With the sesquicentennial of the surrender at Appomattox only one day away, I can’t seem to shake the sentimental sadness of the ending of the anniversaries of the Civil War. I am seeing an end of an era in more ways than one—being a senior here at Gettysburg College ironically makes the four years of my college career land perfectly on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. 2011 to 2015, 1861 to 1865—can’t get more Civil War than that. I used to think it was a sign and honestly, I still do. But like the soldiers starting up in 1861 and being fortunate enough to make it to 1865, I have learned a lot over the past four years. Putting these lessons into a Civil War context only solidifies the comparison and maybe can even get a little chuckle from my fellow Civil War nuts. So here are the lessons from the College in the Civil War Era (Studies).
- The ‘it’s going to be a quick three months war and we’re ready’ mentality of soldiers in 1861 is exactly like the first few months of college. You think that you are ready and you’re rearing to go until you are trying to study for your first exam. You march the way you were trained, you prepare with confidence and you go all in…to suddenly realize that you are at the Battle of First Manassas. You are not prepared and it was not what you expected. Time to go back, redrill, and reorganize.
- Sometimes it takes a while to find the proper commander of your army. Like Lincoln and McClellan and Davis and Johnson, if you don’t click with your advisor, you’re going to have problems on the academic battlefield. Sometimes it takes many switches, like the Army of the Potomac but sometimes you get really lucky and find your Robert E. Lee early on.
- Going ‘Hard War’ on your roommate like Ambrose Burnside on Fredericksburg will probably bring the same results. People get angry when they are bombarded. Don’t be like Burnside—communicate with your peers so that you’re not doing twelve useless assaults to figure out whose food is spoiled in the fridge.
- There will be assignments where you need to be Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. Your mind will have to march a grueling twelve miles in preparation to then outflank your professor and surprise them with your victorious grade. Just don’t get shot by your own men.
- You will have your own Pickett’s Charge. Maybe, like Lee, you were overconfident or maybe you had the stomach flu and could barely peel yourself off your bathroom floor. Either way, you tried and it didn’t work. Be like the Army of Northern Virginia and retreat. Retreat to the safety of your home state and keep pushing for another two years. It’s not over yet.
- Be like William T. Sherman and try something new. Cut communications with Washington. Get out on your own and blaze your own trail by studying abroad. Exploring new places and destroying “those people” in their territory of academics will be the most reinvigorating experience of your college career. Keep pushing and watch your Atlanta of writers block burn to the ground.
- You will be Ulysses S. Grant during the Overland Campaign for your senior thesis. “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all [semester].” And it will take all semester. You will fight hard through the Wilderness and sometimes it feels like your professor sets fire to the woods you’re fighting through. Now what?! You’re Grant, so you don’t let some smoldering ash stop you. You will stay up all night and fight for twenty-two hours at the Mule Shoe of a first draft. It will be hand-to-hand combat with your keyboard. But keep fighting! You will break through!
- Being a second-semester senior feels like being in the trenches at Petersburg. You know the days are ticking away and you just want to go home. You want to carry on with your life outside the trenches. Sometimes, like the Army of Northern Virginia, you start to panic as the Army of the Potomac of Reality and Adulthood closes in on you. Don’t worry—even Robert E. Lee scrambled at the last minute.
- Like Lee and Grant walking across the porch of the McLean House, you will walk the stage to the end of your four years of war. You fought long and hard and maybe you don’t want it to end. But on that day, like April 9, 1865, it’s officially over.
- Now what? The arrival of real life suddenly spirals you into Reconstruction. War debt starts to be collected. Whether you’re going to graduate school, going into the workforce, or taking a year off, you have moved into the post-war years. It’s a complex and complicated time as you readjust to a new lifestyle and it might take a few years to officially get on your feet. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long as the postwar United States, but you’ll get there. I know I will.
Congratulations to the Class of 2015: Generation 150. It has been a wild ride as the sesquicentennial paralleled our four years at Gettysburg College. I wouldn’t change it for the world, even if I am starting to get antsy in my Petersburg trench…