This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition inSpecial Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will runthrough December 18, 2017.
In the century that followed the Civil War, Jim Crow wormed its way into the heart of every American institution—including the military. Despite the illustrious tradition laid down by black servicemen in the Civil War, the racial norms of the post-war years worked to beat their successive generations back into the shadows. Many branches—including the Marine Corps—entirely banned African Americans from serving. Even traditionally inclusive institutions, such as the often short-handed Navy, relegated blacks to menial roles. Beginning in 1893, they could serve only as cooks and cleaners aboard U.S. ships.
When I decided to attend the Women’s March on Washington this past January, I tried desperately to keep the Civil War out of my mind. I didn’t want to court disaster. Whatever their politics, anyone who knows anything about the Civil War can hear the familiar wails of a nation groaning under the weight of paralyzing political factionalism, deep sectional divides, and a potential constitutional crisis—in the works long before the Drumpf presidency—surrounding the proper limit and application of executive power in our democracy, amongst other threats. But I just couldn’t allow myself to envision the worst. It made me physically sick to have to wonder, honestly, whether my home was on the verge of throwing away the sacrifices of millions of selfless patriots over the years simply because we could no longer see our neighbors, our family members, as human. Because we had so lost faith in the “unfinished work” that we would surrender liberty for safety, virtue for ambition, and love for power. That we would think ourselves so vulnerable, so small, that we would betray our friends and forsake the world. That we would stop being leaders because the job was no longer easy.
This Saturday past brought with it an electric sort of chill, the kind fueled by a driving breeze that lifts your jacket, steals past your socks and up your legs, worms its way through gaps in scarves and gloves, and leaves you feeling naked and afraid and alive in ways that no one else can see. The kind of wind that whisks away complicity and surety, leaving you with nothing but a burning compulsion to do something that will reignite your humanity, your belief in goodness, your claim to a kind life. For those who attended, the Dedication Day ceremony in the National Cemetery trembled with the same terrible power. This year, there was something dreadfully eerie about coming together to honor men slain in the struggle to prove that a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could endure terrible division and betrayal between its countrymen. The speechmaking, no matter its tenor, could not escape the gravity of the question on everyone’s mind: what does the future hold for America, and how can we make sure it won’t undo the already unfinished work for which our forefathers died?
That is not to say that many did not try desperately to drown out the unpleasant facts of the hour with platitudes. And perhaps that response was to be expected. These are uncertain times, and before an uncertain audience some speakers said things that would have been reassuring a year or two ago. They spoke triumphantly of the honor in the fight, of the eternal and resonating success of the Union. Of the dignity of the nation that emerged from the war, battered and bruised, but energized. They spoke of the “great work” engaged at Gettysburg through the warm lens of nostalgia like it was fairy tale, complete with the token happy ending, written just for us. Like the great work was finished, and all that remained was to remember. Like there was, conveniently, nothing to fear and nothing to discuss.
Jeff: On November 6, the small town of Gettysburg will be swarmed by runners during the first ever Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon. The event has provoked heated discussion from many in the Civil War community, bringing up many questions regarding the use of our most hallowed grounds for recreational use. In this post, Matt and I will engage in a back and forth conversation about the concerns and advantages of the race. I’d like to begin by noting that the views that we each express in this piece may not necessarily be our own and that we may merely be bringing them up to contribute to the conversation surrounding the marathon.
My first concern about the marathon is an obvious one. The Gettysburg battlefield was the site of unspeakable horror and suffering. Is it appropriate that this sacred space be used for “fun” activities like a marathon? Runners will cross areas whose names have been immortalized for pain, agony, and death: McPherson’s Ridge, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Angle. Few would view a marathon through the hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery as appropriate. Indeed, the Gettysburg marathon itself avoids the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. However, the Gettysburg battlefield is likely still a final resting place for hundreds of soldiers, so in reality, a marathon running through the battlefield is itself a marathon running in a massive cemetery. The battlefield was preserved as a memorial to those who fell. It should not now be trampled on by hundreds of runners in a spectacle marathon.
Matt: Well, Jeff, your point about the space’s sacredness is certainly well taken. However, I think the underlying question here may be what kinds of history we choose to preserve and commemorate, and why. No one can deny the world is an old and embattled place. Recognizing this begs serious questions of our traditional efforts at memorializing loss and sacrifice. First, what metrics determine what sufferings are legitimately worth remembering? For example, people the world over clearly feel a duty to remember their soldiers, but what about the civilian dead? Wars almost always cost more civilian than combatant lives, but the public’s imagination almost always centers on soldiers. Indeed, the ongoing scholarly debate as to the specific ratio is a testament to not just how overwhelming the reality of civilian deaths is, but also how little we like to think about this particularly senseless aspect of human conflict. Bringing civilians into the mix robs war of what glory it had, as one man’s honorable sacrifice is undone by a child’s meaningless slaughter. It becomes a story few really want to hear, and a serious problem for historical interpretation. And yet this is a key part of war’s story. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon”
I once met a man who was a dead-ringer for Joseph Goebbels. He had the same dour sort of face plastered to a gaunt skull that could only have been squeezed in a vice; the same thin hairline that had retreated in step with the Reich’s exhausted armies; the same curt manner that summed itself up in a curled finger–“come here.” Our introduction to each other began with a beep from an airport scanner in Frankfurt. With no words, he directed me to an isolation space behind the security station. I’d be a liar if I said that standing with my arms outstretched as he patted me all over with gloved hands and chemical swabs didn’t send my heart racing. I didn’t know what to expect.
But more than that, I was on my guard. This was my first time in Germany–a connecting flight to elsewhere. All I knew of Germany and its people was what my grandfather’s stories and the History Channel had accidentally made instinctual to me: they were the enemy. There was something of a reckoning in that moment. It seemed that history had left me with only one response to an nationality: suspicion.
My grandfather rode with the 2nd Armored Division from Normandy to the Rhine. At the age of thirteen, his future wife led her siblings to shelter under the stairs as the Luftwaffe bombed targets across Somerset, night after night. Her aunt lost a thirteen-month old daughter in the London Blitz. Her uncle served with the BEF in France, and, after his capture in Greece, he spent five years as a slave laborer in a Bavarian salt mine. A generation earlier, my family sent almost a dozen men to fight above and below the trenches of the First World War. While–miraculously–not one died in combat, my great-great-grandfather, a sapper at Ypres, wheezed with the effects of mustard gas for the rest of his life.
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 hallmarks of contemporary archival philosophy, known casually as “Archives 2.0,” have everything to do with making archives open, attractive resources for researchers of all persuasions. These rotate around a few main assertions. First, that archivists should endeavor to make their repositories as attractive as possible to users—this means offering friendly, all-inclusive access, being responsive to user desires, being tech-savvy, and leaving some discovery and processing of collections to the researcher. Secondly, modern archiving stresses accessibility—having a standardized way of organizing collections that will be easily understood by visiting researchers, utilizing language familiar to average people for finding aides, and having the funding necessary to provide visitors the aid, attention, and resources they need.
In anticipation of Remembrance Day and Dedication Day this week, we have asked our Fellows why and how they commemorate the Civil War. Read Megan’s post below, then check back later in the week for more posts on commemoration and remembrance.
In my last post, I appealed to the public to make good on the tragedies of Gettysburg in the same broad vein as President Clinton’s appeal at the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica—to make the tragedy a “sacred trust” towards a better future. Needless to say, the material of the last piece stuck with me powerfully. In my musings I realized that I had, in my own experiences, stood witness to some small but remarkable efforts by visitors at Gettysburg to take something constructive and enduring from this tragedy.
Living in Gettysburg, I’ve learned that the town is many things to many people. It’s the place where the Civil War most permeates the public imagination, most touches the lives of everyday Americans. It’s a tourist trap. It’s our greatest killing ground. But above all, it’s a place where seekers from all segments of society come to understand—just what have we inherited from these men, and where do we take it from here? Once visitors step onto the field and learn the stories of what happened here—once they see the graves, the white stones and the sunken hollows of burial pits strewn across the field—many cannot help but start their search by trying to understand these men: their sorrow, their intentions, the sum total of their lives and the consequence of their actions. Continue reading “Some Small Tribute: How Modern Americans Find Meaning in the National Cemetery”
Those who know death know mourning. Those who know mourning know the meaning of empty spaces that we all wish had stayed filled. But do we, or even can we, as the few members of this society who habitually reflect upon the tragedies and triumphs of the past, fully understand the immensity of the suffering we dwell upon while wandering our battlefields? In the Civil War field, whether as professors or as history buffs, we deal with the heartbreak and the violation of violence on a daily basis. However, this summer, as I worked at Gettysburg National Military Park and gave my National Cemetery tour almost daily, I quickly realized just how much of a disconnect the ages have put between us and the Civil War generation. I realized how never having known the people in the graves at your feet warps your perception of the events that took their lives. And I realized how, especially for the majority of the park’s visitors who have never known war, it is imperative that we try to connect to the reality of suffering that the war generation bore in order to understand not just our fragility as humans, but the long reach and lasting consequences of our actions.
A photograph of the dead of Cold Harbor taken three months after the battle, via Off the Beaten Path.
A mass grave where vicims of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre were disposed. Photograph by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com, via Wikimedia Commons.
I’m a poetry guy. When I expect to have some free time, I tend to carry a small book of poems somewhere on my person. I also have eclectic tastes, so the subject and the substance of my little pocket anthologies changes. This summer, while at home from Gettysburg National Military Park, I pulled a book off the shelf—War Poems, from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. I found plenty of what you might expect to find in such a book—Lord Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell. The subjects were classic—the “wild charge” of the Light Brigade, the “froth-corrupted lungs” of gassed men on the Western Front, the callous “hose” that washes out the wet scraps of the tragic turret gunner. Most of the poems I had already read before, so I was doubly surprised to find—in an anthology of war poems spread across the full breadth of both the Western and Eastern traditions of war verse—Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Colored Soldiers,” published posthumously in 1913.
Every generation has plenty to remember about its time spent shaping the human story. But despite this, some generations are better at writing their stories than others. Or perhaps some generations leave more unfinished work for their descendants to sift through. Either way, the legacy of the Civil War still lays heavy on our shoulders. Here at Gettysburg, in particular, the memory of the nation coalesces around a few days in a July long gone. The remembrance began the day after, with letters home, official reports, and raw thoughts scrawled across diary pages. But the years kept coming. New people and new events shaped the nation, while old people and past events faded, their specifics murky, and their significance uncertain. New generations knew the war meant something, but what? That is the question that every generation since has sought to answer in the style and sense of its time. The further time crept from the trial of the Civil War, the more new people with new interests and new agendas could proclaim their answers on old fields with new monuments and new speeches.
Kirk Savage’s article, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” examines how this trend shaped the immediate post-war years. By revealing how a template Civil War monument emerged to serve both sides after the war—a very select celebration of unbroken white manhood on both sides—Savage helps illustrate the fundamentally political nature of memorialization. After the war, both North and South began to enshrine the war in the most emotionally and politically efficacious ways possible. While monuments still reflected some level of sectional divide, they almost universally ignored the black perspective on the war and its significance, regarding it as irrelevant, if not outright toxic. Northern and Southern political interests could largely coexist so long as they both ignored this key dimension of the war years and their aftermath. People North and South could still take solace in knowing why their loved ones died by attaching any one of a number of explanations to the same stock pedestal, with the same marble soldier set to stand tall on that explanation for eternity. This tacit agreement left much unresolved baggage for later generations. Continue reading “Making a Statement: The Alabama Memorial at Gettysburg”