Ever since the Civil War ended, many sons and daughters of the South have worked tirelessly to ensure that the spirit of their Confederate ancestors and their failed rebellion would live on, and in a favorable (though often false) light. Historians, politicians, and citizens alike have grappled with such interpretations since the final shots were fired in 1865. The Lost Cause discourse pushes notions of Northern aggression against a peaceful Southern society, deifies leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and highlights the bravery and success of Southern troops against enormous odds. For generations, many Southerners have sought to elevate the image of the Confederate cause and its defenders within the public sphere, initially celebrating them through memorial associations, monuments, parades and literature. Through the moral teachings of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other materials, they also ensured that every Southern school child would remember their forefathers with nothing short of unadulterated reverence, and emphasize their brave defense of home and hearth against Northern aggression. At Gettysburg Souvenirs and Gifts, one can find an interesting item that continues to carry on this persistent strand of Confederate memory in the United States today.
The item in question is a shirt emblazoned with a giant, majestic black bald eagle, opening its wings to reveal a sword and the Confederate Stars and Bars. Above the eagle floats a large banner with bold print which proclaims, “You Need a Lesson in American History,” with another banner underneath the eagle stating “If this shirt Offends You.” The shirt is clearly a response to recent backlash against the Confederate flag and Confederate memory as a whole. An owner of this shirt would wear it to show both their ancestral or regional pride, as well as their continued loyalty to the romanticized notions of the Old South. By featuring such merchandise, it appears that the store is looking to cater to, among other niche cultural tourism groups, those who wish to preserve and promote a somewhat siloed version of the memory of the fallen Confederacy’s leaders and soldiers—one that separates martial valor and battlefield bravery from the causes and consequences of Confederate secession.
Gettysburg has long provided an ideal platform for a more romanticized and sanitized version of Confederate memory to flourish, as it plays into Lost Cause notions of an honorable and brave South fighting against insurmountable odds for a noble cause. One of the most famous spots on the battlefield, the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” at the Angle on Cemetery Ridge, quickly emerged as the symbol of the closest that the Rebels came to winning the war; according to Lost Cause rhetoric, after their brave defeat at Pickett’s Charge, the Confederates never again would get the chance for ultimate victory, and yet they fought on, dutifully and nobly, for another two years in defense of everything they held dear. This concept is flawed, as there is no one real battle, nor spot on any battlefield that held the singular power to turn the teleological tide of war for good, and the war very much hung in the balance throughout the bulk of 1864. However, a palpable place where the Rebels valiantly “almost” realized their dream, against overwhelming odds, holds incredible staying power in the hearts and minds of many, from both the North and the South. Such a tantalizing notion helps to explain why a pro-Confederate shirt would be for sale in a store located at the site of the South’s greatest defeat, in addition to why the former Confederate states were allowed to erect a plethora of monuments to their men along the battlefield.
For many, both commemorative landscapes such as monuments and memorials, as well as cultural tourism souvenirs such as this shirt serve as a reminder of the Confederate soldiers’ bravery and sacrifice, even in defeat. The erection of Confederate state monuments and statues are some of the most famous efforts to preserve Southern pride and to help educate future generations as to the “most important” causes and consequences of the war, yet their overarching statements carry over into the types of memorabilia sold at the greatest “shrine” to the Civil War in all of America–Gettysburg. Even in defeat, proponents of Confederate memorialization and commercialism emphasize that their men fought bravely and justifiably to the end, accomplishing significant moral victories, if not military ones, despite overwhelming odds. Just as the “high-water mark” represents for Southerners all that they had gained in the face of adversity, this shirt (in a similar, but more blunt sense) aims to project an unshrinking declaration of pride in and respect for the Stars and Bars and for those who fought courageously under it. The assertive language seems to warn any naysayers against disrespecting fallen Confederates, arguing that they don’t truly understand the Civil War or the full “truth” behind the history of the Confederacy if they are upset by the iconography of the shirt. It urges people to be unabashedly proud of what Confederate soldiers and leaders accomplished and how hard they fought, while again siloing how Confederates fought away from the principles that they fought for.
Additionally, the symbol of the eagle is a fascinating part of this shirt. The bald eagle is famously the symbol of the United States, yet a flag whose people took up arms against the U.S. is emblazoned within the eagle. It is not difficult to see the irony here, yet there might be an explanation. Confederate rhetoric during and after the war promoted the notion that the secessionists were the noble successors to the Founding Fathers of the Revolution. They believed that they, and not Northerners, were carrying on the noble duty of the men who established the Constitution and America’s democratic republic, and that southerners’ “freedom” and “states’ rights” were principles that the Constitution upheld. Perhaps this shirt is trying to tap into these ideas, and use the eagle as a bold statement that the Confederates were rightly attempting to carry out the vision of the nation’s founding fathers. (Of course, absent from this statement is the fact that “freedom” and “states’ rights” that the Confederates fought for were inextricably bound to the institution of slavery.
As many know, countless different interpretations of the battle of Gettysburg and the entire Civil War have proliferated over the past 160 years. The Lost Cause and other interpretations that cast the Confederates in a noble and positive light dominated much of postwar discourse in the South, and eventually in the North as well, gaining a foothold that allowed it to seep into the mainstream of the Civil War’s commemorative and commercial culture and national memory. As this shirt demonstrates, threads of this interpretation are still alive and clearly marketable.
Commemorative coins are popular among gift shop visitors of all ages, whether the purchaser is a history buff or the coin just happens to attract them. Sometimes coins are only available in specific locations, and hunters must travel to find their newest piece. Other times, the shiny veneer entices their gaze, and the figure on the coin draws them in. Coins like the ones pictured above may not be valuable, but they are prevalent throughout Gettysburg’s tourist shops. The Harriet Tubman and Donald Trump coins are a great example of Gettysburg’s thriving dual tourism identity: One side is deeply connected with Civil War history, while the other aims to connect significant present-day issues or political figures with Gettysburg’s Civil War past.
Donald Trump is one of the last figures visitors would expect to see in a Gettysburg gift shop. Although the president did visit the military park in 2016, his trip was not particularly memorable. He visited the scene of Pickett’s Charge and presented a speech but left soon after for his next stop on the campaign trail. When tourists visit Gettysburg, they expect to see souvenirs with Civil War iconography on them, such as flags, cannons, and soldiers. Seeing the face of such a recent president with little connection to the town would make anyone look twice. However, for some, this coin appeals to a sense of proud patriotism; Trump was the country’s president and has touted himself as a redemptive figure for a fractured nation and a “true patriot” who can “make America great again” by re-inculcating traditional American ideals within society. For many tourists to Gettysburg, their visit is part of almost a compulsory stop at one of America’s national “shrines”—a place where the founding ideals of the country were contested in one of the most pivotal and largest battles of the war, a place where Abraham Lincoln famously reaffirmed the sacredness of the Union cause and a place to reaffirm one’s own personal patriotism and devotion to honoring our nation’s fallen heroes. Thus, for some, a visit to Gettysburg and the purchase of a Trump commemorative coin thereat is a cohesive ritual in American patriotism, aimed to simultaneously honor the past and ensure that the future of their nation will be “worthy” of that past. While it is true that the casual collector of presidential coins may simply see this item and want to purchase it merely to expand their collection, and others may purchase it out of sheer admiration for the former Commander in Chief, many purchasers undoubtedly open up their wallets due to what they see as Trump’s modern-day embodiment of the patriotic ideals for which thousands of men fought and died at Gettysburg—the ideals of Lincoln’s Republican Party that they see reflected in Trump’s. Thus, the coin represents a truly unique type of Gettysburg tourism.
The Harriet Tubman coin aligns much more closely with the expected Civil War niche of Gettysburg tourism. Tubman was an escaped slave who made several trips back into the South to rescue about 70 enslaved people using the Underground Railroad. Although Tubman never made the journey to Gettysburg, her story is essential to the broader Civil War story. Numerous locations within Gettysburg and Adams County purport to have been “stations” along the Underground Railroad. Tubman’s famous rescues and usage of the Underground Railroad have made her a household name; she is the subject of movies, books, and even children’s stories. It makes sense that her photo would be on a commemorative coin, though some might wonder why such coins are sold here. Despite her lack of a Gettysburg connection, her status as a hero in the Civil War would certainly attract visitors and prospective purchasers to her coin, and the town’s fame as a border town during the war and home to many stops on the Underground Railroad somewhat justify the inclusion of such an item in the gift shops.
Because Gettysburg is the site of the bloodiest Civil War battle and frequently the first and/or only battlefield that tourists visit, increasingly, both the town’s museums and souvenir shops have striven to address the entire history of the Civil War. Thus, Harriet Tubman’s coin has a few layers; it not only represents Tubman’s personal story but also serves as a reminder of the price of freedom and equality—a price exacted on the fields of Gettysburg as well as in other critical battles. Additionally, in an attempt to appeal to a wider and more diverse set of tourists, many souvenir stores (like the museums and National Park Service) seek to provide stories and tangible items that speak to a broader cross-section of the American public by featuring the stories of those who, in the past, were often relegated to the shadows of history. In purchasing this coin, visitors thus might not only see their personal history more inclusively represented but will also be reminded of the ties between the causes of the war and the battlefield that they just visited.
The placement of the Donald Trump and Harriet Tubman coins is intriguing. During President Trump’s term, there were several pushes to replace President Andrew Jackson with an image of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. However, all of these attempts failed under the Trump administration. The redesign of the currency has since been accelerated after President Biden’s election but has yet to have a current implementation date. President Trump’s refusal to place Tubman on the $20 is political, as he did not want to bend to the will of the Democratic Party and his predecessor, President Obama. However, the juxtaposition of the two commemorative coins does not seem circumstantial; the politically charged legacy of President Trump and his connection to the debates over Harriet Tubman’s monetary image may make visitors more inclined to buy one coin over the other. For instance, supporters of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill may purchase her coin after seeing it next to President Trump’s as a way to support her memory. Others who admire President Trump and support his political partisanship may buy his coin as another keepsake of his term and his political vision for the country. However, some collectors or buffs may still buy both.
Gettysburg has a complicated history. On the one hand, it is a Civil War town that tries to preserve the legacy of the war for the future generation. However, it is also a town in 21st-century America that has to keep up with the politics and social issues of the modern era. As a “pilgrimage” site for a true cross-section of visitors from all over the country—and all around the world—Gettysburg is perpetually navigating the fine balance between past and present, the unique and the universal. The juxtaposition of the Harriet Tubman and Donald Trump coins perfectly illustrates these tensions; President Trump’s controversial governance also reveals the ways in which the present often informs public understanding of the past. While some Gettysburgians wish to focus the visitor’s gaze squarely on the past, others are much more rooted in yoking that past to the present in an attempt to shape the future. There are promises and perils to each. For those involved in the business of “selling Gettysburg,” it means a constant juggling match as they compete for visitors’ minds and money.
Visitors to Gettysburg will not be hard-pressed to find a cannon; however, most cannons of Gettysburg are larger than two inches and are meant to be filled with cannon balls, not pencils. Yet, visitors to the Civil War Store will find just this type of unique cannon amongst a wall of other oddly shaped pencil sharpeners ranging from trees to tanks.
Coming in at one inch tall by two inches long, this pencil sharpener masquerading as a cannon looks remarkably similar to the real thing. Raised rivets painted copper to appear to have an “antique finish” and working movable wheels help this cannon-sharpener to appear as realistic as possible.
As previously established, there is an abundance of cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield, so much so that they have become a staple of battlefield promotional photographs and the subjects of countless Gettysburg sunset pictures. Gettysburg would simply not be complete without cannons.
In a way, it is quite ironic how the cannons at Gettysburg have become such a romanticized symbol of the battlefield. What were once mass-killing machines have become props for thousands of photographs and “cool” playgrounds for young children visiting the battlefield.
For many visitors to Gettysburg, especially these young visitors, their battlefield experience revolves around seeing, touching, climbing on, taking pictures in front of, etc. a cannon. It is a pivotal experience that many remember long after their trip to Gettysburg ends. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they would want to memorialize their cannon experience with a tactile, albeit miniature, replica. The fact that it doubles as a pencil sharpener is a bonus that can be used to convince parents to purchase the cannon or allow them to bring it to school to show off to their friends.
Now every time that a child has to sharpen their pencil in school, they can pull out their cannon-shaped sharpener and remember their wonderful experiences from their trip to Gettysburg. In addition, they get lots of admiration from their friends and classmates regarding their super cool new tool/toy, prompting further conversation regarding their trip to Gettysburg, what they have learned, and likely a few statements along the lines of “Gettysburg had cannons everywhere, it was so cool!”
Most young visitors come to Gettysburg on trips with their schools or families. They stay for a few days, learn about the battle that took place for three days here, and then head back to their regularly scheduled, often boring, classroom work. Yet, for a select few, Gettysburg will stay with them beyond the battlefield, in the form of a cannon-shaped pencil sharpener.
Washington D.C.’s Daily National Republican’s “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle” and Richmond, Virginia’s The Daily Dispatch’s “Our Army Correspondence” both describe the deaths of soldiers who received mortal wounds at the battle of Gettysburg and attempt to highlight the positive outcomes of the fight while struggling against disillusionment, though to varying degrees. These articles reached readers residing near the epicenter of the war, as they lived in the capital cities of each warring nation.
The Daily National Republican reprinted its article from the New York Times, as was common due to the interconnections between newspapers. The Daily National Republican was the newer of the two papers, as it was created in 1860 under the name the National Republican. From its establishment, the paper aimed to specifically reach Republicans in the United States’ capital and to specifically support the Lincoln administration. Its narrow focus was perhaps due to it competing with four other daily newspapers in the city. On the other hand, The Daily Dispatch, while also being a daily paper, was founded in 1850 with the goal of remaining nonpartisan and appealing to Richmond’s industrial and commercial elites. However, once the Civil War began, the paper’s editors quickly left behind their original nonpartisan ideals and shifted the newspaper’s focus to be staunchly Democrat and pro-Confederate. The opposing political leanings of the newspapers are evident in both “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle” and “Our Army Correspondence,” despite the two articles focusing in on very similar themes.
On July 9, 1863, “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle,” was published in the Daily National Republican, four days after the article’s original printing in the New York Times. This article provides its readers with a brief overview of the battle and then dives into a detailed description of the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault on July 3rd, which began with a “storm of iron” during the artillery bombardment. The author, L.L. Crounse, shifted his focus relatively early in the piece to describe the cost of the battle in human lives, telling stories ranging from that of individuals to those of whole divisions. Crounse’s graphic descriptions challenge the Victorian era notion of the Good Death. Following the principles of the Good Death, a soldier would, in theory, be injured in battle, but not die instantly, as he would have time to travel home and die, surrounded by his loved ones. In part, these family and friends would be present to provide comfort, but it was also crucially important for them to hear and document his last words so that they would know he died courageously and at peace with God, determining his eternal fate. The soldier’s family and friends would ultimately be able to bury the soldier’s (intact) body in their hometown, rather than in an anonymous plot in some unknown field in a state far from home. During the Civil War, some soldiers attempted to adapt the Good Death to a battle situation, wherein they made agreements with their comrades to write home to each other’s families in the circumstance of their death to provide family members with the details on how they died, their final words, and descriptions of how they performed in battle; such letters were often accompanied by a soldier’s personal effects, intending to help provide the family with as much closure as they possibly could.
However, Crounse’s descriptions often challenged the Good Death, focusing on grisly battlefield deaths where the mangled soldiers who were dying in agony, far from home had no one to record their final words or recite a comforting biblical passage to them. For example, he informs his readers of the death of Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson, who lingered alone for ten excruciating hours after being mortally wounded on July 1st, stranded on the battlefield, with no one to record his dying words and certainly far from his home and loved ones. Wilkeson did not personally achieve the Good Death, and the closest his family came to remedying that fact was when his father managed to claim his body and effects after the battle so that his family at least had an idea of what happened to him.
Crounse also unabashedly shared the mass-scale carnage of July 3rd with his readers, noting, “Our immortal men, nerved to a degree of desperation never before equaled, poured forth, such a devastating fire, and the artillery joining with its terrible canister, that the two long lines of the foe literally sank into the earth.” Like Wilkeson, those two ranks of Confederate soldiers did not experience the Good Death—they were mowed down while still in their line, removing the cherished Civil War-era notion that individual men possessed actual agency to affect the course of battle. Many of them were helplessly blown apart on the field, with only the “comfort” of fellow dead or dying comrades from their regiment sprawled around them. As his reporting style reveals, while Crounse publicly challenged the notion of the Good Death to Republicans living in Washington D.C., he in turn appears to have struggled with a sense of war-disillusionment. Rather than center his article on how honorably and courageously the men fought, he focuses instead on the wanton death and mass destruction caused by the battle. However, it is clear that, despite the sobering realities of war, he was not completely disillusioned, as he attempts to portray the battle more positively toward the end of the article: “…the noble Army of the Potomac can yet fight, after all the imputations of demoralization and inefficiency which have been heaped upon it.” Thus, it seems, like many writers during the war, Crounse managed to dig within himself to find a higher meaning in the human sacrifice and suffering—a sentimentalism that encouraged him to be stoic and composed in the face of such suffering. It is likely that the editors of the Daily National Republican included his article in the paper because of that somewhat more positive twist at the end, which would prevent the article from crushing its readers’ morale. Their audience was comprised of Republicans from the nation’s capital, their readership likely also included several Republican politicians. These individuals surely would not want to read an account of utter disillusionment with the war they were waging, especially after such a large Union victory which had sent the Army of Northern Virginia retreating South.
In Richmond, “Our Army Correspondence” surprisingly revealed a somewhat less disenchanted tone than its northern counterpart, and focused more on highlighting episodes in which the Good Death was, in fact, achieved—likely to bolster morale in the Confederate capital following General Lee’s enormous loss at Gettysburg. This article was originally published on July 21, 1863, and was written in Martinsburg, West Virginia ten days after “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle,” was published in the New York Times. Rather than focus on the battle itself, this account centers more on the Confederate retreat, relaying news of some of the casualties back to the homefront, and interestingly enough, the political climate of Martinsburg regarding secession, which is portrayed as still highly sympathetic to the Confederate cause, despite the state’s recent addition to the Union. (Perhaps this emphasis on Martinsburg’s southern sympathies was meant to help buoy Confederate morale by implying that that loyalty to and support for the Southern cause was still more widespread than the recent statehood movement would lend one to believe). The article’s author does maintain some of the tenets of the Good Death in the stories that he chooses to tell. For example, he relates the death of General Paul Semmes to his readers. Semmes’s femoral artery was severed during the battle, and while he did put a tourniquet above the wound and survived beyond the battlefield, he eventually passed away in Martinsburg a week later. Even though they both lingered after receiving mortal wounds during the battle, Semmes’s and Wilkeson’s deaths are described very differently. Semmes had doting nurses tending to his needs in Martinsburg and, embodying the noble and composed manner expected in the Good Death, he “perceived [a change in his condition for the worse], and told his attendants that he would not survive.” He told the nurses to write to his family, got to share a few poignant words with them, and asked that his sword and Bible be given to his wife upon his death. According to the author, “He also expressed his resignation to his fate, and died as he had often expressed a wish to die—in service to his country.”
Semmes fulfilled almost all of the requirements of the Good Death, only deviating from it in two ways—he was not at home with his family as he died, although he experienced the next best thing of being surrounded by doting nurses who conveyed his final words to his family; and he was not buried back at home, although that had been his original plan. His body was supposed to be shipped back to his relatives in Georgia, but it began decomposing too quickly and he had to be buried in Martinsburg. His death was extremely different than Wilkeson’s lonely and painful one in the middle of a battlefield. The author may have included Semmes’s story because it was a rare occasion of the Good Death actually being fulfilled in the wake of battle, and while the death itself was not necessarily a morale booster, the manner in which it occurred would help to smooth away some of the horrors of war that were also printed in the papers, and (in a way), almost justify his death in the name of sentimental sacrifice to a beloved cause.
While not nearly as strong as in “Latest from Gettysburg: The Battlefield Two Days After the Battle,” there is still a slight undercurrent of disillusionment in “Our Army Correspondence.” The author still chose to focus on the cost of the battle in human life, even if he did include an example of the Good Death being fulfilled. Unlike many other post-battle newspaper articles, he did not describe the details of the fighting, portraying his side’s army as gallantly and courageously fighting, but instead focused on the outcome of the battle for the combatants themselves. He does not completely abandon the cherished ideals of the brave and noble soldier—upon describing Semmes’s death, he certainly explores those characteristics—but he also makes it clear that the Confederate army was in retreat and had lost a staggering number of honorable men. To an audience in Richmond, the Confederate capital, this would be a sobering thought, compared to some of the other Southern accounts of the battle of Gettysburg which painted it as a gallant Confederate victory.
While these two articles were published in newspapers based in the warring capitals, they both wrestle with portraying the soldier’s Good Death and balancing threads of disillusionment and war-weariness with necessary morale-boosting patriotism. They both achieved their goals by relying on sentimental tropes and rhetoric with which to frame their narratives. The conflicting feelings of each author reveal that by mid-July of 1863, people on both sides of the war were not only feeling direct challenges to their pre-war cultural ideals (i.e., the Good Death), but also wrestling with how to maintain continuous enthusiasm for the war. Certainly full disillusionment with the war had not set in; the Good Death was not entirely extinct, and there was an important higher meaning to the suffering and sacrifices both sides had endured. However, there were clear and significant challenges with which they were forced to reckon as the war continued on through the summer of 1863. The staggeringly high number of casualties from Gettysburg only added to these already extant feelings. As authors and editors in both capitals wrestled with their personal feelings about the war, they likewise wrestled with questions as to how to accurately bring the sobering realities of war home to their readers while simultaneously upholding their perceived duties to maintain public morale.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
The role and importance of the State in the Civil War is one that cannot be exaggerated. The idea of Statehood was integral for community and individual identity amongst Civil War soldiers from both sides. As important to the common soldier as more abstract ideas like “Union” and “Confederacy” may have been, many also turned to the slightly more concrete institution of Statehood for inspiration. Many on both sides were as fiercely loyal to their state as to their national government. Many Virginians sought to protect the Old Dominion from supposed Northern depredation as much as they desired to support the newly forged Southern Confederacy. When Lee’s army crossed the Potomac in 1863 and marched north onto Union soil, Pennsylvanians understood the coming conflict to dictate the fate of their nation as well as their state. For native Pennsylvania soldiers, the Rebel invasion was an affront to home and hearth, as well as a threat to the Union, and a return to native soil to defend their state from the Rebels was both a source of “homecoming” joy and newfound determination to protect Pennsylvania at all costs.
At the outbreak of the secession crisis in 1861, only 34 of today’s 50 states were members of the Union. A 35th would be added in 1863 in the form of West Virginia, but still, the vast amount of land west of the Mississippi River was governed as territories, not states, throughout the Civil War. In a war that was fought over either the protection or disintegration of a national Union between the States, these territories occupied a nebulous position. For most of these western territories, the war was a distant echo in everyday affairs. However, these events were routinely covered by territorial newspapers, for many understood that the outcome of the war would dictate the future of these territories.
As reports of the battle of Gettysburg circulated throughout the nation and newspapers inundated their readers with conflicting, and sometimes entirely fabricated descriptions of the battle’s outcome, word of the conflict reached the isolated territories. In the New Mexico territory, the Santa Fe Gazette reported on the battle, and on August 1st of 1863 lauded the achievements of “that brave body of American soldiers” and their victory over the Southern invaders. In its reporting, the Gazette is staunchly loyal to the Union cause, and condemns further attempts by the Confederacy to escalate or continue the conflict. As the editor puts it, the South’s manpower had suffered so heavily that it will “make them consider long before they conclude to prosecute the rebellion to greater extremes.”
What is truly interesting about how the Santa Fe Gazette discusses Gettysburg and the Civil War as a whole is the relative detachment with which the paper reports on it: Gettysburg is a distant place caught up in a distant war. The pressing matters of the nation in Washington D.C. and Richmond are mere points of conversation for the majority of residents in Santa Fe. The massive armies of North and South are fighting each other on the other side of the continent. Far nearer at hand are the rampages of the Navajo on American settlers. As important as Lee’s losses at Gettysburg may be, it is the story of the ongoing war with the Native Americans of the region that is most pertinent. For the Santa Fe Gazette, the real strategic reverse did not happen on the fields of Gettysburg, but rather with the arrival of several hundred Native Americans of the Ute tribe who agreed to fight alongside American settlers against the Navajo.
Equally supportive of the Northern war effort is an account of the battle of Gettysburg published by the Washington Statesman of Walla Walla, then Washington territory. The Washington territory lay, at that time, at the westernmost fringes of the United States. In the extreme northwest of the nation, the people of Walla Walla were as far from the conflict as one might get within the nation. With this distance came also a skepticism of the newspaper reporters of the East. For too long had editors in the West been fed information that erred from reality, or were fed false hopes of quick victory over the rebels. In a July 18th, 1863 edition of the paper, the editor of the Washington Statesman surely found some issue with the reports of the South’s “Waterloo defeat” at Gettysburg. As the editor writes, “we have no great faith in this wholesale bagging business. All the braggadocio heretofore indulged in about capturing large bodies of troops has resulted in a good wide gap for the army so to be bagged, to escape through.” Clearly, news of a quick end to the war had been transmitted West one too many times. The natural distance from the eastern battlefields to the American territories in the far West bred a disconnect between those territories and the war itself. Newspapers depicted this disconnect in different ways, whether that be through the Washington Statesman’s skepticism or the Santa Fe Gazette’s bookmarking of Gettysburg so as to discuss the latest news in the geographically closer Navajo war. The war affected Americans in myriad ways, and the echoes of that conflict grew fainter the further they traveled from the fields of battle. These two papers provide an instructive example of how vastly different Americans’ experiences of the Civil War were: To those closer to the East, it was a time of up-close-and-personal bloody carnage, widespread destruction of landscapes and infrastructure, everyday threats to lives and livelihoods. While the war undoubtedly shaped the lives and futures of westerners in no small way, for them, distant rumors, suspect reporting, and often merely “footnoted” battles comprised the reality of their Civil War.
Beaufort, South Carolina’s The Free South’s“Victory! Gettysburg; General Lee Defeated; Thirty Thousand Prisoners” and Delaware, Ohio’s The Delaware Gazette’s “The Great Battle in Pennsylvania” both describe some of the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg, although with extremely different tones. Both newspapers expressed strong pro-Union sentiments and supported the Republican party. Federal treasury agents founded The Free South in January of 1863 in Beaufort, South Carolina, which, by 1863, was mostly home to freedmen and occupying Union soldiers, both of whom were supportive of the Union. Beaufort began experimenting with Reconstruction soon after the battle of Port Royal, in late 1861. The fact that this small pro-Union paper was based in South Carolina, which not only was a slave state, but was also the first to secede from the Union, makes the position of The Free South somewhat unique. The Delaware Gazette, on the other hand, was the product of a northern state and was slightly older, having first been published in 1855 in Delaware, Ohio. This paper initially leaned towards the Whig Party, but after the party’s collapse, it switched its loyalties to the new Republican Party, which likely represented many of its constituents, as Ohio was both a free state and a loyal member of the Union. The varied focus and tone of these staunchly pro-Union papers’ reports on the aftermath of Gettysburg is intriguing to unpack.
“Victory! Gettysburg; General Lee Defeated; Thirty Thousand Prisoners” (The Free South) reports mostly on the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg in a straight-forward “factual” manner, without much flourish or pathos. The article also focuses on tallying the number of prisoners the federal troops managed to take, between the quantity of wounded men the Army of Northern Virginia left behind in Pennsylvania and those that surrendered mid-battle or during the retreat. It is important to note that, while the article focuses on numbers, some of them are just estimates, as the article was written less than two weeks after the battle, and it draws heavily from articles in the New York Herald, which were published even closer to the battle, on July 3rd and 7th. Occasionally these estimates are a bit high; at one point, the Free South article approximates the total number of prisoners taken by the Army of the Potomac at a quarter of General Lee’s forces. In addition to the prisoner counts, the article also briefly mentions which generals on each side were casualties, but gives no further details about the circumstances of their injuries or deaths, staying true to its lean and blunt reporting style.
TheFree South’s heavy emphasis on prisoners is a consistent pattern throughout the newspaper’s short time in publication (from January of 1863, to November of 1864). After various battles occurred, the paper often reported on the number of prisoners taken both by federal and Confederate troops. This may be due to the Beaufort population consisting of predominately freedpeople. United States Colored Troops had been fighting in the war since the fall of 1862, opening the potential for African Americans to be taken as prisoners of war during the time frame the paper was in print. This scenario was of particular concern for the consumers of The Free South (whether they could read the news for themselves or had it read to them by Union occupiers), as on numerous occasions, when Confederate soldiers encountered African American soldiers who surrendered, they killed them rather than accept their surrender, and when they did take African Americans prisoners, they often refused to parole them or sent them back into slavery.
Both of these scenarios were featured within the paper in early Fall of 1863, just two months after Gettysburg. On September 19, 1863, an article described the delay in the exchange of prisoners because, “the rebels refused to eat their words,” regarding the USCT troops who had been captured. A month prior, the United States War Department released General Order 252, in which Lincoln demanded the equal treatment of prisoners and threatened to execute a Confederate prisoner for every USCT soldier that the rebels murdered. If there were any freedpeople from Beaufort who had joined the USCTs, such occurrences could potentially involve them and significantly impact the lives of their loved ones back at home, who were trying to establish new lives for themselves. In addition, the white federal soldiers occupying Beaufort were also likely interested in reading these statistics because they would also want to see the reports of USCT prisoners taken, especially as the Confederates committed similar atrocities against the white officers commanding USCT units. On a broader scale, by following statistics of prisoner tallies, the soldiers could track the progress of the war and which side seemed closer to winning while they remained stationed at Beaufort, away from the action of the war.
This article only briefly mentions the possibility of the Union suffering heavy losses to General Lee, but does not dwell on the idea, perhaps, in part, as an attempt to bolster previously sagging Union morale by focusing more squarely on the enemy’s losses than those sustained by the North’s for its reading constituency. Additionally, as there were no USCTs involved in the battle of Gettysburg, concerns about brutal treatment of captured federal troops and officers was not as much of a concern as it would have been in the wake of other battles. This common theme of focusing on prisoners of war as part of a larger emphasis on a battle’s raw numbers likely was a trend that carried over from the paper’s typical battle reporting style.
“The Great Battle in Pennsylvania” (Delaware Gazette)also mentions prisoners taken after the battle of Gettysburg and some numerical counts, although its aftermath-focus is centered on the battle’s cost in human lives. The article builds to the reveal of the horrors of battle by first relaying the events of the Pickett-Pettigrew Assault on July 3rd in a grandiose manner, almost as if relaying the plot of a dramatic novel. The account contains a series of events and surrounding context that are described in sentimental detail, such as: “There was not wanting to the peacefulness of the scene the singing of a bird, which had a nest in a peach tree within the tiny yard of the white-washed cottage.” The article’s author immediately annihilates this bucolic image by describing cannon shot beginning to tear through the house as the bird is mid-song. The descriptive scenes eventually culminate in a description of men’s violent (but honorable) deaths that awaited on the battlefield: “They rushed in perfect order across the open field, up to the very muzzles of the guns, which tore lances through them as they came.” The author clearly wants his audience to immerse themselves in the full picture of the fighting and the horrors that the soldiers experienced, with tugs at both the imagination and the heartstrings of the reading public, even though he himself was not present at the battle.
Simultaneously, details such as these conveyed to communities back at home that the soldiers’ fight was a courageous, romantic display of sentimental sacrifice in the face of a brutal enemy, and under enormously trying circumstances, that ultimately won the day in the name of Union and patriotism. Courage and sentimental sacrifice were expected, hallmark facets of Civil War soldiers’ conduct, as they tied into essential Victorian ideals, such as martial masculinity, honor, and righteousness, that both soldiers and civilians believed in to help justify the horrors and grief ensuing from war. For example, at the end of the article, the author depicts Jesus standing over the battlefield, welcoming the righteous dead through the gates of Heaven—and what made these dead righteous was that they fought courageously, upholding their honor until their dying moment. Civil War soldiers on both sides often believed that if they were righteous, Providence would at least ensure their souls went to Heaven if it did not protect them from injury in battle. The author likely included such evocative details in part because he was writing for an extremely pro-Union audience in Delaware who likely sought such affirming framing in reading about the details of a large Northern victory. The article in The Free South utterly skips past this sort of description, focusing squarely on numbers and cold calculations of POWs rather than on the human details of, say, how those large numbers of soldiers reached a position in which surrender proved the only option.
Although published within a mere day of each other, both for pro-Union audiences, and both clearly recognizing the Union victory at Gettysburg, the difference in these two articles’ tone and content reveals the important role that not only the expectations, but also the needs of the readership played in shaping how Civil War battles were portrayed in the press. One paper was consumed by a community of newly freed former slaves who were in the process of starting new lives in a state that was still fighting against the Union, as well as by Union occupiers who were expected to continue their tenure at Beaufort until the end of the war; their desire for battle news likely was motivated by practical, pragmatic concerns about numbers and raw facts that could alter the scales for or against an ultimate Union victory and emancipation. The other paper was produced for a well-established town of largely white civilians in central Ohio with pro-Republican leanings who craved a battle narrative that propped up both their cultural and political ideals that justified the sacrifice of so many white soldiers on behalf of Union and democracy. These two articles underscore just how intertwined the press and individual readership communities were in shaping how the war was reported and recorded for future generations.
Part 3 of 3: “…On yonder Belle Isle” : Making Sense of the Memories of War
By Danielle Russell ’25
After being captured on July 3, 1863, during the Battle of Fairfield, Harry W. Lewis of the 6th U.S. Cavalry was sent to Belle Isle Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Lewis survived the horrors of Belle Isle, but the memories of his experiences plagued his later years as he struggled to comprehend all he had endured. In the concluding article of this 3-part mini-series, Danielle Russell ’25 analyzes how, in the years following the Civil War, Harry W. Lewis struggled to understand his difficult wartime experiences, by seeking to memorialize his town’s sacrifices, sorting through his various encounters with the enemy, and searching for someone to blame for all he endured. Danielle is the 4th-great niece of Harry Lewis.
From 1898 to at least 1909, Harry served as a marshal in Erie’s Decoration Day, and later Memorial Day, parades. Forever faithful to his comrades from the 6th, he also served as the regimental association’s vice president for several years.
Harry W. Lewis as marshal of Erie’s 1909 Decoration Day parade (Image from author’s collection).
In addition to these activities, as Harry grew older, he remained actively involved in the Grand Army of the Republic, as a member of Erie’s Strong Vincent Post No. 67.
Harry W. Lewis with his G.A.R. uniform and ribbons, date unknown (Image from Ancestry.com).
He frequently attended state and national encampments, and regularly traveled to locations across the country for reunions of Union and Confederate veterans. One of the places he visited most often was Gettysburg, the site of his beloved brother’s death and his own capture. For each place he traveled to during the war, his perception of the landscape had been uniquely shaped by his experiences as a scout for Generals McCook, Pleasanton, Buford, Gregg, Stoneman, and Merritt. Harry asserted that, even decades later, “the whole face of this region…is very vividly stamped in my memory.” He could never forget the events that lingered in his mind.
Veterans of the 6th U.S. Cavalry gathered at Fairfield, date unknown (Image from Fairfield Area Historical Society).
On at least two occasions, he confronted Confederate veterans or sympathizers with the harsh realities of his treatment at Belle Isle. In 1902, while visiting Richmond, he stood before the monument to the Confederacy’s unknown dead in Hollywood Cemetery, looking towards Belle Isle. When a nearby Confederate veteran suggested that the Union prisoner of war camps were just as brutal as the Confederate camps, Harry disagreed. Emphatically gesturing across the river towards Belle Isle, Harry described his experiences at “the prison pen,” and then compared his malnourished condition with that of the well-fed Confederate soldiers he and the squad of sixteen were exchanged for at City Point. Harry once more blamed Jefferson Davis and labeled the Confederate veterans gathered before him as Davis’s “willing white slaves.” Although Harry does not address the Confederate veterans’ reactions to his bold statement, it utterly violates the post-war reconciliatory sentiment prevalent at many reunions, illustrating the myriad, diverse attitudes that Civil War veterans held toward their foe throughout the post-war years.
Monument to the unknown Confederate dead in Hollywood Cemetery (Image by author).
On that same trip in September of 1902, while on a steamship on the James River, traveling towards Richmond, Harry was asked to lunch by a younger man and his wife. Harry accepted and the man, a Virginian, eventually discussed his childhood. The Virginian recognized Harry as the man who, years prior, “killed the cavalryman and the two horses,” and added, “I saw you destroy the bridge.” The man’s memory immediately brought Harry back to the event, on June 26, 1862, when Harry and nineteen other men were sent by Captain John Gregg to “destroy bridges and blockade roads” near Hanover Court House, Virginia. While chopping down trees to block the road, Harry and his squadron had noticed “Jackson’s cavalry” rapidly approaching, and a short time later, artillery fire began, “sending limbs and tree tops all around us.” Harry had falsely believed they were safe, because the Confederates were on the opposite side of the creek, and the destroyed bridges and the creek’s quick-sands prevented the creek from being crossed. Nonetheless, Harry and the men from the 6th watched in horror after realizing “some of the Johnny reb cavalry were on our trail.” After hearing the Virginian’s narrative, Harry inquired how the Confederate cavalry were able to cross the creek. The Virginian laughed and confessed that “My mother sent them after you. We had a private platform bridge below the barn connecting two fields.” Harry and the men of the 6th had failed to destroy that final bridge because it “was hidden by willows growing along the stream.” Instead of feeling angry with the Virginian for laughing at the ambush where at least one of his men was killed, Harry insisted that the Virginian was “a fine man.” Perhaps Harry would have described the Virginian’s mother in less kind terms. Although it is possible that Harry reacted that way because the Virginian was not involved in planning the ambush and was thus not responsible, it is more likely that he was not angry with the man because, as a soldier, he knew to expect death on the battlefield. Roaming in enemy territory, as Harry and the other men from the 6th were the day of the ambush, was an inherently dangerous activity, so Harry was unsurprised by his comrades’ deaths. However, his experiences at Belle Isle, which utterly violated his conceptions of warfare and the prisoner of war system, shocked him beyond his comprehension. Unable to explain or understand the horrific conditions, he was less willing to excuse them as routine, expected aspects of war.
Five years later, in 1907, Harry was once more visiting Richmond, when he met an aged woman from New Orleans, who planned to visit the grave of her brother, who had died fighting for the Confederacy. Her father and a second brother had also died during the war, all in service to the Confederate cause. The woman claimed to be “an unreconciled Confederate rebel.” Harry balked at this and implored the woman to reconsider. After speaking with her further, he discovered “she knew literally nothing about most public events,” like the Dred Scott decision, the Missouri Compromise, and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Acting as the historian, Harry explained each of these events to the woman, once more painting Jefferson Davis as the central villain behind the atrocious experiences he endured at Belle Isle. Unable to deny his persuasive rhetoric, the woman “acknowledged that she was ignorant of these things,” and the two continued their conversation over breakfast the next morning. As he strolled through Hollywood Cemetery that afternoon, he found the woman beside her brother’s grave, “weeping most bitterly.” As Harry walked past her, “she smiled through her tears,” and the two never saw each other again. Was the woman crying for her brother and his memory? Were her tears meant to convey a sense of inner conflict as she struggled to reconcile her brother’s memory with the horror stories Harry told her? Did she smile to simply show she recognized Harry, or was it meant as an outward display of her empathy for his experiences?
In his later years, Harry struggled to comprehend the extent of his suffering at Belle Isle Prison. Instead of blaming all Confederates, he insisted that most Confederates “were mere vassals” for the true villains, the “hot-headed southerners,” like Robert Toombs, Francis Wilkinson Pickens, John Buchanan Floyd, David Flavel Jamison, and, above all others, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. For Harry, having lost two younger brothers and a cousin during the war, and after suffering through his own trials at Belle Isle, Jefferson Davis served as the primary symbol for the years of anguish he had endured. Perhaps due to his friendship with Sergeant Hoffman, Harry opted to divide the Confederates in his mind, parsing them into groups based on the interactions, either direct or perceived, that he had with them and how their actions reconciled (or failed to do so) with not only his own political beliefs, but also the cultural ideals of honor, martial masculinity, and traditional combat with which he had grown up. Decades after the war, Harry remained unable to forget or fully forgive his former enemy for the atrocities he witnessed at Belle Isle. Incapable of comprehending how human beings could subject their fellow humans to such cruel treatment, he needed someone to blame; he chose those he deemed most responsible – the ardent secessionists he believed ensured the war’s inevitability, and most notably, Jefferson Davis.
Striving to wrangle this anger and incomprehension into more positive and productive actions befitting the memory of his fallen comrades, Harry dove further into memorializing his fellow veterans from the local community. While he continued to attend various Grand Army of the Republic encampments, and interact with Confederate veterans, he also endeavored to create lasting tributes to Erie’s fallen soldiers. Largely because of Harry’s fundraising efforts, the Lieutenant H.F. Lewis Grand Army of the Republic Post in Fairview, named for his younger brother, erected a monument to the Civil War’s unknown dead in Fairview Cemetery. It was dedicated on May 30, 1895, just a few months after what would have been Horatio’s fiftieth birthday. Perhaps for Harry, the monument was also intended to honor Harry’s younger cousin, Franklin, who died at Fredericksburg and was interred in an unknown plot in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
Monument placed in Fairview Cemetery by the Lt. H.F. Lewis G.A.R. post (Image by author).
Despite Harry’s reverence for Captain Gregg and other officers from the 6th, he staunchly advocated for the creation of a monument to the 145th Pennsylvania’s Colonel (later General) Hiram Loomis Brown. The monument was a personal passion project of his, and yet another attempt both to come to terms with the loss of his brother and make sense of the immense suffering and toll that the war years had inflicted on so many like him. Harry insisted that “no soldier more richly deserves a monument to his memory,” and lamented the fact that General Brown’s grave was unmarked for twenty-seven years after his death. In a letter read at the 145th Pennsylvania’s August 1908 reunion, Harry pledged five dollars, or more if necessary, to see the monument constructed “under the shade of a butternut hickory tree planted by General Brown and another boy in 1844.” Three years later, he was still working to raise the necessary funds, and gave a speech at the 83rd Pennsylvania’s September 1911 reunion urging the veterans to complete the project. Tragically, when Harry died a few months later, on March 9, 1912, his dream of a monument for General Brown died with him.
Harry W. Lewis with his great-niece, while visiting his sister’s family in Pasadena, California, early 1900s. Even on vacation, he wore his G.A.R. ribbons (Image from author’s collection).
At Belle Isle, Harry endured starvation and daily struggles with lice, filth, harsh punishments, and insufficient shelter that contradicted his own notions of civilized warfare, human decency, honor, and manhood. As he watched his fellow prisoners and comrades from the 6th wither away into mere skeletons, he searched for someone to blame. Unable to understand the reasons for the cruelty and intense suffering he experienced, his quest to comprehend his time at Belle Isle became confused when he remembered his relationships with Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, like Wesley Atwood Hoffman, and the grieving sister from Hollywood Cemetery. Having forged a sense of mutual understanding with these individuals that allowed him to perceive them as living and breathing humans, rather than unknown and unfeeling figures, Harry opted to blame the Confederacy’s leaders.
Directing his disdain squarely toward Jefferson Davis, the man he deemed most responsible for “Belle Isle’s Horrors,” Harry convinced himself that the Confederacy’s soldiers and civilians were unaware of the atrocities allowed by those who represented them. After all, how could Wesley Hoffman, a man who saved his life, support the very same man whose grave overlooked what Harry saw as the scene of some of the Confederacy’s greatest crimes against humanity? How could the woman at Hollywood Cemetery whose brother died fighting against Union soldiers like Harry, smile at him through her tears, if she supported the actions of men like Davis? How could his conscience allow him to sit calmly next to the Virginian from the train who laughed as he recalled that his mother helped set an ambush for Harry and his men? The only logical explanation for Harry was that these individuals were lied to, deluded into believing the placating words whispered to them by their leaders. Their misguided trust, not any true desire for the deaths of Union soldiers, was to blame. While these men and women recognized that war meant killing and death, Harry believed that they could not possibly sanction the harsh conditions found at Belle Isle. No, the only logical explanation, unless they had witnessed the horrors of a prisoner of war camp like Harry had, was that they were tricked into thinking it was a gentleman’s war where men respected their adversaries as human beings, rather than as objects of hatred and the target of their deadly fire. As a soldier who knew firsthand what the “arm” of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were capable of, Harry believed he knew a truth that most civilians – and even the average Confederate soldier – never did. And so, Harry wrote. And yet, while he tried his best to impart this truth through his articles, he acknowledged that some details, too numerous or horrible for recollection, would inevitably elude the public; like many of his own remembrances of Belle Isle, these details would live on merely in the minds of fellow veterans as restless shadows, forever lurking, and forever haunting their memories.
From the fields of Pennsylvania to the towns of Virginia, from the hills of Kentucky to the plantations of Georgia, the American Civil War wrought death and destruction across the eastern United States. The so-called “western theater” of the conflict was constrained, in large part, to the Deep South and territory due east of the Mississippi river. The war is easily contracted to fit the framework of North vs. South. What, then, of the “Far West”? Discussions of the Civil War seem oddly out of place on the Pacific Coast, though both California and Oregon had been admitted into the Union in 1850 and 1859 respectively. For Americans living in the far west, the war was, in many regards, distant–a mere side note to daily life. But the news of the fearful clashes in the east reverberated across the plains and mountains, and reached the ears of Californians all the same, the ultimate repercussions of that fighting sure to impact the nature of settlement in the adjacent western territories. California, despite its relatively small contributions to the Union war effort, remained loyal. This is not to say, however, that all the citizens of the Golden State were of the same mind when it came to secession. Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina–these are some of the states that were most clearly divided during the war. Few, however, remember the divisions within California, nor the strong sentiments she housed for both the North and the South.
Accounts of Gettysburg, the battle which swiftly gained a reputation as the largest and most decisive of the conflict, echoed across the wide nation all the way to California, where they were met with two vastly different interpretations. A few months after the battle, a Bay Area newspaper named the Pacific Appeal published an account of a lecture given by a Reverend T. Starr King, an influential Californian minister and Unionist. In a lecture delivered at an African Methodist Episcopal Church on the history of the Mississippi River Valley, Reverend Starr King strayed from his present topic to offer a few remarks on the “patience and valor of American soldiers.” There is no question who exactly he meant by “American soldiers.” As he says of the late battle in Pennsylvania, “the valor of Gettysburg has never been surpassed, I believe in any battle in the world. The wicked hopes and the fierce expectations of the enemies of civilization” were valiantly struck down by the armies of the North. These “enemies of civilization” relied upon the institution of slavery as the economic backbone of their nation, one which Reverend Starr King found morally repugnant and fiscally unviable, stating, “the paper based on the visionary opulence of a great slave empire was worth even less than the Confederate bills.” The Confederacy was doomed through and through, he argued vehemently, and God’s favor would undoubtedly shine upon the Northern cause in the end, as the Union victory at Gettysburg had now “foretold.” With all this talk of slavery, freedom, and moralism, it is worth noting that Starr King’s audience for this lecture would have been predominantly African-American, though as the editor points out, “there were many white persons present.” Starr King was himself an abolitionist, and although California was a Free State, not everyone was enthused about that fact. His comments on the righteousness of abolition and the Union Cause fell on sympathetic ears amongst the parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
Compare the moralizing and nationalistic sentiments of Reverend Starr King’s lecture with an article published by the Los Angeles Star, the largest newspaper in southern California. Los Angeles was known at the time for housing a rather vocal population of pro-Confederate, pro-Secessionist advocates. Henry Hamilton, the head editor of the Star in the war years, was an acknowledged Confederate sympathizer, so much so that he was arrested and forced to take the oath of loyalty to the Union. It was this man who, in January of 1864, published an article attacking President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In it, he argued that “Mr.” Lincoln’s assertions regarding the moral fidelity of the Northern war effort were anything but. For him, Northerners were fighting to “ignore the distinctions of race and amalgamate their descendants with four millions of negroes.” It would not take too much extrapolation to guess Hamilton’s stance on the issue of slavery. Furthermore, according to Hamilton, rather than espousing any lofty ideals about the perpetuation of American democracy, Lincoln’s address clearly revealed that he was fighting to institute a “system where the minority rule over the majority.” Henry Hamilton’s article is, in many ways, a caricature of both prewar and postwar Southern justifications for secession. In it, he embraces all of the hallmarks of the Lost Cause — from States Rights to the inferiority of African Americans — long before the Southern cause is actually lost.
Where, then, is the unity in California’s approach to the Civil War? The state remained loyal, but clearly not all of its citizens agreed with that stance, as proven by Mr. Hamilton and his followers. California never saw any fighting in the Civil War, and the bloodshed of the conflict remained comfortably far-off for many of its citizens, but in a time of civil conflict where the stakes are high for both those directly and indirectly involved, sectarian divides sprout up everywhere, even on the opposite side of the country.
Part 2 of 3: Horrors That “no tongue, no language or pen, can fully describe or explain”: Harry W. Lewis’s Stint as a P.O.W.
By Danielle Russell ’25
After being captured on July 3, 1863, during the Battle of Fairfield, Harry W. Lewis of the 6th U.S. Cavalry was sent to Belle Isle Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Lewis survived the horrors of Belle Isle, but the memories of his experiences plagued his later years as he struggled to comprehend all he had endured. In part 2 of 3 of this mini-series, Danielle Russell ’25 writes about how, despite the atrocities that Harry W. Lewis faced as a P.O.W. on Belle Isle, he was determined to survive, and eventually rejoined his regiment, even though his haunting memories of the prison lingered. Danielle is the 4th-great niece of Harry Lewis.
“Weary March of the Prisoners”
Although Gettysburg was far from his first battle, Harry was shocked by the sheer number of wounded Confederate soldiers who filled the wagons that followed the prisoners south. These men represented the “sorriest, woe-begone looking set of soldiers” he had ever seen, since many displayed some sort of bandaged wounds, while many others had not received any medical attention. While Harry knew any of those men could be responsible for his brother Horatio’s mortal wounding and the deaths of his comrades, he empathized with their suffering. Bodies of deceased Union and Confederate soldiers lay strewn about the roads. Harry noted nearly all of the soldiers had been “stripped of their clothes except their drawers,” and dead for more than twenty-four hours.
Early on the morning of July 6, Harry and the other prisoners were given beef and flour. Unlike the earlier instance, this time, the ravenous Harry was willing to eat the “paste” made from the flour, without any salt or milk.
Aside from the issue of few rations, Harry’s larger challenge arose from the fact, as a cavalryman, he was not accustomed to marching. After the heavy rains following the battle, Harry marched through swollen waters, causing many of his comrades’ leather boots to dry out. Rather than suffer the excruciating blisters that resulted from the friction between the dry boots and the men’s feet, many decided to go barefoot. Before long, as Harry remembered, their “feet became swollen, sore and full of cracks,” making the men walk “like a chicken with frozen feet.” Harry described this as a “pain and torment” unlike any he had ever experienced before. He did not know then that this only marked the beginning of his suffering.
The men crossed the Potomac River using a small ferry capable of carrying twenty men at a time. It took two days and two nights before the men finished crossing the river. From the Potomac, they continued to Martinsburg, in what is now West Virginia.
In Martinsburg, Harry remembered the gratitude he felt when the local women flooded the streets as the prisoners marched past. The women carried all sorts of foodstuffs, including “bread, cakes, pies, milk and water.” It must have seemed a miracle to the poorly fed prisoners. Harry declared with dismay that the Confederate guards coldly forced the women back into their homes, at the threat of their bayonets. Furious, Harry added that he noticed one Confederate dared to “strike several women with the flat of his sword and curse them.” Undeterred and eager to help their captured defenders, the women, upon retreating into their homes, tossed the baked goods from second story windows, so that they fell into the crowds of hungry prisoners. The grateful men “wished we had guns with which we could have shot the cowardly” guard, but, without such an opportunity, they contented themselves to shout, “You dirty, cowardly Reb!” and similar taunts.
Unwilling to let their soldiers go hungry, the women of Martinsburg proposed to bake bread for the Union prisoners if the Confederates supplied the flour. However, once the women completed the task, Harry lamented the fact that the bread and biscuits that resulted from the twenty barrels of flour were largely given to the men assigned to guard the prisoners, rather than the intended recipients. The captured members of the Eleventh Corps consumed the majority of the remaining bread, leaving Harry and the other prisoners hungry and eager for vengeance. That night, Harry and the other captured members of the 6th Cavalry launched a raid on the Eleventh Corps’ “camp,” securing twenty-six haversacks and assorted foodstuffs. Harry and his friend, George Rose, each absconded with their own haversack, and Harry delightedly discovered his contained a tin cup, beef, and some flour. Harry and George Rose divided their spoils among their “less lucky comrades,” and the duo then exchanged the two haversacks with two rebel guards for what Harry described as “a good-sized hoe-cake, which made a couple of mouthfuls apiece among the boys.”
The Steamer New York at Aiken’s Landing in Virginia, date unknown (Image from Library of Congress).
Eventually, after several more days, Harry and the 6th reached Mount Jackson, Virginia, where a Confederate captain noticed Harry’s “pair of $20 high-top patent leather cavalry boots.” Throughout the march, Harry carefully guarded the boots, carrying them on a string. The Confederate captain offered him $75 in Confederate currency, which Harry refused, and insisted he would not sell the boots for less than $200 in Confederate currency. Infuriated, the captain threatened to forcibly take them from Harry. Just as angry, Harry uttered a challenge, daring the man to try to take the boots. Further incensed, the captain stormed off. Fearing the man would “get some help to take the boots,” Harry used his knife to cut the soles out of the heavy boots. Given the terrible experiences Harry had already endured as a prisoner of war, he was unwilling to relinquish the boots, either by choice or by force, as a point of honor. Much to Harry’s dismay, the Confederate captain never returned. However, instead of throwing the worthless boots away, Harry continued to carry them throughout the rest of the march and his time as a prisoner of war and used them as a pillow. Harry only rid himself of the soleless boots after he was paroled, tossing them from the steamer New York into the James River, as he sailed to freedom. That same night, the desperate Harry and George Rose paid a whopping five dollars each for two pounds of bacon, constituting roughly two inches by two inches square per pound.
George Melville Rose, 6th U.S. Cavalry, date unknown (Image from Ancestry.com).
Finally, Harry and the other men boarded a train “composed of several old box cars and an old worn-out engine,” bound for Richmond. In order to cross the Blue Ridge, the train could only successfully pull a single car at a time, meaning it had to make multiple trips. After thirty hours and 130 miles, Harry and the other Union prisoners, “packed full…like sardines in a can,” arrived in Richmond. That night, they were crammed into Libby Prison, on the outskirts of the city, which Harry estimated to be “the best prison the Confederates had during the war,” owing to the adequate ventilation and dry conditions in the converted warehouse. In the twenty-one days it took to reach Richmond, Harry calculated that for about seventeen days, his clothes were wet from rain or sweat. Libby provided much-needed, though still crude, relief.
Libby Prison, where Harry spent the night before being transported to Belle Isle. Image dated August 23, 1863, the day before Harry arrived in Richmond (Image from Library of Congress).
“Belle Isle’s Horrors”
Belle Isle Prison and the James River in 1865 (From the Library of Congress).
The morning after their arrival in Richmond, the Confederates marched Harry and his fellow prisoners across the James River via bridge to Manchester, where they crossed a railroad bridge onto Belle Isle. By Harry’s estimate, it was August 25, 1863. Since the bridge remained roughly fifteen feet in the air, they took a set of stairs to the ground, before arriving at a cornfield, where they were once again searched by their captors. In an odd twist, Harry instantly recognized one of the men, Charles Center, who previously served with him, and deserted from the 6th U.S. Cavalry. Center defected to the Confederates just a few months prior, in May 1863. Even before this unexpected reunion, Harry was thoroughly convinced that Center was “a poor soldier, an all-around crook, gambler, and thief.” Together with Sergeant Cray, of Company F, 6th U.S. Cavalry, Harry “chinned” Center, calling him the names listed above. Enraged, Center threatened that if the two “didn’t shut up he would fix us, so” Harry “chose the better part of valor and kept still.” However, Center did not let the incident go unpunished, and, with the help of a Confederate sergeant, seized Sergeant Cray, before typing him to a tree limb by his thumbs, which, according to Harry, “nearly killed him.”
1860s sketch of Belle Isle Prison with guards, by Alfred Waud (Image from Library of Congress).
By Harry’s estimates, a 4.5-foot-tall embankment surrounded the camp, with a trench on both the outside and the inside. The inner trench, representing the dead-line (the farthest point the prisoners were allowed to travel within the camp without being shot), stood one foot from the embankment and measured about 1.5 feet wide. The embankment stood about “five or six rods” from the James River.
Upon arriving at Belle Isle, Harry witnessed what he termed “an elderly soldier” from an unknown New York regiment ask the commandant, Thomas Turner, to safeguard $140, which was placed in an envelope with the man’s name, regiment, and company. Labeling the poor man as “demented from the hardships and hunger,” Harry knew that moment was “the last he will ever see of his $140.” After a rumor of parole circulated throughout the camp months later, the man approached the commandant and asked for his money to be returned. The commandant refused and shoved the man, and after the New Yorker approached both the commandant and Confederate General Winder, the commandant roughly “grabbed him by the hair and coat collar,” and ordered that the man be bucked and gagged. Furthering the misfortune of the man’s undeserved punishment, the commandant ensured the punishment occurred on a hill, so that, when the commandant kicked the man, he fell onto his side, with his head facing downhill. Much to Harry’s utter horror, the next morning the “poor soldier lay there dead.” Although Harry was near the gate when the punishment was inflicted, he was powerless to help the man, lest he be subjected to a stricter form of discipline. While the lasting impact of this soldier’s death on Harry’s mind is unknown, the fact that he mentioned it decades later in his reminiscences of Belle Isle suggest he felt a degree of anguish, and even possibly guilt, over the fact he was helpless to intervene.
Photograph of Libby Prison showing Commandant Turner, taken by Charles R. Rees (Image from Library of Congress).
The remnants of the earthen walls that marked the dead-line of Belle Isle Prison (Image by author).
The New Yorker’s death marked only the first in a series that Harry witnessed while at Belle Isle. Numerous men, many of them new to the camp, and unaccustomed to the concept of a dead-line, were shot after accidentally stepping across the barrier. Other times, the Confederate guards missed their intended target, and Harry remarked with horror, the bullet “would hit one or two poor defenseless fellows.” In utter contradiction to the Victorian ideal of the “good death” – a glorious battlefield death where one’s last, patriotic words were recorded by a comrade – soldiers at Belle Isle and other prisoner of war camps faced a variety of threats, from illness to accident that emphasized the randomness and cruelties of war.
Much like other prisoner-of-war camps, Belle Isle’s inmates suffered from an extreme lack of adequate rations. Although Harry could not have known that the Confederate government struggled to feed its own troops, or that numerous other prisons in Richmond taxed the city’s already limited resources, he firmly believed the prisoners at Belle Isle were intentionally starved in a form of twisted retribution. Harry blamed Jefferson Davis, convinced that the man acted with a “spite and cruelty” that explained the fact he “deliberately starved so many thousands of poor Union prisoners.” Thoroughly satisfied with this reasoning for the suffering he and his comrades endured, when reflecting on his time at the camp years later, Harry thought it an extremely cruel joke that Davis’s final resting place in Hollywood Cemetery overlooked the site of his tragic crime against humanity.
Jefferson Davis’s grave in Hollywood Cemetery, overlooking Richmond and Belle Isle (Image by author).
Upon their arrival at Belle Isle, the prisoners were sorted into groups of five clusters, each consisting of “hundreds” of men. Once the Confederates brought the prisoner rations inside the prison, they were divided into five groups. The prisoners in charge of each of the groups reported to the cook-house, where they randomly selected one of the fifths, which was then given to that cohort of prisoners. The process began at 9 a.m. each day, and by 11 a.m. all of the rations were distributed. Each man received a piece of lime-raised bread about the size of an average individual’s hand. Much to Harry’s disgust, “it was no uncommon sight to see a small piece of lime in the bread.” The men usually received one or two tiny beef bones or bits of bacon as well. Their supper consisted of bread and soup, which Harry clarified was no more than “hot rain water,” which was “served from 3 to 5 p.m.” If the Confederates could not obtain rice, they used cow peas from North Carolina, allowing Harry and the other prisoners to “imagine it was soup” and not just water with pea pods mixed in. The innutritious diet rendered Harry “so poor in flesh and weak in body that” he needed “to lie down half of the time.”
However, Harry’s biggest battle at Belle Isle was his struggle against the lice which constantly sought to gnaw his “poor scanty life-blood out of” his weakened body. This fight against the lice was a battle for both cleanliness and survival, because, as Harry quickly noticed, “those who didn’t fight them daily, soonest succumbed to disease and death.” Together with the other sixteen prisoners from the 6th U.S. Cavalry, after each meal, Harry removed his clothes, turning them inside out and inspecting them for the dreaded vermin. Unlike most of his comrades, from the beginning of the war Harry had worn a vest beneath his uniform. In the pocket, he kept his greatest weapon for “self-defense” – a comb. Working together to combat their tiny enemy, the sixteen men from the 6th used the comb each day to examine each other’s hair and remove any invading insects. Recognizing they were fighting a losing battle, Harry and his fifteen comrades each gave the Sergeant from Company D of the 1st Vermont Cavalry part of their rations in exchange for him first cutting, and then eventually shaving their heads. Harry recollected the horrifying moment when a severely lice-infested comrade visited the barber. As the barber cut through the hair, and the lice, “the blood would streak down their necks and gather in drops” across the barber’s hands. In one of his many instances of sensitive reflection, while Harry admits the story sounds improbable, he emphasizes that “no tongue, no language or pen, can fully describe or explain the horrors of rebel prison pens.”
At Belle Isle, Harry knew two brothers, “whose clothes fell off from them” due to the harsh conditions. The brothers possessed one blanket between them, which they tore in half, it being “all they had to cover their nakedness.” Perhaps from this terrifying ordeal, or from their combat experiences, “both became demented,” and one day, were discovered dead, lying at each other’s side. Recoiling from the sight in terror, Harry wrote that it would have been impossible to “put your fingers on their heads, arms or legs, not mentioning their blankets, without putting it on a dozen line-backs. Those blankets were literally quivering from the motion of the millions of vermin on their bodies under the blankets.”
Nonetheless, despite his hellish experiences at Belle Isle, Harry consciously admitted that it “was a paradise beside Andersonville…The only advantage Andersonville had was that the climate was warmer.” Given the horrors he experienced, one wonders how Harry managed to emotionally and physically survive the months he spent at Belle Isle. Unfortunately, none of the more than two hundred post-war newspaper articles he authored explain how he coped with such struggles, aside from relying on the companionship and support of fellow prisoners.
Upon their arrival at Belle Isle, Harry and the fifteen men from the 6th had been assigned to the 22 Hundred. The men were paroled in numerical order, with the lowest number paroled first. Although parole began at Belle Isle by as late as May 1863, it was an irregular process. Frail and fatigued, they feared they would likely not survive if they remained prisoners, Harry and his fifteen comrades, which included one soldier from the 64th New York Volunteer Infantry, snuck into the group labeled as the First Hundred. In an incredibly lucky twist of fate, the man in charge of the First Hundred, a Sergeant Herman, had sixteen free spaces, his group number only eighty-four men, owing to the deaths of sixteen men. Of the First Hundred, sixty-four men were sailors, not infantrymen, so the Confederates opted to parole them separately. After the sailors were paroled, the guards called for a Sergeant Herman’s group of sixteen. Acting quickly, George Chase, another man from the 6th captured at Fairfield, answered “Here we are!”
George William Chase of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, in 1905 (Image from Ancestry.com).
Demanding to know where Sergeant Herman was, Chase answered “Dead.” Since the sixteen soldiers originally assigned to Herman’s group were deceased, the ruse worked, and Harry and the fifteen were paroled with the group of sixty-four sailors. Just when it looked like they were finally free, the men were taken back into the camp, because of a problem with the sailors’ parole. Having been just steps away from freedom, Harry and his comrades’ “hearts ached and our hopes fell.” The 6th’s squad of sixteen and the sixty-four sailors were placed into the Second Hundred, and, after a few days, the Second Hundred was paroled. Once more, the squad of sixteen “answered to our names and went out with the sailors.”
As Harry and the other fifteen men sat on the ground near the gate, past the camp’s embankment, they heard the camp’s lieutenant call their names. Another prisoner informed the lieutenant that “Those fellows went out with the sailors.” Hearing this, the lieutenant “flew into” what Harry could only describe as “a towering rage.” The lieutenant screamed at Harry and George Chase, and the two men stood, though their malnourished frames were visibly weak. Once again so close to freedom, the lieutenant threatened the men, calling them “starved-looking hounds,” and threatened to kill them, or imprison them in Castle Thunder. Another Richmond prison, Castle Thunder had a reputation for housing criminals and spies, and was notorious for its reportedly brutal guards and conditions. Luckily, the lieutenant’s threats went unfulfilled. Harry, and the other fifteen men, were paroled with the entirety of the Second Hundred. Harry never explained why the lieutenant failed to carry out his threats, but perhaps it was owing to Belle Isle’s already overcrowded conditions. Nonetheless, Harry’s parole must have provided him with some sort of relief. While Harry carried his memories of Belle Isle for the rest of his life, he was finally free from the prison’s confines.
Private William M. Smith, Co. D, 8th Kentucky, taken on June 1, 1864, at Camp Parole’s general hospital, following his release from Belle Isle (Image from Library of Congress).
Harry boarded the New York at City Point, Virginia, and traveled to Annapolis, Maryland. Reaching his destination on February 17, 1864, he spent three weeks at College Green Barracks recovering his strength, feasting on salted crabs he caught with the other men from the squad of sixteen. From College Green Barracks, he was transferred to Camp Parole, where, after a week, the quartermaster assigned him to command the First Battalion cook-house and commissary. From their seven days’ rations, the men received potatoes, turnips or beets, pepper, salt, beans, onions, coffee, tea, and soap, as well as two days’ rations of corned beef and salt pork. At noon each day, every soldier received a twenty-two-ounce loaf of fresh bread.
Once the Lewis family learned Harry was at Camp Parole, his older cousin and namesake, Harry Whitlock, was dispatched from Warsaw, New York, to check on him. After a short visit in Annapolis, Whitlock traveled to Washington, D.C., where he enlisted another cousin, Wisconsin Senator James Rood Doolittle, and Pennsylvania Senator Edgar Cowen, who helped him secure a furlough for Harry. Whitlock took his younger cousin home, where he spent time recuperating in Buffalo, New York, and Erie. It was Harry’s first visit home in years, and after the deaths of his cousin and younger brother in 1862 and 1863, respectively, his family must have welcomed him with open arms.
Senator James Reed Doolittle (Image from Library of Congress).
When Harry returned to Camp Parole from his furlough, he was assigned to help the first battalion clerk with the clothing accounts. The clerk noticed that the men from the 6th were being charged for new uniforms, which marked “the first time the prisoners have been charged for their first suit when they came into our lines at Annapolis.” While they should have received the new uniforms for free, the clothing account attested that Union Army officials intended to charge them for the uniforms. Harry waited until the clerk left for the day, and then hurled the clothing account into the office’s coal stove, reasoning that “If the other paroled prisoners did not pay for their first suit, we won’t pay for ours.” Luckily for Harry, the matter was never discussed again.
Unidentified Union soldier following release from Belle Isle. Photograph taken at Camp Parole’s general hospital by A. Hill Messinger, date unknown (Image from Library of Congress).
On May 9, 1864, Harry was exchanged and sent to what he termed “Dismounted camp,” roughly three miles south of Washington D.C. After discovering that a detachment would be sent to the front lines the next morning, Harry asked the first lieutenant in command if he could be included in that group. Evidently the lieutenant took offense to Harry’s request, and, as Harry recounted, “the ungentlemanly cur cursed me and damned me and ordered me back to my quarters.” An orderly arrived, and inquired for Harry W. Lewis, and, upon answering to his name, Harry was ordered to report immediately to the provost marshal. Although the order likely worried him, at the provost marshal’s office, Harry discovered he had been summoned by Captain John Bell Dinsmore, of the 9th New York Cavalry, whom he described as “an old boyhood friend.” They had not seen each other for nearly two years at that point, so when Captain Dinsmore saw Harry’s name on the list of new arrivals at the camp, he swiftly sent for his friend. Eager to finally rejoin his old unit, Harry asked Captain Dinsmore if he could be added to the detachment leaving the next morning, and Captain Dinsmore provided him with the necessary paperwork. Harry returned to the camp to be fitted with the necessary accoutrements, the most important being a horse. The lieutenant from earlier, unwilling to admit his orders had been circumvented, ensured that Harry was the very last man to pick a horse. Fortunately, the “homely, little black gelding” he selected “proved to be a good horse” that “could jump any fence he could look over.”
Harry rejoined the 6th Cavalry on May 25, 1864, and continued to serve for a little over two months, until he was discharged at City Point, on July 29, 1864. Similar to his return following previous battles, like the ambush he faced in 1862, Harry’s homecoming to his regiment must have been met with both surprise and relief from his comrades.
Despite his return to the 6th, his time as a POW had clearly taken a toll on Harry. Before his capture, Harry had weighed around 165 pounds, but when he arrived at College Green Barracks, he weighed just 105 pounds, having lost roughly sixty pounds in seven months. Fortunately, once more amongst friends and family, and re-immersed in vastly improved conditions, by January 1, 1865, he weighed 171 pounds, having made a seemingly miraculous recovery.
Nonetheless, for Harry, the war never truly ended. The memory of his experiences lingered in his mind, and the physical scars of his time in the cavalry remained. In many regards, his post-war experience echoed that of thousands of soldiers. After developing rheumatism and catarrh (a system characterized by the presence of excess mucus in airways), he retired from farming to become a mail carrier.
Postal worker Harry W. Lewis with his mail cart, date unknown (Image from Ancestry.com).
However, he became a noted historian in Erie County, of both the Civil War and the county’s early history.
In his later years, Harry made repeated visits to the battlefields of his youth, such as Gettysburg, but he also visited Richmond. While the reason for his visits are unknown, Harry likely felt compelled to return, as he struggled to heal the emotional scars that remained from his military service and tried to make sense of all he had endured.