Overpriced Stamps and Mystery Pies: The Complicated Legacy of Civil War Sutlers

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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A Civil War Sutler’s “Fruit and Oyster” Shack (via Library of Congress)

In every story, including ones about historical events, there are people who inevitably end up in the background. These people are ever-present but deemed unimportant to the story, like the Union Army sutler depicted next to his makeshift store above. Sutlers were merchants who would follow the Army around, selling the soldiers things they were not issued but might have wanted, such as paper and envelopes for writing home. The reason why the sutler is often left out of history is not just because they were only indirectly related to the fighting, but also because they were greatly disliked by most Civil War soldiers. Sutlers are commonly depicted as scum because they sold goods at exorbitant prices and often took a lien on a soldier’s pay. Soldiers saw sutlers as horrible people who were just trying to take advantage of the suffering and loss of war in order to make an easy profit. While this was true of many sutlers, they still provided an important and invaluable service to an overtaxed Union Army and their complicated legacy deserves to be discussed.

Although sutlers had been a feature of the U.S. Army long before the Civil War, they became significantly more important to army life during the 1860s. Prior to the Civil War, the sutler’s role was not as prominent in army life because the army was rather small, so providing enough supplies for the men was easier. Sutlers were also much more regulated in that they were subject to the articles of war and the rules and discipline of the army. For example, they were unable to sell alcohol to soldiers or keep their shops open during church services. However, this all changed during the Civil War. The army grew from under 20,000 men in the beginning of the war to over 2 million by the end of the war, and the war department was unprepared to supply all these soldiers. Sutlers stepped in to fill that gap, providing the soldiers with supplies that either the army did not provide them with or that the army just did not have enough of for every soldier. In the Civil War, sutlers provided soldiers with necessities for the first time instead of just miscellaneous goods. The sutlers were also now considered civilians who were not subject to army discipline or regulation, allowing them full control of what they sold and how much they sold it for.

Now free from army interference and enjoying a monopoly on the market, sutlers quickly began supplying soldiers with products at high costs. There was supposed to be only one sutler per regiment, although this was not strictly adhered to in practice. They were usually appointed by colonels, the secretary of war, or a political influence such as the governor of the state the regiment was from. Being the sutler of a regiment was a highly sought-after position and sometimes sutlers would even pay for this privilege since it was so lucrative. A sutler in the 15th Wisconsin reportedly made $100 to $150 in a day, a profit that could easily total $12,000 a year. Since Sutlers were the only ones who could sell goods to soldiers, they could essentially charge whatever they wanted. The sutler in the photograph above would have probably charged exorbitant prices for his goods, especially tobacco. Tobacco was highly coveted in the Union Army because most men smoked or chewed it, but the army did not issue tobacco rations. The Confederates were issued a plug of tobacco, but that was because tobacco was grown in the South and was more easily accessible. Since it was harder to come by in the North and it was not issued by the Union Army, sutlers would sell it to soldiers for ten times the normal rate. They also overcharged for postage stamps, which was highly illegal. Although the War Department attempted to put a stop to it 1862, sutlers continued to sell overpriced stamps. If the sutlers did sell stamps for the correct price, they would just increase the cost of paper and envelopes to make up for the lost profit.

Not only did sutlers overcharge, their goods were often of terrible quality. The sutler in the photo above is selling fruit and seafood, and it was important that the soldiers had access to fruit to prevent disease. However, the fruit and other foods sutlers sold often did more harm than good. For example, the sutlers were especially famous for their “pies.” These pies contained mystery meat and were often fried in condemned lard or grew rancid with age. One sutler made pies with meat from cats and dogs and sold it for 25 cents, $6 in today’s money. These pies not only landed soldiers in the hospital but sometimes even killed them. Due to these pies and other lethal products the sutlers sold, the doctors in the army became highly vocal against the sutler system because of the damage it caused to so many soldier’s health. However, despite being so dangerous, the soldiers loved these pies and it would have been a slow day if a sutler only sold 650 of them. The soldiers were often so starved of good food in the army that they would resort to eating whatever the sutler sold, even if it had the potential to do significant harm to their health. The sutler knew this and made sure to take advantage of it, not caring how it harmed the soldier.

While it may seem that the sutlers were just scum trying to make a quick profit, they did provide some important services, often at a great danger to themselves. Not only did they provide soldiers with necessities they could not get anywhere else, their establishments often provided a social center where soldiers could relax, gossip, and even gamble. This social center was important to the soldiers in that it allowed them to escape army life and the horrors of battle for a little while. The sutler’s shack in the photo above was probably one such establishment. It was made from wood, with a canvas top, indicating that it was a more permanent establishment in a place where the Union Army was camped for a long period of time. If the army was camped less permanently, sutlers would set up in tents or even sell from the back of a wagon. Sutlers would move along behind the army when it was on the march, risking their products to exposure, weather, and spoilage. They were also subject to the dangers of battle and raids, sometimes becoming casualties of battle or even taken prisoner by the enemy. Even if the sutler managed to escape unscathed, the enemy often raided sutlers’ stocks and took everything. They were also subject to raiding by their own troops. Soldiers regularly became angry with the sutlers, who could lien up to 1/6th of their monthly pay, leaving the soldier with even less money to pay for the sutlers’ overpriced goods. Often, soldiers would surround the sutler’s tent, cut the ropes holding it up and, in the confusion, grab everything they could. Commanding officers would seldom reprimand their men for this activity. For example, the 20th Maine raided its sutler’s tent and ate everything except for some nails and were not punished for it, due to the perceived necessity and justification for the “raid.” Now the sutler was out of stock and had lost a great deal of money. While it may seem that the sutler charged exorbitant prices just to make as much money as possible, in fact they often did it to counteract the great dangers they faced and the possibility of losing all their products.

The sutler in the photo above was part of this complicated history. He sold fruit for the soldiers, which if in good condition was something they needed desperately to supplement their army diet. However, the fruit and other goods that this sutler sold were overpriced and most likely not of good quality. For this reason, sutlers were often hated and are now largely forgotten about in today’s history. However, they were an ever-present part of the Civil War Army and because of this they deserve more attention in our studies of the war. The sutler was an integral part of the typical Civil War soldier’s everyday life in the army, even if they they maintained an ambivalent place in soldiers’ hearts. In unpacking their complicated legacy, we can more fully understand the intricacies, texture, and challenges of soldiering in Civil War armies.


Sources:

Delisi, James T. “From Sutlers and Canteens to Exchanges.” Army Logistician 39, no. 6 (November 2007): 46–47. Accessed November 10, 2018.

McCormick, David. “Merchants Traveled with Civil War Troops.” Army Magazine 67, no. 1 (January 2017): 30. Accessed November 10, 2018.

Spear, Donald P. “The Sutler in the Union Army.” Civil War History 16, no. 2 (June 1970): 121–38. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Tapson, Alfred J. “The Sutler and the Soldier.” Military Affairs 21, no. 4 (1957): 175-81. Accessed November 11, 2018.

A Complete Transformation of Medicine: John Letterman’s Ambulance Corps

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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A Civil War Ambulance Corps (via Library of Congress)

At first glance, the photo above does not seem to really depict much of any importance. It simply seems to be a photo of soldiers transporting a wounded comrade into a wagon. While these men were doing important work and giving wounded soldiers the chance to live, it does not seem as if they are doing anything revolutionary. However, the picture actually shows a radical improvement in medical treatment brought about by the Civil War. Looking back on the practices of Civil War Americans, many people tend to believe the Civil War was a particularly dark time in medical history, a time when doctors sawed off limbs to solve any problems and often did it with dirty instruments and no anesthesia. This idea of Civil War medicine is a misconception because most amputations were, in fact, done with anesthesia and the Civil War did introduce many improvements in the medical field. In fact, the Civil War can be seen as a turning point from more ancient practices of medicine to more modern practices. The fact that the Civil War was a turning point in medical history is evident in the Union’s development of ambulances and the ambulance corps, one of which is depicted in the photo above. The Union’s ambulance corps radicalized battlefield medical treatment, allowing the majority of soldiers to receive care much more quickly and efficiently, something the South never accomplished.

While the Union Army eventually developed efficient battlefield treatment like what is being displayed in this photograph, at the beginning of the war the medical department was disorganized, chaotic, and in need of much improvement. After the First Battle of Bull Run, wounded soldiers were left scattered over the field and most of them were eventually captured by the enemy. Although there were only 1,011 Union wounded, much fewer than in later battles, many of these wounded remained on the field for days and some were forced to walk all the way back to Washington D.C. just to receive treatment. Those who were unable to walk had to face days of suffering, exposure, and thirst, that would eventually lead to their death. This disaster within the Union’s medical department and its failed care for soldiers was not limited simply to Bull Run, but continued throughout the entire first year of the war. Doctors lacked supplies, many soldiers suffered from scurvy, and the wounded piled up waiting for transportation to northern hospitals. In addition, doctors and quartermasters were responsible for the management of the ambulance teams, which was not practical during battles as doctors could not attend wounded men and supervise the ambulances at the same time. Also, the quartermasters were often more concerned with supplies or providing transportation for high-ranking officers than providing the ambulance corps with the necessary wagons and horses they needed to perform their job. The early ambulance teams would have been nowhere near as organized and efficient as the team pictured above.

The significantly improved orderliness depicted in the photo was largely due to Jonathan Letterman, who was appointed medical director of the Army of the Potomac on June 23, 1862. He realized that an efficient system of care was a matter of life and death for the soldiers. The men in the photograph above were key players in the crucial first step in this system, rescuing the soldiers from suffering in the field and bringing them to doctors. This task of putting the medical department in order was a hard one. Out of an army of 103,000 men, Letterman found that 29% were listed as ill or unable to fight, most due to easily treatable illnesses. Letterman started by asking General McClellan for more medical supplies for doctors and a greater variety of foods for soldiers in order to prevent malnutrition based illness, like scurvy. McClellan not only granted these requests, but also issued a general order dictating that the quartermasters keep the soldiers well supplied with vegetables. While this was an important first step in the right direction, Letterman would soon radicalize the entire system for treating wounded. He set up a triage system, started the ambulance corps, and instituted standard operating procedures. The men carrying the stretcher and driving the ambulance in the photo above were taking part in this ingenious system. They were not only a part of an important moment in medical history, but they also ensured the efficiency of Letterman’s system, giving wounded soldiers a greater chance at survival than ever before.

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Dr. Jonathan Letterman and his medical staff. Letterman seated furthest left. (via Library of Congress)

More soldiers were able to survive due to Letterman’s methods of organization, triage, and specialization. Once Letterman had obtained more supplies, he began reorganizing the ambulance corps to create teams such as the one in the photograph above that worked like a well-oiled machine. On August 6, 1862, he created an official ambulance corps in which the men therein were dedicated solely to ambulance work. Previously, soldiers just simply rotated through ambulance duty and were not specifically assigned to an ambulance team. Letterman structured the ambulance corps similarly to the army itself, with a captain as commandant of each of the infantry corps’ ambulance teams. A lieutenant would direct the ambulances for each division and brigade and a sergeant directed ambulances for each regiment. This organization solved the problem of who was in charge of the ambulances and allowed the doctors to focus on treating the wounded. Each regiment was allotted one transport cart and two ambulances and the officers of these ambulance crews were responsible for the training of crews, maintenance of vehicles and equipment, as well as the welfare of the horses. With the ambulances now under the sole control of the ambulance crews, the men in the photo above could focus on the most important part of their job: Healing the wounded and saving lives.

Not only were the ambulance crews better led, they also practiced improved care techniques, like the new triage system. Letterman designed this system to be three-tiered. First, a wounded soldier would be removed from the field on a stretcher and then loaded onto a wagon, as shown in the photo above. The soldier would then be brought to a field station close to the battlefield to receive initial treatment, which would be very simple, akin to first-aid treatment today. If the wound was not very severe, the soldier would just be administered to here and then sent back to his regiment. If a soldier needed more advanced treatment, he would be transported to a divisional hospital at the rear of the lines, which was the second phase of treatment. At this stage of the system, doctors would perform surgeries, extract bullets, amputate limbs, and anything else that the soldier needed, depending on the wound. The final stage was recovery, and many soldiers stayed at divisional hospitals for short-term rehabilitation. However, if the soldier’s recovery was going to be long-term and they needed more intense care, they would be moved to a general hospital in a nearby town or city. Patients could rest and recuperate in these hospitals that had more resources and better ensured the soldier’s recovery than a divisional hospital that was always swamped with critical injuries.

In conjunction with this system of care, particularly the second stage, Letterman also began the practice of medical specialization by mandating that only highly qualified and experienced doctors could perform amputations and surgeries. This specialization was important, as no matter how hard the ambulance crew in the photo above worked, it meant nothing if the doctor was not experienced enough to actually treat the wounded. Letterman’s new system of specialization and organization was first tested in 1862, after the Battle of Antietam. The system functioned well despite the vast amount of casualties. Ambulance teams cleared 12,410 casualties in less than 48 hours, which was a drastic improvement from Bull Run, when many wounded remained on the field days later even though there were fewer wounded. By the Battle of Gettysburg, the system was perfected and the Union ambulance corps was able to evacuate 14,193 Union and 6,802 Confederate wounded, providing treatment for them within three days of being wounded. Not one wounded soldier remained on the battlefield the morning after the battle concluded. This system’s success is evident in the fact that the Union Army’s mortality rate for those who died of wounds reduced drastically from 25.6% in the first year of the war to 13.3% after Letterman’s changes. This system was so much more effective that it was soon adopted by all Union armies as well as some European armies. In March 1864, Congress passed a law that officially established Letterman’s system for all Union armies.

War often has a significant impact on medicine, and the Civil War was no exception. With Letterman’s guidance, an efficient practice of battlefield care was established for the first time in the Civil War and the basic principles of this system would be used in many wars to come. For example, Letterman’s three-tiered system of field treatment, divisional hospital, and then general hospital was used extensively in World War II, with soldiers who were most seriously injured often being transported to Great Britain or even the United States to recover. The men in the photograph helped ensure the success of this system, and the actions they are performing are still performed today: Wounded soldiers are still removed from the battlefield on stretchers with critical efficiency and transported to hospitals for better, and often times life-saving, treatment. John Letterman revolutionized the field of medicine, and soldiers of the Civil War and all wars after are indebted to him. Letterman’s innovation is why this photo is so important. It shows the successful working of that system as well as an important moment in the history of medicine. The photo is also important for its multi-dimensional meanings and the many different feelings it evokes. The photo displays the inherent suffering and pain of the wounded soldier, surrounded by the chaos and confusion of the battlefield. However, the photo also symbolizes hope and healing; the opportunity for a wounded soldier to live another day. It is a testament to the efficiency and innovation of Letterman’s system, and the evolution of medical practice as a whole, ironically borne out of the widespread death and unnecessary sufferings inflicted by war on a nation unprepared for such brutality, that has come to save thousands of lives around the world since its inception.


Sources:

“EMTs, Civil-War Style.” Civil War Times 45, no. 1 (February 2006): 74. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Place, Ronald J. “The Strategic Genius of Jonathan Letterman: The Relevancy of the American Civil War to Current Health Care Policy Makers.” Military Medicine 180, no. 3 (March 2015): 259–62. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Smith, Dale C. “Military Medical History: The American Civil War.” OAH Magazine of History 19, no. 5 (September 2005): 17–19. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Weirt, Jeffry D. “Dr. Letterman’s War.” Civil War Times 45, no. 7 (September 2006): 7–8. Accessed November 8, 2018.

25 Years of Gettysburg

Edited by Olivia Ortman ’19

Amongst the Civil War community here at Gettysburg College, the movie Gettysburg is very much a part of our daily lives. Quotes are thrown back and forth in witty banter, the music is played for dramatic effect, and history professors are badgered to show clips in class. Since the movie fits so seamlessly into our experience here in Gettysburg, we often take it for granted. However, Gettysburg recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special showing at the Majestic Theater, with remarks from the director preceding the viewing. Although none of the Fellows attended, it got a lot of us thinking about our own experiences with the movie. Each one of us has been touched by Gettysburg in significant ways.

Ryan Bilger ’19 –I knew the soundtrack of the movie Gettysburg before I knew the film itself. I remember being six years old on a trip with my parents, asking “where are we going?” again and again during the car ride until I saw a sign announcing the mileage to Gettysburg. In that moment, I knew exactly where we were going. My father is also a casual historian of the battle, and I had often looked at the colorful pictures and maps in his Civil War magazines. Gazing out over the fields of Pickett’s Charge that day, something clicked in my young brain, and thus was born a lifelong interest. Of course, at six years old my parents correctly decided that I was not quite ready to see the movie Gettysburg yet, so they gave me the soundtrack CD to listen to instead. They didn’t get it back any time soon.

The movie, when I finally saw it, was worth the wait and has been my constant companion since. I watch scenes like the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge or the climax of Pickett’s Charge when I need to get motivated for events. The poster for the film hangs at the foot of my bed at home. Gettysburg, for all its flaws, has remained one of my favorite movies over the years, and has acted as a gateway to my development as a historian. The film presents myriad examples of popular heroism, whether in the form of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain leading a bayonet charge or Winfield Scott Hancock exposing himself to enemy fire to inspire his own troops. However, many more heroes of the battle did not survive to tell their stories. Through the Killed at Gettysburg project, I’ve illuminated some of these stories of valor that do not receive nearly as much attention. Men like Patrick O’Rorke, Benjamin Crippin, and Franz Benda all had their own unique stories to be told, bringing greater color and nuance to the broader narratives of heroism in July 1863.

Though it may sound strange, Gettysburg has also given me a community. Living in the Civil War Era Studies House at Gettysburg College, I can exclaim “What’s happening to my boys?!” or grumble in a low voice about high ground and nearly everyone will instantly understand. We joke about Pickett’s ridiculous laugh when Longstreet tells him he will lead the assault on July 3 and bemoan the death of the glorious Buster Kilrain. The movie brings us together as a group in strange, yet often hilarious ways, and for that I am extremely grateful.

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Seven-year-old Ryan Bilger exploring the Gettysburg battlefield.

Benjamin Roy ’21 – I was born in Bethel, Maine and take great pride in bearing the identity of a Mainer. This is in no small part due to the movie Gettysburg and the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine dramatized therein. From the first time I was exposed to the movie Gettysburg at five years old, I felt deeply connected to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. I writhed in agony as the shrieking Alabamians charged and cheered when the Mainer valiantly resisted. My heart soared as Colonel Chamberlain charged down the hill, his Maine boys following close behind with fixed bayonets. My brother and I refought this struggle for Little Round Top on hillsides countless times. When my parents asked me, at age seven, whether I wanted to go to Disney World or Gettysburg, my choice was simple: Gettysburg.

The heroic story of the 20th Maine told in The Killer Angels and dramatized in Gettysburg is what ultimately inspired me to study the Civil War and pursue history as a career. My interest in Chamberlain and his men evolved into an interest in common soldiers. The story has also instilled a sense of identity in me and a pride in coming from Maine myself, even though I now live in North Carolina. Even as I write this, a miniature bust of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain overlooks my desk, reminding me of where I come from, and where I hope to go. Whenever I need to be reminded of who I am and where I am from, I need only to watch Gettysburg.

Olivia Ortman ’19 – My own journey with Gettysburg began much later than most of my fellow CWI writers. In my family, birthdays have always been very important. My sister and I were allowed to stay home on our birthdays and do anything we wanted. For me, that usually meant trips to Mystic Aquarium or the zoo. However, after learning about the Civil War in 8th grade, I asked my parents if my birthday day could be a birthday weekend. My parents agreed, and I headed off with my mom to spend Memorial Day weekend of 2011 in Gettysburg. It was one of the most magical weekends of my life, to say the least. (My mom still shudders when she thinks about traipsing every inch of battlefield behind me so I could investigate all, and I do mean all, the monuments.)

When I heard about the annual reenactment, I knew I had to come back to Gettysburg that July. The copy of Gettysburg the movie that I picked up in the giftshop of General Lee’s Headquarters was how I convinced my father to make a family trip out of the reenactment. After getting home from Gettysburg, I put on the film and insisted my dad watch with me so I could show him where I’d been. By the end of the film, and to my sister’s immense disappointment, I had convinced both parents that we needed to go to the July reenactment. That was the beginning of the past eight years for me. When we returned to Gettysburg, I discovered Gettysburg College and knew that I would one day attend. Throughout those years, whenever someone from home has asked me why Gettysburg or why history, Gettysburg was my way of explaining. The movie has given me a way to introduce others to my passion and let them see what I’m doing here at college.

Savannah Labbe ’19 – Being from Maine, I appreciate how Gettysburg highlights Maine’s contribution to the Civil War, which I feel is often underappreciated or even forgotten about. Maine contributed the largest number of soldiers proportionate to its population of any state in the Union. However, the movie Gettysburg has risen to such fame that it seems as if the 20th Maine was the only unit from Maine that made an important contribution to the battle. This is decidedly not the case. For example, the 16th Maine made a suicidal stand on the first day of the battle so that the Union First Corps could retreat. All of the 16th Maine soldiers were either captured or killed in order to allow the Union to fight another day. On the second day of the battle, the 17th and 19th Maine helped save the Union line after General Sickles overextended it.

The film also deifies the battle for Little Round Top and Chamberlain. The battle for Little Round Top comes across as a defining moment and a turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg. Viewers think that this was the moment that decided the outcome of the three-day fighting at Gettysburg, but that’s not necessarily true. Chamberlain himself has taken on star qualities as the man who saved the day, but his conflicting reports on the battle in real life call into question whether or not he himself actually gave his famous order to charge. While Gettysburg is an important film and it has it merits, it has become so dominant in popular culture that people have put Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on a pedestal, which does a disservice to the other Union units present at the battle. However, when I watched the movie Gettysburg for the first time in my 8th grade social studies class, I took this movie at face value. While the movie motivated me to study history and piqued my interest in the Civil War, I soon learned that it had a lot of flaws and was not necessarily an accurate depiction, making me want to explore the actual history of the battle more and the role that all Maine units played.

Cameron Sauers ’21 – My introduction to the movie Gettysburg begins with Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels. I remember being infatuated with the novel, constantly reading it and carrying it with me when I was in 4th grade. I don’t remember the first time I saw Gettysburg, but I do remember watching it constantly (my parents have seen it more times than they probably wished). This infatuation with the movie sky-rocketed in 5th grade when my local historic society brought in Patrick Falci (the actor who portrayed A.P. Hill) to speak at a special event and he encouraged me to pursue my passion for history and the Civil War. Almost 10 years later, I am on the front lines of history as a Fellow here at the CWI. I think it is safe to say that I would not be where I am today without the passion that Gettysburg awakened in me.

Not only has Gettysburg inspired my future, but it has also influenced the time I’ve spent with my family. My parents were forced to endure countless screenings of the movie, and never once complained or suggested that we watch something else. They saw my love for history growing before their eyes and supported it, buying me countless books and taking day trips to battlefields and re-enactments. When my parents recently visited during Family Weekend, they agreed when I wanted to take them to museums in town and on an impromptu battlefield tour. My parents didn’t bat an eye when they heard the many Gettysburg quotes from me and my peers. Gettysburg, to me, is a reminder of my childhood and my passion for history. But more importantly, it’s a reminder of the support and love my family has given me.

A Hidden History: Alexandria’s Slave Pen and the Domestic Slave Trade

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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Franklin & Armfield slave pen in Alexandria, VA. (via Library of Congress)

Historical objects often have dark and horrible stories hidden just beneath their unassuming and innocent visage. The picture above is one such example of this type of object. At first glance the photo seems to depict a simple brick building; however, this building is anything but simple. It was used as a slave pen in the 19th century. Slave pens were buildings in which slaves were imprisoned and prepared for sale. The one pictured above was located in Alexandria, Virginia, the site of a major slave-trading center. While this photo’s association with the slave trade makes the photo a deeply disturbing one, the story that this picture tells is not completely devoid of hope or human agency. Indeed, the photo speaks to numerous stories of strength, as well as despair, in addition to the power of material objects and structures to enlighten both past and present Americans for the better.

The story hidden in the picture begins with the company Franklin & Armfield. It was established in 1828 in Alexandria and named after its progenitors, Isaac Franklin and his nephew by marriage, John Armfield. Although both part of one company, the two men operated out of two different cities. Armfield established his base of operations in Alexandria and Franklin established himself in New Orleans. These two outposts helped make Franklin and Armfield tycoons in the domestic slave trade industry. In the deep South, slaves from states such as Maryland and Virginia were highly prized because they were believed to be compliant, gentle, and not broken by overwork like people thought slaves from the deep South were. This stereotype of slaves from the middle states helped Franklin & Armfield put more slaves on the market than anyone else. Armfield even had agents going door to door in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C., asking people if they wanted to sell their slaves. Franklin & Armfield was an innovative company; they developed mass-marketing strategies, such as advertising in newspapers that they were looking to buy slaves, and offered their Louisiana clients a money back guarantee. Their innovation allowed them to become one of the largest business operations in the South by the 1830s, only mere years after they established the company.

An important part of Franklin & Armfield’s business was the transportation of slaves to the deep South. The domestic slave trade has been described by some scholars as a new kind of middle passage, though less attention is paid to this middle passage than the more infamous middle passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Today, most of the physical reminders of the middle passage of the slave trade on America’s landscape have either been erased from the landscape, or they are completely ignored or reduced to simple waysides. A lack of awareness of these sites only serves to hide a cruel history. Slaves were usually transported in what was termed a “coffle.” A coffle is a line of animals or slaves that are fastened and driven along together. The term coffle puts slaves on the same level as animals and indeed they were often viewed as animals, as less than human. Slaves were not to be treated with any humanity and Franklin & Armfield ensured their slaves knew their position among the animals. Armfield would have the slaves chained together while he sat on his horse, armed with a gun and a whip to keep the line moving and dissuade anyone from trying to escape. He would also bring along armed white men to help guard the slaves. If necessary, Armfield would sell off slaves to help pay for his journey. The coffle would move at a pace of three mph and would progress twenty miles each day. When Armfield got halfway to New Orleans, he would hand over the group to Franklin, who would take the slaves the rest of the way, using the same tactics as Armfield to keep them in check.

The beginning of the slave journey described above started at the slave pen in the photo. After Armfield and his agents bought the slaves, they would house them in slave pens either in preparation for an auction or, more likely, until they could be shipped further south. Sometimes the slave pen would be used as a place for Virginians to buy the slaves outright at auctions but usually it was just used as a holding place, as Armfield could make a much larger profit by selling them in the South. Until they could be moved south, this slave pen was used for keeping slaves penned up like animals. It is not described as a house or even a jail, but a pen, something used to ensure animals do not escape. The use of the word pen was just another way slave traders and holders took away the humanity of the people they enslaved. When the pen was not being used by Armfield to display his chattel, he would rent out the space to slaveholders to use as a prison for misbehaving slaves. From the simplest and most innocent “crimes” to the most serious crime of trying to escape, slaves were punished by being treated like animals and penned up in a cage.

Auctions would also take place in this slave pen. Every slave dreaded sale; they dreaded that their lives would be uprooted and they would be separated from their loved ones to live a harsher existence in the Deep South. Slaveowners liked to encourage familial relations between slaves to help ensure the growth of the slave population but would rip these families apart as soon as it suited them and they could turn a profit out of it. Sometimes slaves would try to influence the sale by making themselves look less valuable. For example, slave purchasers tended to want a well-behaved slave, so sometimes slaves would make it seem as if they were disobedient and, therefore, less valuable. If slaves made themselves less valuable, then it would be less likely that they would be bought and separated from their family. However, due to companies like Franklin & Armfield, thousands of slave families were wrenched apart and often were unable to ever find each other again. Nearly 450,000 slaves were uprooted and sent to the deep South between 1810 and 1860 and Franklin & Armfield was responsible for a large portion of this movement. This slave pen in Alexandria was the site of the destruction of many families.

The end of the journey was no better for slaves. The Deep South was the worst place for a slave to be. Slaveowners in the South were often harsher and worked their slaves hard, treating them cruelly and feeding them little. Slaves would also usually be picking cotton, a much harder task than harvesting tobacco, which was what slaves from the middle states tended to do. The journey for Franklin and Armfield’s slaves usually ended in New Orleans, which was particularly known for its “fancy girls.” Fancy girls were slaves used as prostitutes. For many female slaves, the end of the overland middle passage resulted in their bodily violation, over and over again, to benefit their owner. However, with two of these would-be fancy girls, one sees a glimmer of hope in the story of the Alexandria slave pen. Two girls named Emily and Mary Edmonson were held in this slave pen in 1848. The Edmonson sisters, along with 75 other slaves, attempted to escape slavery. The group of escaped slaves boarded a boat called the Pearl but were unfortunately soon captured and returned to slavery. However, Emily and Mary managed to avoid being sold to a brothel owner to become fancy girls. Their story attracted much attention, especially among abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother. Stowe and her brother raised money and purchased the girls’ freedom. Afterwards, Stowe used the sisters’ story as part of her research for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Therefore, through an unlikely and ironic twist of fate, this slave pen, with all of its horrors, became inextricably linked with a literary piece of material culture whose power in fueling the call for abolition in the North (and thus, also in fanning the flames of war throughout the South) played a key role in the path to American abolition.

EdmonsonSistersBronze
Statue of the Edmonson sisters in Alexandria, VA. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Edmonson sisters were eventually able to achieve their freedom and they became relatively famous figures that abolitionists used to support their case. However, after the abolition of slavery, many soon forgot the horrors of the domestic slave trade. The Edmonson sisters’ story, as well as the story of this slave pen, is one that reminds people of this history. A company named Carr Properties bought the slave pen building and surrounding property, turning it into an office building and retail space in 2007. In addition, they also erected a statue of the Edmonson sisters so that their story would never be forgotten. No longer is the story of the slave trade relegated to the background of Alexandria’s landscape, but it is out in the open to remind everyone of the darker side of Alexandria’s history, to which this photo attests. The building in the photo has many different meanings to many different people. To the Edmonson sisters it was a place of despair, but also a place where they used their agency to try to escape. To Franklin and Armfield, the pen and the slaves held within it was nothing more than a source of profit—a profit that supported the social and political backbone of the southern states. The building not only means different things to people, but it also connects to several other material objects with immense symbolic significance and socio-political importance, such as Stowe’s book and the modern-day statue. Most importantly, it connects to many different people: Slaves, slaveowners, slave buyers and sellers, the American public who read and were influenced by the descriptions of the pen in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, as well as contemporary passers-by all have experienced this building in disparate ways—a testament to the multi-valanced stories of humanity, and inhumanity, to which the building continues to speak.


Sources:

Ball, Edward. “Slavery’s Trail of Tears.” Smithsonian 46, no. 7 (November 2015): 58–82.

Bell, Richard. “The Great Jugular Vein of Slavery: New Histories of the Domestic Slave Trade.” History Compass 11, no. 12 (December 2013): 1150.

Downey, Kirstin. “New Alexandria Building to Honor Brave Slave Girls.” November 12, 2007. The Washington Post. Accessed October 24, 2018.

Yuhl, Stephanie E. “Hidden in Plain Sight: Centering the Domestic Slave Trade in American Public History.” Journal of Southern History 79, no. 3 (August 2013): 593–624.

The Perfect Vessel of Grief: Women and Mourning Photography

By Savannah Labbe ’19

mourning photo.jpg
Unidentified girl in mourning holding a picture of her father. (photo via Library of Congress)

After her father died, the girl in the photo above went through a highly ritualized and formalized process of Victorian mourning. This process radically changed with the invention of photography in 1839. Now one could record the grieving process, which is what the photograph above accomplished. The photograph is a typical mourning portrait, depicting the mourner (the little girl in this case), with the photo of her deceased loved one in her hands. Like so many other photographs, this one recorded the grieving process, allowing loved ones to keep a piece of that person even after their death. 19th-century photographs also were often used to capture images of loved ones while they were dying. Photography was particularly apt for this kind of work as it was seen as a vessel of truth, intimately connecting the past and the present. 19th- century Americans realized that photographs told stories like few other objects could, and they used this storytelling ability to convey their emotions surrounding mourning.

Queen Victoria, after whom the Victorian era was named, went into deep mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Although mourning was already an important part of people’s lives before Albert’s death, it became even more so due to Queen Victoria’s highly public and drawn out mourning process, which was aided by the invention of the photograph. Mourning was such an important process because death was a constant feature of life in the 19th century. Disease, an overall lack of understanding of how to treat illnesses, and poor sanitary conditions shortened the average lifespan to about fifty years old. Due to the constant reality of death, funeral and mourning practices became an important aspect of everyday life. When someone was expected to die, their house would be draped in black crepe to let everyone know the family was expecting a death. The family would often prepare for death by taking portraits of the dying person. These portraits would later be sent out as part of memorial cards, informing one of the funeral and providing them with a keepsake to remember the dead by. In addition, the family would often take photographs with their deceased loved ones, especially infants, to further commemorate their life and passing.

After the death, women especially became vessels of grief. Women were thought to be more emotional and sensitive, so it was particularly their job to express their emotions over the loss of a loved one. They wore black, as well as jewelry specially made for mourning which would include a picture of the deceased on it. It was also common to include a lock of the deceased’s hair in the mourning jewelry. The child in the picture above is already preparing for her role as a mourner, which would only become more circumscribed as she aged. She is dressed in all black, is wearing mourning ribbons, and holds a picture of her father, who died in the Civil War. Although she is young, she is already learning how one dresses, acts, and behaves while grieving, as well as performing a central part of the mourning process.

An integral part of mourning processes like the little girl’s was the mourning portrait. These portraits did not begin with the invention of photography. In fact, many portrait companies were created to produce lithographs of the mourning process, such as the company that would come to be known as Currier and Ives. These lithographs usually depicted women in full mourning next to a tomb, which was oftentimes topped with an urn. There also was usually a weeping willow and a church in the background. These images typically showed women in exaggerated poses of sorrow, draped over the tomb next to them. Women were in these poses because mourning was very public; one had to show they were deeply aggrieved by the loss of their loved one. If women did not show their emotion, it was thought that they were cold and uncaring about the death of their loved ones. Since it was women’s jobs to mourn and be emotional, not doing so would have been considered a social faux pas. However, a woman could not be too emotional either, as that would have been unseemly for an era which also called for personal restraint in public. Not only did they have to “perform” their grief, but they also had to record it. They would hang these lithographs, and later, photographs, on the walls next to a portrait of their loved one, forever immortalizing their loved one’s death and their own grief at the dead’s passing. The photograph of the little girl is a continuation of the lithography process in a new medium. Now all at once, the girl has a picture of her father and of herself mourning her father.

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A typical mourning print done by Currier and Ives. (image via Library of Congress)

Photographs radically changed the mourning process because people saw photographs as somehow more truthful and organic than other artistic depictions, such as paintings. While it is true that the process of taking a photograph was staged, the photographer still could only capture material realities. One could not just add things into photos that were not actually there, at least not in the 19th century. In addition, by staging the photos in a certain way, people felt like they were able to convey a deeper truth and reality, unlike they could in paintings. Victorian Era Americans also believed that by looking at a photograph of someone you could see into their soul and see what they were feeling at the moment the photo was captured. A photo could therefore authenticate a moment in history, which was why photography became so important to the mourning industry, so much so that people built businesses out of traveling and taking mourning photographs. Mourning photographs served as proof of the mourner’s deep sorrow, more so than a lithograph ever could. The girl in the photograph has a haunting expression on her face and she looks much older than she actually is. The photo served to capture her emotion and the fact that she was forced to grow up by losing a parent long before any child should. Her father will always be with her though, and will never be forgotten, as is evident by the way she clasps his photograph to her.

The photograph was also important in mourning practices because it could capture the visual attributes of the deceased, either in the process of dying, or just before. On the brink of death, people were supposed to be resolute and accepting of their fate and if their face showed this in the photograph, family members would know that their loved one was going to heaven. The photograph, therefore, became a vessel for memory and a way to remember a loved one. Before the invention of photography, people only had an article of clothing or a toy to remember the deceased by. Photography now allowed loved ones to have a memento of the loved one’s appearance, which played a role in both the public and private mourning process. The girl in the photo could always remember specific details about her father’s appearance or demeanor, as she had a photograph of him. In addition, her father’s death no doubt served as a political statement and evidence that he fought and died in the name of the Union’s just cause. Such mourning photographs of Civil War dead thus played a significant role in perpetuating key, familiar tenets of 19th-century sentimentalism—that death, and familial grief for a loved one served a higher, patriotic purpose in which those who were left behind should take comfort. Therefore, not only did this specific image allow the little girl to remember her father’s death; she could also remember how she herself felt after his death, as she also had a picture of the mourning process. The photo was a way of transporting her into the past to ensure that she would never forget her father, the higher purpose for which he died, or his guiding influence.

Mourning photography fulfilled similar needs for many other families of the deceased, especially during the deadly years of the Civil War. In this way, the technology of photography was able to radically and rapidly change the mourning tradition. People quickly noticed and took advantage of the capacity for photography to capture landmark moments in history by capturing “truth,” be it all natural or staged for even greater or “more truthful” effect. In addition to providing a window into 19th-century mourning practices, this photograph also serves as a testament to how technological innovations throughout history have helped to better connect past and present, and affect sweeping cultural changes.


Sources:

Bedikian, Sonia A. “The Death of Mourning: From Victorian Crepe to the Little Black Dress.” Omega: Journal of Death & Dying 57, no. 1 (May 2008): 35–52. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Grootkerk, Paul. “American Victorian Prints of Mourning.” Southeastern College Art Conference Review 11 no. 4 (1989):276-283. Accessed October 1, 2018.

McConnell, Kent A. “Photography, Physiognomy, and Revealed Truth in the Antebellum South.” Southern Quarterly 52, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 32–53.

“The Custom of Mourning During The Victorian Era.” Nps.Gov. Last modified 2018. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Complicating the Civil War Narrative: The Lincoln Lyceum Lecture

By Savannah Labbe ’19

Ayers
Edward Ayers

On October 3rd, the 2018 Lincoln Prize-winning author and historian, Edward Ayers, gave a talk on his most recent book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. Ayers began the process of writing this book in 1991 while driving through the Shenandoah Valley and wondering how places so naturally beautiful could go to war with each other so quickly. In his book, he attempts to answer that question by looking at how the Civil War was experienced on the ground by normal, everyday people. He does this by following two communities from 1863 to the immediate post-war years: Augusta County, VA and Franklin County, PA. He began following these two counties in his previous book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, and The Thin Light of Freedom serves as a follow-up to that book. Ayers chose these counties because, on the surface, they seemed to be very similar. Both counties had similar soil and geographic features and they are relatively close in proximity. They also both initially supported the Union. However, despite their similarities, their inhabitants still went to war with each other and had very different opinions about the war. Augusta County ultimately sided with the Confederacy when Virginia seceded, which radically changed the lives of the county’s inhabitants, both black and white. By examining the war’s impact on both whites and blacks in these two communities, Ayers provides a fuller picture of the complex racial, social, economic, and cultural fabric of these societies. Ayers sees these counties as a sort of microcosm of the Civil War itself, in that they provide specific examples and concrete evidence for the larger, intangible legacies of the war, such as the fight over historical memory.

 

Ayers began his lecture by arguing that the Civil War was marked by boundaries of all kinds, not just regional ones. The war changed the boundaries that marked who was considered a human being and who was considered property. Time also made its mark on the lives of soldiers in that soldiers would often look back upon battles and see them as landmarks, or turning points, in their lives. Battles such as Gettysburg, where Ayers begins his book, had this effect. A man from Franklin County was at Gettysburg, and after the great victory near his home, he was able to sneak off to see his wife. His wife back home could hear the roar of battle but could not see it. After his visit, though, she was able to feel secure in the knowledge that her husband had survived the battle. For the soldier, his visit home after the great carnage at Gettysburg served not only as a much-needed break from the battlefield’s death and destruction, but also was a celebratory moment and a happy memory from which he could derive hope and purpose. However, on the Confederate side, the scene was very different. Confederates were not able to return home and celebrate their victory with their wives. Instead, they watched as wounded and mutilated men were dragged down the road by wagons, some of whom had not even seen a doctor yet. In contrast to the more hopeful Union soldier, the Confederates looked back upon the Battle of Gettysburg as a moment of immense and unmitigated suffering and loss.

Though the Confederates lost at Gettysburg, they were able to come back in 1864 and capture another Pennsylvania town: Chambersburg. In addition, the Union forces also occupied Staunton, the largest town in Augusta County, in June of 1864. When the Confederates took Chambersburg, the residents of Franklin County despaired over its loss. However, the Confederates relished in the terror of Chambersburg’s citizens and hoped that the county would never again be under Union control. An African American soldier defending the town wrote about how bravely his regiment had fought. The raid was particularly dangerous for this black soldier not only because he risked his life in battle, but also because he risked being captured and sold into slavery by the Confederates. However, he was determined to fight to gain the rights of black people to be acknowledged as human beings, to be free, and to vote, or die trying. Ayers used the experiences of town citizens, Confederates, and the black soldier to portray the range of emotions involved when the Confederates captured Chambersburg. Ayers showed this range of emotions and opinions in order to provide insight into what was at stake for each of these groups of people.

The citizens of these counties had differing opinions and feelings about many political and social issues, including the election of 1864. During the campaign season, northern Democrats vilified Abraham Lincoln. The Republicans and African Americans, on the other hand, believed Lincoln was correct in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and making the war not only about the preservation of the Union but also about ending slavery. Though he only gained 1% of the northern Democratic vote, Lincoln won in a landslide vote in the electoral college, ultimately ensuring the demise of the Confederacy. However, white Augusta residents vowed to never give up, and even offered to send their slaves to fight for the Confederacy. They had already lost so much, since much of the war was fought on their land, and were willing to sacrifice even their most prized “possessions”—their slaves– in order to preserve southern independence. In proposing to send their slaves to fight for the Confederacy, Augusta residents defied many other southern slaveowners who believed that slavery provided both the physical labor and the socio-political backbone that kept the Confederacy on its feet. The actions of southerners like the Augusta residents helped shape the Lost Cause narrative and southern memory of the war. For example, the idea that southerners would never give up influenced the Lost Cause idea that the southerners never did give up but were, instead, simply overrun by overwhelming numbers. Augusta residents’ willingness to give up their slaves also shaped the Lost Cause narrative, as southerners used such evidence to try to argue that the war was not about slavery, but rather about southern independence.

White southerners, such as those of Augusta County, entered the post-war world believing they were in the right and that God had been on their side, and they fought tenaciously to preserve such a narrative for posterity in their attempts to control the historical memory of the war. Immediately after the guns of war fell silent, the whites of Augusta County set out to decorate the graves of the Confederate fallen. In doing so, they sought to promote the notion that the Confederate dead were the only war dead that deserved to be honored, as they had fought for the only noble cause. The next day, the African Americans of Augusta County went out to decorate the graves of Union dead. With this action, they fought back against the white residents’ attempt to control historical memory of the war by arguing that the Union dead were more deserving of having their graves decorated because they had fought for the more righteous cause of freeing the slaves.

Due to African American resistance to the Lost Cause narrative, southerners did everything they could, both legally and illegally, to prevent African Americans from gaining suffrage and fully participating in American society. In this way, Ayers believes, the South committed its own suicide: If southerners had not fought so hard to deny blacks their rights, then the drastic reforms of the Radical Republicans in Congress that forever changed the fabric of southern society would not have been necessary. Ayers believes that the Radicals’ most important reform was the public-school system, which allowed African Americans to become educated. Southerners did not want blacks to have access to education because then they would become a threat to southerners’ visions of “proper” political and social order. Through public education, blacks would gain the knowledge and intelligence necessary to fight for suffrage and to stop discrimination. African Americans would then realize that they could achieve everything white people could, thus making them the equals of the white man. Such realizations would challenge the claim that white people were inherently superior and would ultimately undermine whites’ discrimination methods, such as segregation.

Ayers’s lecture provided an in-depth look at two counties which, on the surface, seem very similar but were actually radically different. His close analysis of Augusta and Franklin Counties offers a compelling window into the lived realities of the war for two specific communities, while unpacking some of the critical regional complexities that shaped those communities’ differing experiences of and reactions to the war. Additionally, his examination both of the long fight for historical memory and of the differing worldviews and experiences of all those involved in the conflict shows that a multi-faceted view of the war is necessary to fully understand the conflict and its legacies.

To Liberty, Honor, and…Cufflinks?: The Grand Army of the Republic

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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Grand Army of the Republic cufflink. (via Special Collections at Gettysburg College)

Borne of the Civil War, one fraternal organization quickly assumed such great authority that it re-shaped cultural prescriptions of manhood, dictated the northern public’s memory of the war, and even influenced presidential elections. This organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), was formed in Illinois in 1866 by veteran Benjamin Franklin Stephenson and its number of posts in the United States quickly increased. In order to be a member, one simply had to be a Union veteran. By the 1890s, there were 7,000 GAR posts around the country; approximately 1.3 million men, half of all Union veterans, were group members. Members would have worn these cufflinks, or more commonly, the badge with the same image on it, as status symbols. They purchased these cufflinks and badges not merely so that they could have another piece of jewelry, but so they could show everyone that they were one of the heroes who fought for the Union, one of the brave soldiers who were now part of the most powerful veterans’ organizations in the United States. Being a member of the GAR meant one had participated in one of the greatest wars of modern times (so they thought). In addition, these accessories indicated that one had not only participated in that war, but that he had fought on the right side– the side of liberty and freedom. These cufflinks became a symbol of one’s martial manhood, proving that one had served with courage and honor while fighting for a just cause. In this way, the GAR promoted its own history of the war– what is now known as the Treasury of Virtue. Similar to the Lost Cause narrative, it promotes a biased interpretation of history, in this case from the northern perspective. According to this narrative, all northern soldiers were noble, honorable, and heroic men who triumphed because they fought for the righteous goal of emancipation.

The imagery on the cufflinks also served to highlight the ideas of moral righteousness and martial fraternalism that the GAR tried to foster within its members Lady Liberty can be seen in the background–yet another concrete reminder that Union veterans had fought for a virtuous cause. A soldier and a sailor clasp hands in front of Lady Liberty, which symbolizes fraternalism, one of the goals of the GAR tried to promote. These cufflinks would have made it easier for men to recognize each other as fellow brothers-in-arms: They would know immediately that the man they had just met had gone through the same experience they had and would understand it as no one else could. It is hard to relate the horrors of war to someone who has never been through it, and the GAR provided an outlet for former soldiers to express these horrors and know that those around them would understand and empathize, instead of simply pitying them. Amidst the fraternal comfort of the GAR, that strict veil of 19th century manliness could be pulled aside; veterans could realize that they were not the only ones who had felt scared in combat or had been wracked with guilt over killing a man. To help facilitate these connections between veterans, the GAR held local, regional, and national meetings in which they would sit around campfires singing war songs and telling stories. Not only did this serve as a sort of therapy for the men, but it also allowed them to reminisce and be proud of their actions and the fact that they were part of so great a cause at so important of an historical moment.

Two figures kneel before the soldiers on the cufflink. Scholars debate over who these figures are supposed to represent. Some believe they are two orphan children, while others believe they are slaves. Either one would make sense. The GAR set up a fund to help widows and orphans and they also helped set up many homes for orphans. These activities went hand-in-hand with another goal of the GAR– that of charity. The GAR believed that those who had fought and died for the Union deserved proper care for their families. The government was hard-pressed to provide pensions for veterans, let alone to provide for the families of the fallen, so the GAR took this task upon itself. By doing so, members set an example, showing that veterans and their families deserved to be rewarded for their sacrifice, and thereby declaring them members “worthy of charity.” It is also equally plausible that the figures in front are slaves because GAR members liked to promote an image of themselves as the liberators of the oppressed.

The GAR used its moral authority of being on the side of righteousness to try to control the memory of the war. The GAR funded many Civil War memorials and monuments in order to promote its version of history. For example, in Arkansas, a state divided in its loyalties and with many more Confederate monuments than Union ones, the GAR made sure to make its presence known. The inscription on one of the three GAR monuments in Arkansas proudly proclaims that the Union soldiers’ “sacrifices cemented our union of states and made our flag glorious forever.” Not only did the GAR remember the Civil War through monuments, but it also started the official tradition that came to be known as Memorial Day, (though many others, particularly Southern women, had been observing similar days since the war ended). Originally known as Decoration Day, the commander-in-chief of the GAR designated that May 30, 1868, would be a day for the decoration of Union graves. 31 states adopted Decoration Day as an official state holiday by the next year. This ensured that those who had sacrificed their lives for the Union cause would never be forgotten. In addition, it also served as a reminder that those living veterans who would proudly wear their cufflinks to these events to publicize their fraternal identity, deserved to be rewarded for their services.

In order to fight for what they believed veterans deserved, especially pensions, the GAR became a very political body. After the Civil War, it was difficult for a president to be elected or even win a primary without the endorsement of the GAR. The GAR became a political arm of the Republican party, lobbying for certain presidents and political candidates. It was not until 1885 that a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected president. However, Cleveland was not able to win immediate reelection because he vetoed a pension bill, which made members of the GAR angry . The GAR was very concerned with the welfare of veterans, and because of this they focused their lobbying efforts on obtaining pensions for veterans and their families. When politicians vetoed or opposed pension bills they were sure to feel the wrath of the GAR. Before the formation of the GAR, soldiers did not really take a large role in politics. Americans held that the ideal soldier was first and foremost a citizen and as such they should not take a role in government affairs. Americans were all too familiar with the unruly armies in Europe who did not protect the citizens but instead fought for money and power. American soldiers tended to return quietly to private life after they were done fighting because of this fear. The GAR, in contrast, was openly political and fought for what they believed they were owed.

This cufflink was much more than just a piece of jewelry. It was a way for comrades to identify each other and immediately bond over shared wartime experience . As such, it promoted camaraderie, friendship, and healing among veterans. Those who wore it were immediately identified as a member of a heroic class, and the white, northern veteran became the new model of honorable manhood. This cufflink also helped the GAR shape the memory of the Civil War. Its symbolism reinforced the idea that the Union had fought a just war that had saved global democracy and liberated an entire race of people. Additionally, the monuments and the traditions that the GAR started helped to promote a distinctly northern memory of the war, its causes, and consequences . As is evidenced by the actions of those who proudly wore these cufflinks, the post-war years were not, contrary to popular belief, all about reconciliation and a “forgive and forget” attitude; both sides tried passionately, and for many decades, to assert their own particular memory of the war. While the GAR was a veterans’ organization, it also became a political lobbying group. For the first time since the American Revolution, citizen soldiers became a tightly organized interest group dedicated to reshaping the political life of the country. No longer retreating back into their post-war private lives, these veterans but became directly involved in national politics, fighting for the material benefits and respect they believed they deserved in return for their sacrifice.


Sources:

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Christ, Mark K. “Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places: Grand Army of the Republic Monuments.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 77, no. 1 (Spring2018 2018): 67-73. Accessed September 16, 2018.

O’Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. ““When Johnny Comes Marching Home”: The Emergence of the Grand Army of the Republic.” In To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism, 29-48. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

“The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies (Main Reading Room, Library Of Congress)”. Loc.Gov. Last modified 2011. Accessed September 16, 2018.

“Where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty”: The Bible as a Vessel for Remembrance, Guidance, and Self-Understanding during the Civil War

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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The Bible of Lewis Tway

 

Courage, guidance, family, strength, self-understanding, and survival: These are just a few of the things that this Bible represented to the soldier who carried it. For Private Lewis Tway of the 147th New York Volunteers, this Bible provided a tangible link to all these things—a way to make sense of the at-times non-sensical chaos and carnage of war, a way to grow, learn, and adapt to the infinite physical and spiritual challenges of soldiering while still firmly rooting Tway in the foundational people and principles that gave his life meaning. Tway’s engagement with this Bible was never static; the evolution of that engagement, coupled with the multiple meanings that this Bible took on throughout the course of the Civil War were instrumental in shaping, and re-shaping, the man who carried it.

21-year-old Lewis Tway enlisted in the 147th New York in July of 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and was discharged in July of 1865. The 147th saw heavy fighting in between: The Battle of the Wilderness, the Mine Run Campaign, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg were just a few of their major engagements. This Bible was carried through the carnage of those battles in Tway’s pocket. Soldiers had to carry everything with them wherever they went. Though merely a palm-sized New Testament, this Bible would have meant extra weight for Tway to carry, but he found it important enough to do so. Its black leather binding worn to brown in some places from constant use, the Bible conveys a sense of constant companionship and consultation for Tway. It has a latch in the front that Tway would have to consciously remove to open it, but he did so time and time again. On the front page, he wrote his name and his regiment, which would have served as a type of dog tag in the case of his death—no doubt a comforting notion to a soldier who would be fighting hundreds of miles away from home and family. It also had blank pages in it which Tway could use as a sort of journal and a place to reflect on his experiences of warfare.

The text of the Bible is very small, but Tway marked up a lot of the passages in it that resonated with him, even writing notes in the margins. Tway’s notes bear witness to the emotional and spiritual challenges he confronted as well as his evolving perspective on those challenges. For example, he circled in pencil, 1 Corinthians 15:20, which refers to the resurrection of Christ, and he writes the word “easter” next to it. He may have been reading this and remembering the comforts of home and how he attended Easter services before the war began, as well as how he celebrated the holiday with his family. Making such notations may have also been a way for Tway to get his mind off the horrors of war, by really thinking about and examining each verse and attempting to understand what they meant in the broader context of the Bible as well as the context of his life as a soldier. From instances like these it is obvious that Tway dedicated time to reading the small text of the Bible and reflecting on it and how its message intertwined with the realities of his daily life. As exhibited in Tway’s notations, Tway appears to have turned to the Bible for self-understanding and as a coping mechanism during some of what were likely the darkest, most confounding days of his life.

For men like Tway, the Bible was not simply a holy book, but a piece of home they could carry with them. Many men received their Bibles as gifts from family members or dear friends. While it is unknown how Tway received his Bible, he most likely got it before leaving home. Judging by how worn and well-loved the Bible looks, it was one of Tway’s most cherished possessions, perhaps one that was a reminder of who was waiting at home for him. While he was not married until after the war, he did have a sister that he was very close to and who was one of the few people he wrote to during the war. The Bible was a piece of home for Tway, a reminder of his sister and other loved ones for whom he was fighting, and who were waiting for him to come home. Along with this Bible, he also carried a picture of a little girl, possibly his sister, which would have complemented the Bible as a visual reminder of whom he was fighting for.

The weight of the Bible in Tway’s pocket also served as a reminder to keep the faith and resist the many temptations of army life, such as alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Religion, especially Christianity, was a powerful force in the lives of most 19th century Americans. They went to church every week and looked to the Bible for all forms of moral guidance and teaching. It was essential not to stray from those teachings, which was why so many soldiers, such as Charles O. Varnum of the 40th Massachusetts, were warned by their parents to be wary of temptation in camp. Such calls for caution were not unique to the Union. On the Confederate side, Carlton McCarthy’s likewise father said he would rather see his son dead than hear tales of his immorality. The army had long been known as a place of temptation and these fathers were correct in voicing concern over their sons’ moral health. The physicality of the book in Tway’s pocket served as a constant reminder from home to never stray from the teachings of the Bible that so strongly undergirded so many elements of Victorian society.

Tway also probably found himself looking to his Bible often for religious advice or guidance in the midst of a war where God often seemed quite absent amidst the constant and horrifyingly brutal deaths of friends and comrades, who succumbed not only to battle wounds but to debilitating diseases. Tway wrote in a blank page of his Bible, “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” He may have been trying to fortify his own courage by reminding himself that constant faith in the Lord would liberate his own soul, both to perform great acts of courage in battle and to reach the gates of Heaven. However, by writing this notation in the midst of war, Tway may have been suggesting that he believed the spirit of the Lord was with the Union and on the side of liberty, and thus also with Tway, as a soldier in blue. His notation also may have referred to the liberation of slaves, as he joined the army after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Thus, Tway may have been reflecting on the political aims of the war through the lens of the Bible which, for many, imbued the Union cause with a comforting sense of sacredly ordained responsibility.

Like Tway, people on both sides of the conflict used the Bible as justification of their cause. The South tended to take a literal approach to the Bible, citing its many references to slavery as proof that God condoned slavery. The North tended to interpret the Bible less literally, saying that the characteristics of God as depicted in the Bible proved that He would not condone slavery. Due to passages found in the Bible, both sides believed that God was on their side and that He supported their cause. Indeed, not only soldiers, but entire armies felt that they were carrying out God’s will. For example, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Civil War song, is a deeply religious song written by a northerner who believed that the Union Army was doing God’s work. The North was on a Christ-like mission, according to the song: “As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The Bible was proof that the war and the killing necessitated by it were acceptable to God. Thus, the Civil War transformed the Bible into much more than a book that one looked to for moral guidance. It became a moral justification for all the killing and carnage that went along with the war. For the North especially, the war took on an increasingly religious cause, with the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves raised to a holy mission. Many northerners thus ultimately interpreted the war as a conflict fought under God’s will for the North and the Union’s great “democratic experiment ” to win and the oppressed to be freed, not merely a war to reunite the states.

Similarly, Tway seemed to have looked to the Bible for constant reassurance that his actions on the battlefield were indeed compatible with, and justified, by God. He marked Mark 10:17-20 in which a man asks Jesus what he has to do to achieve eternal life and Jesus answers that he must keep the commandments, one of which is not to kill. Tway was unable to keep this commandment during the war, but he seemed to have reconciled this fact both with the comforting knowledge that the cause in whose name such killing occurred was morally justified, and with other, specific verses in the Bible that gave more personal comfort. One of these, was Luke 15:7, which reads “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” As long as he repented, Tway knew he would still have a place in heaven. Tway was not the only soldier who worried about the apparent contradiction between soldiering and moral living; many dealt with immense guilt over the fact they had to kill their fellow human beings, even if they were the enemy. For these soldiers, the Bible provided moral guidance on how one could still achieve salvation.

In addition, the Bible also provided soldiers with temporary salvation from their present mental hell. Soldiers were constantly aware of the fact that they could die at any moment, which caused immense anxiety and depression for many. Tway became so preoccupied by the eventual reality of his own death, that he even wrote his own obituary after the war was over. This suggests that the war changed Tway by awakening him to the reality and eventuality of his own death. With death being a possibility every day during the war, Tway realized that it was similarly possible after the war and he made sure to take control of how he would be remembered. Many soldiers faced this same reality of possible death, especially before a battle; some looked to the Bible, praying that they would make it through safely, or praying for the strength to accept the Bible’s teachings about the preordained nature of death. Others looked to it after battle, as a way of coming to terms with the horrors they had witnessed and the carnage in which they had participated. For those on the verge of going into battle, carrying a Bible provided a sense that God literally was “by their side,” especially if one made it out of that battle alive and in one piece, which often caused immense gratitude towards God. The moral fortitude and sense of peace that many soldiers derived from the Bible also gave soldiers courage and the strength to face the prospect of death. This was especially necessary in a society where displays of cowardice could impugn both a soldier’s masculinity and sense of honor. Although Tway survived the war, he was wounded badly enough at the Battle of the Wilderness to receive a furlough so he could recover at home. The fact that he survived such a terrifying experience likely would have filled him with gratitude toward God and deepened the sense of personal closeness he felt to his Creator. Indeed, Tway likely clung to this very Bible not only during, but after his recovering as an act of devotion to God, who had saved his life.

Bibles were also used as momento mori, objects proving the soldier had died a “good death.” Achieving the “good death” was essential for 19th -century Americans. One was supposed to die at home, surrounded by family, and demonstrating a preparedness for death. It was believed that the last moments before death were reflective of what that person’s afterlife would be like. For instance, it was thought that if a person were to die screaming, they would be sentenced to perpetually scream in the afterlife. Screaming was a sign that the deceased was not prepared for death nor resigned to God’s will, so their place in heaven was uncertain. With soldiers fighting hundreds of miles away from home, and facing unimaginable horrors and prolonged suffering , the good death was hard to come by on the battlefields of the Civil War. Thus, surviving soldiers constantly struggled to justify the death of a fallen comrade when writing to his family. Families wanted to hear that their soldier had died a heroic death, and was calm and serene at the end, accepting of his fate. When no one was around to see how the soldier died, momento mori served as hints as to if the soldier faced death with bravery and acceptance or cowardice and denial—hints that fellow comrades could convey to family to comfort them in their grief. A Bible was an important momento mori because it showed that the deceased was a believer and had held onto his Bible until the last second, proving that he had accepted God’s will. If Tway had died during the war, his Bible would have helped assure his family that he had a place in heaven. Although Tway survived the war, his Bible likely still played an important role in how he remembered and internalized his wartime experiences. An active member in postwar veteran’ organizations, Tway clearly derived great pride and meaning from his military service. Such meaning was deeply shaped by the religious lens through which he had understood his soldiering experience and the war, its causes, and its consequences. His Bible had helped him, physically, morally, and spiritually survive the war and ensured that he could help contribute to the restoration of the Union and the liberation of four million souls.

Tway
Lewis Tway

As is evident, the Bible took on many meanings for Tway and many other Americans during the war, and it helped shape the wartime experiences and worldviews of soldiers in camp and on the battlefield. Tway used the Bible, as many other soldiers did, as a lens through which to view his experience and explain what was happening to him. The Bible was able to affirm for him that, while what he was doing was technically a sin, he could still earn a place in heaven should he kill in the name of liberty, and repent sufficiently for taking a life. For many other soldiers, the Bible provided the same comfort in the face of battle and possible death. It provided them with courage to face the ensuing carnage and an explanation as to why they deserved to live when so many of their friends had died. For these soldiers and Tway, the Bible helped shape their wartime experiences and provided them with hope, courage, and guidance amidst a kind of carnage and death they had never experienced before.


Sources:

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “‘This Is My Last Letter to You’. (Cover story).” Civil War Times 47, no. 1 (February 2008): 28-35. Accessed September 3, 2017.

MacDonald, G Jeffrey. “Gettysburg Museum Looks at Faith Roles in Civil War.” The Christian Century 130, no. 17 (August 21, 2013): 17. Accessed September 3, 2017.

Miller, Randall M. “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis: A Comment.” Fides Et Historia 39, no. 2 (Sum 2007): 13-22. Accessed September 3, 2017.

MS-011: Lewis Tway Collection. Gettdigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA. Accessed September 10, 2018.

Trampling Mrs. Lee’s Roses: Union Soldiers at Arlington

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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Mary Custis Lee

“I would not stir from this house even if the whole Northern Army were to surround it,” wrote Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, to her daughter, Eleanor Agnes Lee on May 5, 1861. The Civil War was still in its infancy when Mary Lee wrote this letter, having begun a month earlier on April 12, 1861. Her husband had already sided with the Confederacy but there had not been much fighting yet. Even still, Mary Lee’s life was changing and would continue to change irrevocably throughout the war, especially in relation to Arlington House. Arlington House was the only home Mary Lee had ever known. It had been her childhood home, built by her father George Washington Parke Custis in 1802, and was the home where she raised her own children. Little did she know that by the end of the month, she would be gone from Arlington House.

Arlington House is just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. It is two miles from the White House and not much farther from other important governmental buildings. If the Confederates had been allowed to occupy Arlington, they could potentially have shelled the White House from there. Of course, the Union could not allow this to happen. So, on May 24, 1861, 10,000 Union soldiers under the command of Charles W. Sandford occupied the Arlington estate. When they arrived, the Lees had already fled, leaving only their slaves behind to take care of the estate in their absence. Union soldiers occupied the grounds until 1862, when Lincoln issued the initial Emancipation Proclamation and slaves began to flood the D.C. area. So, in a highly symbolic gesture, a refugee camp for freed slaves called Freedman’s Village was set up by the Federal Government on the grounds of the house that belonged to a man fighting to uphold slavery. This camp turned into an expansive village, eventually including a chapel, hospital, and dozens of family homes. The government also sponsored workshops to help teach the freed slaves skills that would be useful in the labor force and in finding employment.

Not only was Arlington House made into a camp for former slaves, it was also made into a cemetery for Union dead. In 1864, the casualty toll began to increase dramatically. In May alone there were 44,000 Union casualties. Many of the wounded were sent to Washington hospitals to hopefully recover, although many succumbed to their wounds. At first, the dead were buried in the cemetery at the Soldier’s Home, a military retirement home in Washington D.C., but that was full by 1864. Another place was needed, and Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs suggested Arlington, as he believed the grounds there were perfect for that use. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton agreed, and on June 15, 1864, he issued an order declaring the Arlington grounds a military cemetery. Burials began swiftly after this order. Meigs personally oversaw the burial of 65 Union officers, including his own son, John Rodgers Meigs, in Mary Lee’s rose garden and ordered all burials after that to be done as close to the mansion as possible so that it could not be used as a residence again.

Even though the Union had taken great strides to make Arlington House its own, when the war ended, Mary Lee set out to get her house back. While the government has the right to seize property during wartime, under the concept of eminent domain, it still must provide just compensation to the landowner. The Lee’s were never compensated, though, because Arlington was seized under the authority of the Doolittle Act of 1862. The Doolittle Act was an attempt by the Union government to raise money for the war effort. It allowed government commissioners to assess and collect taxes on real estate in “insurrectionary districts” and then auction off the property if the tax was not paid. Arlington was assessed, and it was determined that Mary Lee owed $90.07 for the property. Mary Lee attempted to send a cousin, Phillip Fendall, to pay the tax in December 1863, but the commissioners said they would only accept payment from the landowner, Mary Lee, in person, meaning she would have to cross Confederate and Union lines to pay the tax. There was, however, nothing in the act that said the landowner must pay in person.

About a decade later, in1872, Mary Lee petitioned Congress for compensation, at the very least be paid for the property that had been taken from her. The proposal to pay her was resoundingly defeated by a vote of 54 to 4. Mary Lee died the next year, never seeing her house again after she had left it in May of 1861. Her son then took up the fight to get the house back. He sued the government officials that had seized Arlington, and his case went all the way up to the Supreme Court.

In 1882, in the case of United States v. Lee, the Supreme Court decided that Custis Lee was indeed the legal owner of Arlington House. Lee claimed that the government had violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment by claiming title to the land through an invalid land tax and not compensating Mary Lee for the land. The Supreme Court agreed with Lee, by a vote of 5 to 4, making it clear that the Constitution cannot be suspended during wartime. Lee was not as concerned with getting the actual property back as he was with getting the government to pay for it. With all the bodies and the controversy it would cause to have them disinterred, Lee agreed to the government’s proposal to purchase Arlington for $150,000 on February 7, 1883. Lee had gotten what his mother wanted all along, though she was not alive to see it.

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Union soldiers standing in front of Arlington House

The circumstances surrounding Arlington are all highly symbolic. The fact that it was turned into a camp for freed slaves was meant to send a message to Robert E. Lee, as were the bodies that were buried there. Housing freed slaves and burying Union soldiers on his property was a way of punishing Lee for his betrayal. The Union soldiers buried on his lawn served as a constant reminder of his responsibility in causing their deaths. The struggle that Mary Lee and her son went through to be justly compensated for their property shows that there were still lingering wounds and bad feelings between the North and the South, as Congress was not willing to admit legal fault to the family of an ex-Confederate. Now Arlington, the house so dear to Mary Lee, serves as a burial ground for soldiers of the United States—soldiers who were her husband’s enemies. Arlington can be seen as somewhat of a microcosm of the Civil War and its legacy. It was close to D.C., the capital of the Union, but was a highly contested area by both sides. Originally belonging to a Southerner, the North took it back during the war and it was highly contested even after that. In the courts, Custis Lee fought it out with the Federal government and he won a symbolic victory, but ultimately the government got what they wanted, to keep Arlington as a cemetery for Federal soldiers. Arlington’s legacy is complicated, much like the legacy of the Civil War.


Sources:

Gaughan, Anthony J. “Taking Back Arlington.” Civil War Times 50, no. 6 (December 2011): 32-39. Accessed April 16, 2018.

Gaughan, Anthony J. “The Arlington Cemetery Case: A Court and a Nation Divided.” Journal of Supreme Court History 37, no. 1 (March 2012): 1-21. Accessed April 16, 2018.

Lee, Mary Randolph Custis. “Petition of Mary Ann Randolph Lee.” January 22, 1872. Accessed April 16, 2017.

Lee, Mary Randolph Custis to Eleanor Agnes Lee. May 5, 1861. Accessed April 16, 2018.

Poole, Robert M. “The Battle of Arlington.” Smithsonian 40, no. 8 (November 2009): 50-57. Accessed April 16, 2018.

The Sins of the Father: “Light Horse” Harry Lee and Robert E. Lee

By Savannah Labbe ’19

In early 1862, Robert E. Lee was not yet in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, he was sent by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to inspect and improve the South’s coastal defenses. This job brought him to Cumberland Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia, and while there, he visited the ancestral home of Nathanael Greene, where his father was buried in the family plot. Greene was a famous and talented Revolutionary War general who led the Continental Army to success in taking back the Southern colonies. Lee’s father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee helped Greene take back the colonies, which is how they became friends. In a letter to his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, he discusses the visit and remarks how the grave is “marked by a plain marble slab.” At first glance, Lee seems to be a dutiful son visiting his father’s grave, but there is much more to the story. The story begins with Lee’s father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero who seems to be just the type of person that Lee would look up to and aspire to be.

Harry Lee quickly rose up through the ranks in the Continental Army. In 1779, he led a handful of men on a night raid on Paulus Hook, New Jersey. The men marched thirty miles in wet terrain that damaged their gunpowder. Armed only with bayonets when they arrived, they took the British completely by surprise and captured 158 prisoners. Lee was promoted after this, and Congress minted a gold medal in his honor, one of only seven such awards. He was then sent to the Southern colonies to help Nathanael Greene take them back from the British. The Southern colonies were most full of loyalist sentiment, so Greene and Lee were sent down to ensure that the British were not able to take advantage of this loyalty and cut off the South from the rest of the colonies. The campaign was surprisingly successful under the brilliant leadership of Greene, who only commanded roughly 1,000 regulars but was able to use militia and other partisan fighters to his advantage. During this campaign, Lee and his cavalry raided British outposts, cut supply lines, and gathered information on the enemy that helped lead to the ultimate success of the Americans in the Southern theatre. After the war, Lee was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1785, and in 1787, he was elected to take part in Virginia’s constitutional convention, in which he strongly fought for ratification of the Constitution. He later become governor of Virginia and was also elected to Congress.

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“Light Horse” Harry Lee. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Judging from his military record and his political ambitions, Harry Lee might seem the epitome of the American patriot. However, Lee had a dark side to him, one that became more prominent as the years wore on. One can see glimpses of Lee’s less favorable attributes during the Revolutionary War. Even though his actions at Paulus Hook were a success, he was court martialed due to insubordination and being too hasty in his actions. However, this charge did not stick. During the war, he was known for his brutal tactics. In 1778, he assisted General Anthony Wayne in capturing a fort at Stony Point, New York where he caught three deserters, one of which he ordered to be hanged and decapitated. He then sent the deserter’s decapitated head to Washington. He also interrogated a loyalist prisoner in North Carolina by pressing a red-hot shovel to his feet to get information out of him.

Lee proved to be somewhat ruthless and also vain and arrogant. He resigned his commission in 1782 because he felt he was underappreciated. He also was summoned by Washington to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, which was an uprising of farmers in Pennsylvania who were protesting a tax on whiskey, as they often used it as a type of currency and it was important to their economy. Even though the Rebellion was bloodless, and Lee did not do much besides provide a show of force, he was promoted to general and insisted that people call him general after that.

After the war, Harry Lee’s life seemed to only go downhill. He was a big dreamer and an optimist, which caused him to get involved in a lot of land speculation schemes and get himself in a lot of debt. One of these schemes was to build a canal in Great Falls, Virginia that would link the United States to Western lands on the other side of the Alleghenies. He bought 500 acres around Great Falls that he hoped to make into a city named Matildaville (named after his first wife and second cousin, Matilda Lee, who died in 1790). Neither the city nor the canal came to fruition. He tried to get out of debt by borrowing more money and buying more land, but he only ended up digging himself deeper. He started selling property he did not even own, and he put up chains on the door of his house to keep creditors out. He became very mobile in the early years of the 1800s, hardly staying at home in order to keep from paying his debts. Finally, in 1808, he gave up running and turned himself in and was put in jail for two years, released only after he agreed to pay his larger debts through the sale of land. He had written a memoir while in jail and hoped to use this to get rich again but did not make any money off of it. He then continued to avoid his debtors, going to the Caribbean and returning to the United States in 1818, where he died while staying with Nathanael Greene.

Robert E. Lee was left with a confusing legacy of his father. In fact, he hardly knew his father, as he was only two years old when Harry was imprisoned; after that, Harry spent most of his time trying to escape creditors and was not home often. In what little time Lee had known his father, Harry was no longer a Revolutionary War hero but rather a swindler, even earning the new nickname Swindling Harry Lee. So, what influence did Harry Lee have on Robert E. Lee? It seems that most of what Lee knew influenced him not to be like his father. Lee only visited Harry’s grave for the first time in 1862, almost fifty years after the latter’s death. Lee could have easily visited before then but never did, indicating a dislike for his father and the legacy he left. He did mention the visit to his grave to his wife, but he had to tell her in the letter how his father came to be buried there, indicating that he did not really talk about his father to anyone, including his wife. In a letter he wrote a day later to his son he did not even mention his father’s grave, instead remarking on the beautiful gardens on the property.

As a result of his father’s influence, Lee never drank, and he was exceedingly frugal with his money. He was very hard on himself and his children to make sure that none of them ended up like Harry. For example, in 1851 he wrote a letter to his son at West Point, admonishing him for being second in his class when he should be first. Lee was also very concerned about his honor and maintaining his status as an upstanding Virginia gentleman, most likely because his father had tarnished his honor and had not behaved like a gentleman. Lee was determined to prove that he was different. The experience Lee had with his father helped shape the man he would become, providing a model for everything that Lee should not be. If anything, the person he became was much more like his mother. His mother made sure that he did not end up like his father and wanted Lee to grow up to be another George Washington; he even married a woman who was a descendent of Washington.

Parents always influence their children, and Robert E. Lee is no exception to this. The pressure to reclaim and reimagine his family image was very great and in many ways he did a very good job of that. Not only does Harry Lee influence how we view Robert E. Lee, Robert E. Lee also influences how we view Harry Lee. It is easy for us to overlook Harry Lee’s flaws and see him as only a great Revolutionary War hero since his son was also a great military figure and it is easy to assume it is just in their blood. Robert E. Lee would probably be happy that we see his father in such a way, as he tried so hard throughout his life to redeem his family name and salvage the reputation of his father. He did not want people to know who his father really was and hardly talked about him. Instead, he set out to help save the reputation of the Lee family by being nothing like his father and always doing his duty. He felt a duty to uphold his family name and he did so by trying to erase the sins of his father. Lee in fact overshadows his father in the history books. It is Robert E. Lee that everyone talks about, not his father. He is the Lee that everyone remembers and so in many ways it seems that Lee succeeded in reclaiming the family name.


Sources

Fellman, Michael. “Struggling with Robert E. Lee.” Southern Cultures no. 3 (2002): 6. Accessed March 23, 2018.

Lee, Robert to Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee. January 18, 1862. The Lee Family Digital Archive. Accessed March 23, 2018. https://leefamilyarchive.org/family-papers/letters/letters-1862.

Lee, Robert to George Washington Custis Lee. January 19, 1862. The Lee Family Digital Archive. Accessed March 23, 2018. https://leefamilyarchive.org/family-papers/letters/letters-1862.

Poole, Robert M. “Light Horse: Harry Lee Overreaching Hero of the Revolution.” American History 47, no. 2 (June 2012): 34-39. Accessed March 23, 2018.

Thomson, J. Anderson Jr., and Carlos Michael Santos. “The Mystery in the Coffin: Another View of Lee’s Visit to His Father’s Grave.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 103, no. 1 (1995): 75-94.