2014. He is incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities provided by Gettysburg College and the Civil War Institute. Over the last four years, Brian has had the chance to work for the National Park Service, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and, of course, as a Fellow at the Civil War Institute. Inside the classroom he has enjoyed many fantastic courses offered through Gettysburg’s phenomenal history department. Each of these experiences has taught Brian to write well, think critically, take initiative, and do his best possible work. Although American history and the Civil War will always be near and dear to Brian, in the coming years he hopes to pursue a career in higher education administration, particularly in academic affairs and student development. He hopes to ensure that students at other colleges and universities can have the same rigorous, rewarding academic experiences that he enjoyed at Gettysburg. After graduation, Brian will be working for the Civil War Institute helping with preparation for summer conferences. Come fall, he hopes to serve with Americorps in Ohio community colleges before returning to graduate school in higher education administration next year.

“Consternation was depicted on all their countenances”: Gettysburg’s African American Community and Confederate Invasion

By Brian Johnson ’14

On June 15, 1863, Albert Jenkins’s Confederate cavalry brigade became the first of Lee’s men to enter the North when it crossed the Potomac River and headed for Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Lee had issued strict orders forbidding his men to damage or confiscate private property unless it was a requisition made for necessary supplies, and overseen by authorized Confederate staff. Jenkins’s men half-heartedly obeyed, and scoured the area for anything valuable, including African Americans, fugitive or legally free, who might be sold into slavery. One horrified Chambersburg resident watched local blacks attempt to hide in cornfields only to have troopers chase them down through the young stalks. Others capitulated after troopers fired at them. When Lee arrived in Chambersburg on June 27, his horror at scenes of looting and robbery compelled him to reissue his order concerning private property. But he made no mention of over 200 captured African-Americans – some of whom had been born in Chambersburg – removed south by Jenkins’s cavalry. On the same day in nearby Mercersburg, one startled local watching fugitive-filled wagons roll towards Maryland asked a guard how he could do such a thing. Confederates, he replied, were simply “reclaiming their property.” Continue reading ““Consternation was depicted on all their countenances”: Gettysburg’s African American Community and Confederate Invasion”

The Storm Breaks: Gettysburg’s African-American Community During the Battle

By Brian Johnson ’14

By late June 1863, though rebel troops had already occupied Gettysburg briefly, the threat to the borough grew still more ominous. Rebel troops had cut the town’s railroad lifeline to the north by destroying a bridge across Rock Creek, and convinced the local telegraph operator to flee with his equipment. The new isolation from news accentuated scattered reports of large forces, rebel and federal, approaching the borough from all directions. When federal cavalry arrived on June 30 to take up defensive positions west of town, Gettysburg residents sensed a looming battle. Continue reading “The Storm Breaks: Gettysburg’s African-American Community During the Battle”

Calm Before the Storm: Gettysburg’s African-American Community Before the Battle

By Brian Johnson ’14

African-Americans have always been a part of Gettysburg’s community fabric. Slaves belonging to Samuel Gettys, the area’s first settler, arrived as early as 1762 to build one of the first local taverns. Samuel’s son James, who founded Gettysburg in 1786, also owned slaves, including Sydney O’Brien. After her owner’s death, O’Brien obtained her freedom, and in purchasing a small lot along South Washington Street helped establish the borough’s African-American neighborhood. The free black community continued to grow over the first decades of the nineteenth century as Pennsylvania’s policy of gradual emancipation effectively ended slavery in the state by the 1840s. And with uniquely promising economic, social, and educational opportunities, Gettysburg attracted black residents, free and enslaved, from a number of neighboring states.

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South Washington Street, the center of Gettysburg’s African-American community. U.S. Army Military History Institute.

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Crucible of War?: The Borough and the Battle of Gettysburg

Upon cresting Cemetery Hill, painter George Leo Frankenstein captured this panorama of the newly famous borough of Gettysburg. Frankenstein did not have to dodge gunfire nor breathe the smell of death as he strode up the gradual rise southeast of …

 By Brian Johnson ’14

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Upon cresting Cemetery Hill, painter George Leo Frankenstein captured this panorama of the newly famous borough of Gettysburg.  Frankenstein did not have to dodge gunfire nor breathe the smell of death as he strode up the gradual rise southeast of town, for it was summertime, 1866, and only scant evidence remained of the landmark battle fought three years earlier.  But perhaps this reality weighed on his mind.  He was a painter who had come to capture a town and landscape made famous by war, but as he stood atop Cemetery Hill that experience must have seemed obscure.  Only the pair of cannon emplacements behind which Frankenstein placed his easel suggested that this was anything other than an ordinary community; but even these, visible in the foreground at the bottom of the painting, seem out of place amidst a backdrop of summertime green, neat houses, and rolling fields once again filled with crops.

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“[I] won’t go home to be a burden:” The Enduring Pain of Amputation

In the early morning hours of July 3, as the contest for Culp???s Hill dragged on into a second day, Union commanders took advantage of a slight pause in the fighting to replace exhausted men. Relatively fresh troops, among them the 28th Pennsylvani…

By Brian Johnson ’14

In the early morning hours of July 3, as the contest for Culp’s Hill dragged on into a second day, Union commanders took advantage of a slight pause in the fighting to replace exhausted men.  Relatively fresh troops, among them the 28th Pennsylvania, were sent forward to relieve their comrades manning Culp’s Hill’s upper entrenchments.  Just as they were arriving in line, Confederate troops, having been provoked by the sounds of movement, surged toward their position.  During the ensuing two-hour firefight, the 28th Pennsylvania drove off repeated charges.  After being relieved for a few hours, the 28th found itself back in line where it again had to stave off repeated enemy onslaughts.

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When 24 hours of almost constant fighting drew to a close after dark, the regiment was finally able to begin assessing its losses.  While few in number, amounting to only twenty-five, the men profoundly felt the loss of each casualty.  Among the fallen was Corporal James D. Butcher, a man whose death seems to have been especially memorable for one of his company sergeants, Ambrose Hayward.  As Hayward quickly scribbled a note (see below) to his father near Williamsport, Maryland, he and the rest of his regiment were about to “fall in” for an expected battle that he predicted would be “terrible”; such an adjective was telling for a man who had just experienced the fighting at Gettysburg.  Just before he concluded the hasty letter, something must have prompted Hayward’s thoughts to return to the death of Corporal Butcher as he abruptly referenced him by name. Continue reading ““[I] won’t go home to be a burden:” The Enduring Pain of Amputation”

The Veterans’ Home That Wasn’t

The Veterans??? Home That Wasn???t: What the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upo…

By Brian Johnson ’14

What can the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing?

In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upon Gettysburg.  They had come to commemorate the events that had transpired there 50 years earlier but not the viscerality of the fighting and loss that they had experienced.  These silver-haired men came to Gettysburg amidst the triumph of sectional and spiritual reconciliation; healing was the order of the day.  And where could healing take place more powerfully and symbolically than at the site of one of the climactic battles of the Civil War?  If veterans of the Blue and Gray could shake hands at a place as brutally contested as the stone wall of Pickett’s Charge – and do so amidst sincere good feeling – reconciliation and healing must have been complete.

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What does this have to do with the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers?  The 1913 Gettysburg Reunion was a testament to how powerful place can be in creating a fitting sense of healing and even closure to a painful historical event.  National cemeteries at Civil War battlefields, like the one at Gettysburg, represent the same concept.  Many Union soldiers killed during the battle are buried in Gettysburg, the place where they fell, in what is seen as a fitting resting place.  But beyond these better known examples of the 1913 Reunion and the National Cemetery, a very similar process – one that utilized a place to create a sense of healing – was also at work in 1867 with the proposal of a veterans’ home known as the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers.
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George Leo Frankenstein’s View from Oak Hill

This George Leo Frankenstein watercolor highlights some of the most prominent places of fighting during the first day ??? July 1st, 1863 ??? of the Battle of Gettysburg. The view was painted from Oak Hill, and looks to the southeast. In the central ba…

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This George Leo Frankenstein watercolor highlights some of the most prominent places of fighting during the first day – July 1st, 1863 – of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The view was painted from Oak Hill, and looks to the southeast.  In the central background is the white main edifice of Pennsylvania College.  To the right of the college is the famed tulip tree on East Cemetery Hill.  In the right background are Little and Big Round Top.  Frankenstein was clearly a talented artist, but what new perspectives can he bring to our 21st Century understanding of the battle?  Is there anything to be learned from the painting that could not be better understood with a map?

Pennsylvania College’s (now Gettysburg College) Pennsylvania Hall can be seen in the middle of the painting.  Why did Frankenstein make this the building in the center of his landscape?   Standing on Oak Hill today, looking out toward the town of Gettysburg as Frankenstein did, one gets a much different view.  Pennsylvania Hall is completely hidden by the modern campus.  Ironically, the Musselman Library, which stores several of Frankenstein’s paintings, blocks Penn Hall from sight.  While it is well-known that Penn Hall was used as a hospital, not being able to see the building as Frankenstein did somehow obscures this fact.  Upon further reflection, however, the viewer becomes aware that Frankenstein has captured the college campus from the viewpoint of Union soldiers during their retreat on July 1st.  Because the landscape has changed so drastically, the modern viewer cannot fully understand, without some sort of aid, what Pennsylvania Hall meant to the battle and to the soldiers fighting in it.  With this painting, Frankenstein provides that aid, allowing the viewer to visualize what one of the least-visited parts of the Gettysburg battlefield looked like during the fighting.  That is an aid that cannot be found in any map or text.

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Frederick Gutekunst’s View of the Seminary

Philadelphia photographer Frederick Gutekunst captured this image within a few weeks of the Battle of Gettysburg. The name Gutekunst may be not as well known as other photographers of the battle such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner, but it …

By Brian Johnson ’14

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Philadelphia photographer Frederick Gutekunst captured this image within a few weeks of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The name Gutekunst may be not as well known as other photographers of the battle such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner, but it is Gutekunst’s photograph of the Lutheran Theological Seminary that is believed to be the first image taken of the now famous building after the battle.  It is interesting to note that when Gutekunst trained his camera on the building, there were likely several hundred wounded soldiers being cared for inside.  Sarah Broadhead, who lived nearby and tended to the wounded at the Seminary, recalled:

The work of extracting the balls, and of amputating shattered limbs, had begun, and an effort at regular cooking.  I aided a lady to dress wounds.… I found that I had only seen the lighter case, and worse horrors met my eyes on descending to the basement of the building.  Men, wounded in three and four places, not able to help themselves the least bit, lay almost swimming in water.  (We) called some nurses to help, and getting some stretchers, the work was begun.  There were somewhere near 100 to be removed to the fourth story of the building.

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The Case of Private Constantine Dickerson

By the time that Private Constantine Dickerson and the 67th New York Volunteers were called up from reserve on the morning of July 3rd, 1863, two Confederate attempts to take Culp???s Hill from Union defenders had already been repulsed. As Major Gen…

By Brian Johnson ’14

By the time that Private Constantine Dickerson and the 67th New York Volunteers were called up from reserve on the morning of July 3rd, 1863, two Confederate attempts to take Culp’s Hill from Union defenders had already been repulsed.  As Major General Edward Johnson launched a third assault, Union defenders called for support.  Brigadier General Alexander Shaler and his brigade of New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, among them Private Dickerson and the 67th, had been held in reserve near the Spangler House since 9 am.  Reserve status, however, by no means meant being detached from the fighting.  Wounded men had been passing through their ranks all morning, and stray rounds passed overhead.  For Dickerson, a veteran, these hallmarks of battle were nothing new.  Dickerson had enlisted with the 67th New York (also known as the 1st Long Island) for three years in August of 1861. He had been a part of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, seeing action at Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fair Oaks (where his unit suffered 170 casualties), and Malvern Hill Not two months prior to the clash at Gettysburg, he had fought in the Chancellorsville campaign, storming Marye’s Heights.  On the morning of July 3rd, however, surrounded by the familiar sounds, sights and smells of battle, as well as his comrades of almost two years, enduring a wait for battle that must have also been familiar, Dickerson went AWOL (absent/away without leave).

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