Provoking New Questions at Richmond National Battlefield Park

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

The first time I ever gave an interpretive tour was two years ago at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market, Virginia about a farmhouse that was in the midst of the fighting. My supervisor told me to make the house a home. Her advice to make a human connection between visitors and the past has influenced my style of interpretation, and I have carried it through other various internships including my time this summer at Richmond National Battlefield Park. While working in Richmond, I have been challenged, and challenged visitors, to think differently about the conflicts and battles in and around Richmond. The style of interpretation at Richmond National Battlefield Park follows what Freemen Tilden believes about interpretation: provocation is elemental to effective interpretation. Although it comes with its challenges, provocation brings opportunity and diversity to the visitors’ experience and sheds new light on concepts they thought they understood before exploring the park.

Kaylyn begins her tour at Cold Harbor.

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Bearing the Battle, Binding the Wounds

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

When I arrived at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park for my summer 2016 internship orientation, I introduced myself as being from Yorktown, VA.  The ranger quipped “you must have a thing for surrender towns.”  I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose I do.  I’ve lived in and around historic towns my entire life. I was born in Richmond, graduated high school in Yorktown, attended college in Gettysburg, and completed internships in New Market, Appomattox, and in the Hampton Roads area.  I never seem to be far from a battlefield or a battle town, physically or emotionally. I love these towns and the stories of the ordinary people who fought within them.  I have some relatives who fought for the Union and others who fought for the Confederacy, and although not a family relation, I feel a special connection to James Greenleaf of Pennsylvania.

McLean House
The Wilmer McLean House in 1865, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Grave’s Anatomy: Abolitionists, Body Snatchers, and the Demise of Winchester Medical College

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

GRAVE, n.  A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.

A census in 1890 listed Chris Baker’s occupation as “Anatomical Man.” While the title sounds like that one of today’s superheroes, the nineteenth century existence of this vocation kept people from lingering around medical colleges after dark. By day, Chris Baker worked as a janitor for the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. By night, he had the darker task of obtaining corpses for the school. He was a “resurrectionist,” and he was not alone in his eerie nocturnal task of preying on the powerless and recently interred with a shovel, bag, and cart close at hand. Until legislation governing the supply of anatomical material in Virginia was passed in 1884, grave robbing and body snatching were primary means of obtaining cadavers for medical school instruction. African American cemeteries and potter’s fields were primary targets, and medical students themselves were often the perpetrators. For students at the Winchester Medical College, this unseemly practice would lead to the destruction of their school.

Chris Baker (left) with anatomy students at the Medical College of Virginia around 1899. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Chris Baker (left) with anatomy students at the Medical College of Virginia around 1899. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Continue reading “Grave’s Anatomy: Abolitionists, Body Snatchers, and the Demise of Winchester Medical College”

Securing the High Ground: The Civil War Roots of Aerial Reconnaissance

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

In this era of rapidly advancing technology, debate about aerial surveillance abounds. In March of this year, the Pentagon released its 2015 Inspector General report entitled “Evaluation of DoD’s Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for Support to Civil Authorities,” which revealed that the Pentagon had flown spy drones over the U.S. for non-military purposes.  Historically, the drone had been used primarily by the military in war zones, but with increased availability and applicability here at home, UAS use has expanded to include public agencies, commercial entities, and private citizens. Surveillance by air, however, is not a new concept. The strategy dates back to the French Revolution during which the French Army formed balloon companies to observe the enemy. Nearly 70 years later, during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate armies would experiment with tactical air power through the use of balloons for battlefield reconnaissance. The experiment found little support or practical utility, but the efforts of balloonists John La Mountain and Thaddeus Lowe were pioneering and spurred further innovations.

Lowe observing the battlefield from his balloon "Intrepid." Photo via the Library of Congress.
Lowe observing the battlefield from his balloon “Intrepid.” Photo via the Library of Congress.

Union General Benjamin Butler, commander at Fort Monroe, contacted ballooning pioneer John La Mountain on June 5, 1861 to discuss wartime use of balloons for determining the enemy’s position and strength.  La Mountain arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia and made several ascents in his balloon, providing aerial reconnaissance of Confederate forces at Sewell’s Point, Norfolk, and Yorktown. His ascent on August 3, 1861 would be historic. On this date, he secured his balloon to the gunboat Fanny which then steamed out into the waters opposite Sewell’s Point. From an altitude of 2000 feet he observed Confederate positions. For a brief moment, the Fanny was an aircraft carrier, arguably the first in the United States and the predecessor to the imposing carriers ported today at Sewell’s Point, site of the current Naval Station Norfolk. La Mountain would make one more ascent from the deck of a ship in August 1861, after which he provided General Butler with a report and rough diagram of his observations.  He offered a proposal to Butler for continued aerial surveillance operations by balloon, which was forwarded to the War Department. No action was taken. Continue reading “Securing the High Ground: The Civil War Roots of Aerial Reconnaissance”

From Post to Park: The Fort Monroe National Monument

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

The Civil War Institute will be celebrating the National Park Service Centennial this spring with its brand new “Find Your Park Friday” series. Inspired by the NPS #FindYourPark campaign, the series will challenge our fellows to share their experiences exploring America’s national historical, cultural, and natural resources through trips and internships with the NPS. In our sixth post,  Kaylyn Sawyer takes a look at the history of her park.

I was 11 years old when I made my first visit to Fort Monroe for a military ID card. This small Army post, I was told, would have a shorter line than the more familiar and populated Langley Air Force Base. Although already interested in Civil War history, I didn’t know much about the fort’s story, and I had no idea that I would return in seven years for my first history internship. Finally, I didn’t know that Fort Monroe had been targeted for closure by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). Concerned about preserving the Fort’s historic integrity amidst calls for economic development, local citizens mobilized in collaboration with leaders across all levels of government to guide Fort Monroe’s transition from post to park.

An aerial view of Fort Monroe. Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.
An aerial view of Fort Monroe. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: Resolved to Be

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

This is the last in a three-part series on the legacy of the Civil War at the Virginia Military Institute. You can also check out part one to read about VMI’s struggle for survival in the years immediately after the war and part two for information about the Institute in Civil War memory. 

The Virginia Military Institute was reconstructed on the same ground upon which it was founded in 1839. The Institute has progressed and evolved, at times contentiously, to become the school it is today. Racial integration was realized in 1968, and in 1997, following an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling, women were admitted into the corps. That same year, the Jonathan M. Daniels Humanitarian Award was established to commemorate the life and legacy of Jonathan Daniels ’61 who was killed in Alabama during the civil rights struggles of 1965 while accompanying an African American teenager into a store. A ceremony is held every March, two months prior to the Institute’s long-standing New Market Ceremony, which has expanded in scope to commemorate all cadets who have sacrificed in service to the nation. The Institute has not remained “frozen in time” but has instead moved forward with the currents of the nation. The school’s current mission statement reflects an evolution of Civil War era Superintendent Francis Smith’s 1868 characterization of the Institute as a “school of applied science,” producing graduates competent in civilian life and as officers in the military.

The Jonathan Daniels Ceremony from March 2014. Photo via the VMI archives.
The Jonathan Daniels Ceremony from March 2014. Photo via the VMI archives.

Smith characterized VMI as an institute that utilized military-style discipline not for the primary purpose of producing soldiers but as one component of a broader educational goal. Statistics show this continues to be true. On average, 50% of current graduates pursue military commissions and 15% make a career of military service. With social sciences and engineering as top majors, graduates are prepared for careers either inside or outside of the military. For evidence of VMI’s continuing role in preparing civilian leaders, one need look no further than the Virginia General Assembly, where Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D) and State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment Jr. (R) are on opposite sides of the aisle. While their paths to civil service and their political leanings differ, they share a common bond in their alma mater. Continue reading “The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: Resolved to Be”

The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: Reunion, Restitution, Remembrance

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

This is the second in a three-part series on the legacy of the Civil War at the Virginia Military Institute. You can also check out part one to read about VMI’s struggle for survival in the years immediately after the war. You can access part three at the bottom of this post. 

Jackson Memorial Hall, home of the VMI Chapel, is a sacred space on a secular campus. Stark wooden pews face the front of the chapel, gothic-style lanterns hang alongside state flags from the exposed-beam ceiling, and a mural depicting the charge of VMI’s New Market Cadets hangs prominently as the focal point. The stuffed hide of Little Sorrel, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, stands one level below in the VMI Museum. Yet an even more unexpected item exists in this multi-purposed hall: a plaque honoring Henry Algernon du Pont, the Union artillery captain who shelled the Institute in June of 1864. Fifty years of sectional healing following this destruction resulted in changes not only for the Institute but throughout the reuniting nation.  I’ll begin with du Pont’s story.

Inside Jackson Memorial Hall. Photo courtesy of the author.
Inside Jackson Memorial Hall. Photo courtesy of the author.

Henry Algeron du Pont’s father was a West Point classmate of Francis Smith, the VMI superintendent who successfully advocated for VMI’s rebuilding in 1865 and again for its very existence in 1868.   Du Pont graduated from West Point and rose to the rank of captain in the Army of the Shenandoah. His Union artillery encountered the VMI cadets on the battlefield at New Market in May 1864.  One month later in Lexington, VA he fired his cannons at the cadet barracks that housed VMI’s students, including Cadet Thomas Martin of Charlottesville, VA.  This would not be du Pont’s last experience with the Virginia Military Institute. Continue reading “The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: Reunion, Restitution, Remembrance”

The Literal Reconstruction of VMI: To Obliterate or Not to Obliterate?

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

My family-driven fondness for the Virginia Military Institute is not a secret. I actually have a vintage gridiron-inspired VMI bobble head doll, an inheritance from my great grandmother who was proud to see both her sons graduate from the Institute. While thinking about the Civil War history of VMI for an academic course, I was struck by a most obvious question: Why was Virginia allowed to rebuild the Institute, described by some as a factory for the mass production of Confederates, after its destruction in 1864? I considered the challenge an opportunity for engaging research, and I offer this as the first in a series of three posts focusing on the literal reconstruction of the Virginia Military Institute. My hope is to explore the challenges the Institute faced following the Civil War, examine how the Institute’s story reflects greater movements in the nation, and assess how the Institute functions and influences today.

The story begins in June 1864, two months after Confederate forces achieved victory at the Battle of New Market with the help of VMI’s Corps of Cadets. Union General David Hunter arrived in Lexington, VA after a march up the Shenandoah Valley. Abandoned without mounting a significant defense, the Virginia Military Institute was left at the mercy of General Hunter and his guns. In Hunter’s own words, “On the 12th I also burned the Virginia Military Institute and all the buildings connected with it.” The Institute’s Board of Visitors quickly began making plans to rebuild, but the defeat of the Confederacy one year later left VMI uncertain of its very existence.

Ruins_of_Barracks_at_end_of_Civil_War_1866
Cadet barracks in ruin following General Hunter’s raid in June 1864. Photograph by Boude and McClelland, courtesy of Virginia Military Institute Archives.

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Carry Me Back to Virginia: Revisiting a Cherished Site

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

It was one of the heaviest and most uncomfortable things I had ever worn, but I did not care.  The scratchy gray wool pants hung by suspenders from my shoulders, the sleeves on the oversized jacket came down past my hands, and the smell of mothballs was overwhelming.  The shiny buttons gave the jacket a certain level of dignity despite the humorous appearance of a man’s coat on a small girl.  I was in fifth grade, and I was proudly dressed in my grandfather’s uniform from the Virginia Military Institute to give a speech in character as General George Pickett. With fellow students portraying Civil War figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jackson, I was not the most prestigious general in the room. I was, however, in my mind, the most dashing. I had never felt so authoritative or connected to my grandfather.

The author in her grandfather's VMI uniform. Photograph courtesy of Cathy Satterfield.
The author in her grandfather’s VMI uniform. Photograph courtesy of Cathy Satterfield.

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