Any visitor to the Gettysburg battlefield will no doubt be almost overwhelmed with the numbers of monuments and memorials to various Union and Confederate units strewn about the field. Sculpted soldiers with sabers, rifles, even fists raised in defiance of the enemy, ever charging forward into the heat of battle are commonplace. In the case of most Union monuments, a culture of just victory and celebration of noble sacrifice emanates from gray stones and bronze figures. One monument, however, tucked along Sickles Avenue in the Rose Woods, portrays a different message. The monument of the 116th Pennsylvania, erected by regimental survivors in 1888, is the only monument at Gettysburg that depicts a dead soldier. While other monuments, such as the Freemason monument at the Soldier’s National Cemetery, the Louisiana state monument, and the Mississippi state monument depict wounded soldiers, these monuments are accompanied by themes of fraternity and noble sacrifice as the focal point rather than the fallen soldier himself.
Recruited from the Irish-American population of Philadelphia, the 116th was a part of the famed Irish Brigade. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, the 116th performed well by rescuing a Maine battery from capture. For this action, the 116th’s commander, Major St. Clair A. Mulholland, received the Medal of Honor. By the battle of Gettysburg, the 116th had been reduced to barely four companies. During the morning of the July 2, the 116th moved in to support the right flank of the III Corps and fought in various support capacities throughout the day. At the end of the battle, the 116th had lost two men killed, twelve wounded, and eight missing. Continue reading “Noble Sacrifice or Meaningless Death? Interpreting the 116th PA Monument”
Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University and renowned historian of the American Civil War, authored an article in the New Yorker recently entitled “Two Wars and the Long Twentieth Century.” Taken primarily from her remarks in the Rede Lecture delivered at the University of Cambridge earlier in 2015, Faust’s article takes advantage of the proximity of the anniversaries of the First World War and the American Civil War to advocate for a dialogue of greater continuity between the two conflicts. Faust cites the apparently similar roles of industry, suffering, national mobilization, and memory in both wars as evidence for a ‘long twentieth century’ similar to the ‘long nineteenth century’ so often used by historians to denote the period between the French Revolution and the end of the First World War. Faust argues that “A case can be made that the American Civil War anticipated, in important ways, the transformations that have so often been attributed to the years between 1914 and 1918.” This statement is highly problematic, and requires viewing the two conflicts as if in self-contained historical vacuums. As Dr. Faust’s expressed wish was to place the American Civil War in historical context, however, we have resolved to do just that.
Perhaps the most emphasized point of Faust’s article is the untold carnage of the American Civil War and the First World War. Among other things, Faust points to the unexpected nature of that carnage in both wars and the role of industry in their harvests of death. Claims of similarity based on these factors are rather disingenuous. The industrial slaughter of the First World War had never been approached by any previous conflict and truly heralded a new age in warfare. The mortal cost of the American Civil War, although high for a budding nation only seventy-six years old at the time, should not be understood as anything out of the ordinary. The last major wars in Europe, those involving Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, inflicted massive numbers of casualties. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia alone incurred more casualties than the entire Civil War solely among French forces. The high number of American casualties in the Civil War is also a misleading figure, as it is reflective of the nature of civil war in which both armies were made up of Americans. Such widespread devastation has largely been attributed to another of Faust’s points for the importance of the American Civil War, namely the mass mobilization of people along nationalist lines and the participation of all citizens, civilian and soldier, in the waging of war. The French Revolution, not the American Civil War, is the origin of this phenomenon in the modern period, and indeed the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 was largely an effort to stuff the genie of nationalism, with all its dire implications, back into its bottle. Continue reading ““Two Wars and the Long Twentieth Century:” A Response”
When visitors flock to America’s National Parks, the battlefields from the American Civil War are perennially popular. Every summer, thousands come to walk over the serene fields and forests where men suffered unimaginable carnage. These sites have become sacred in the American psyche, places to remember and honor the dead, educate the public, or engage in quiet personal reflection. The rolling plains, dense forests and impressive mountains of Civil War battlefields inspire awe and reverence for what author Robert Penn Warren tagged America’s only “felt history.”
Such attitudes towards our Civil War battlefields did not always exist. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of the battlefields were owned by the United States War Department. The War Department’s attitude toward the land was entirely pragmatic. Much of the land over which Civil War armies fought was tactically important terrain, hence the reason why generals chose to fight there. Studying historic battles has always been an important part of military instruction, and the War Department took a hands-on approach to training America’s future fighters, literally creating a usable past by recreating, drilling, and practicing tactics on Civil War battlefields. During World War One, battlefields became training grounds. Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Petersburg, huge sites in the Civil War world, also played a role in the First World War. Gettysburg became home to Regular Infantry in the summer of 1917 and was named Camp Colt to train the newly formed Tank Corps in 1918. Camp Greenleaf, located in the heart of the Chickamauga battlefield, housed the Army Medical Corps. Camp Lee, near Petersburg, trained infantry.
The Dropkick Murphys is a popular American Celtic Punk band known for their combinations of punk rock and bagpipes. Their songs are filled with Irish pride and often have something to do with hard partying and whiskey. However, in their 1999 album The Gang’s All Here, the Murphys took on the topic of Irish soldiers in the American Civil War. The song “The Fighting 69th” was first sung by the Irish band The Wolfe Tones on their 1993 album Across the Broad Atlantic. The album features several songs dedicated to Irish immigrants to America and holds a certain fascination for the Irish American. The Wolfe Tones version of the song is a more traditional-sounding Celtic song detailing the journey of Irish immigrants as “they sailed away/and they made a sight so glorious/as they marched along Broadway…and from there they went to Washington/and straight into the war.” When the Murphys released their version of the song in 1999, they added their signature punk anthem sound to make their version a hard rocking ballad dedicated to the men of the Irish Brigade.
In conversation with other CWI Fellows last week, we began discussing the strangeness of the annual Remembrance Day Parade. Originally conceived as a way to recreate the procession to the cemetery in 1863 to hear the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, it seems to have morphed into something different all together. If we are honoring a recommitment to the preservation of Union, why do Confederate reenactors march in the parade? If we are simply celebrating the soldiers of both sides of the Civil War, why does the parade end at the site of the address that rededicated the nation to Union emancipationist victory and a “new birth of freedom?” To sate my curiosity, I decided to go out on assignment and interview people before the parade began. I interviewed spectators and reenactors alike and asked them the following questions: 1) Is the parade a yearly tradition for you? and 2) What are you here celebrating and remembering today? Here is what I found:
Last year, I attended a Civil War Conference that highlighted what has become known as the “Dark Turn of the Civil War.” Basically, the turn is a shift in focus from the shiny-bugles-and-gleaming-bayonets interpretation of the Civil War to revealing the ugly underside of the Civil War, emphasizing themes of death, destruction, and loss. At the time, I remember thinking, this is a good thing, Civil War history does tend to be overly romanticized as the glorious American tragedy. One panel that bothered me, however, featured a discussion on “Dark Tourism.” I had never heard of Dark Tourism, and I remember being wary of whatever was about to happen. One man on the panel had led ghost tours in Gettysburg; another had worked for a museum exhibit of a Viking village, working with perfumers to recreate the authentic smells of a Viking latrine.
Gettysburg, a town already so intimately acquainted with war, was the scene of particularly interesting historical encounters. The still too present memory of the Civil War impacted the way Gettysburgians viewed the Great War. Many veterans of the Civil War were still alive, although very old, and it was not uncommon for The Gettysburg Times to run headlines about the death of a prominent Civil War veteran right alongside coverage of the war raging in Europe. As the Red Cross in Gettysburg began all-out efforts to raise money to aid refugees in Belgium, the town of Frederick, Maryland, just to the south of Gettysburg, was still pushing the United States government for war reparations amounting to $200,000 for damages done by Confederate General Jubal Early’s raid.
Ambrose Bierce, 1842-1913?, has become renowned in the Civil War world for his sharp-witted and cynical short stories that frequently feature ghastly death and the terrible irony of survival. His life has become somewhat of a caricature, used by historians such as Mark Snell and Gerald Linderman to demonstrate the utter disillusionment of the common soldier and the retreat into hibernation in an attempt to escape the trauma experienced during the war. This view of Bierce fails to capture the complexity of the man and his war experience. Rather than a skeptical realist, Bierce demonstrates the characteristics of a jaded romantic.
Dr. Keith Bohannon, one of this summer’s Civil War Institute Conference speakers, is an Associate Professor dealing in the subjects of the American Civil War, Reconstruction, Southern U.S. History, and Georgia History at the University of West Georgia. During the upcoming Institute Conference, Dr. Bohannon will be speaking on Sherman and the Atlanta Campaign and giving the tour for the Wilderness & Spotsylvania battlefields. Let’s see what Dr. Bohannon has in store for us: