In Gettysburg, we celebrate the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in two ways: the Dedication Day ceremony and the Fortenbaugh Lecture. Every year on November 19, Gettysburg College and the Robert Fortenbaugh family invite a scholar to present their new Civil War research. This year, that scholar was Dr. Thavolia Glymph who presented her lecture titled “I’m a Radical Girl”: Enslaved and Free Black Women Unionists and the Politics of Civil War History. As the title reveals, her lecture revolved around black women unionists and their place in war efforts—a role which has often been overlooked.
During the Civil War, the title “unionist” was given to Southern women helping the Union cause. These women were accorded favors and gifts from Union soldiers and the government, often being given any aid they required with no expectation of repayment. When the Union soldiers came into town, there were many benefits in being a unionist woman. Unfortunately, black women were excluded from those ranks. Even though black Southern women were contributing to the Union cause, they were not honored with the title of unionist or with the benefits that went along with it. That didn’t stop these women from sacrificing, though, or from forcing their way into American politics.
Towards the beginning of the lecture, Glymph showed a picture of a young African American woman with a small American flag tucked into the waistline of her dress. When the picture first popped up on the screen, it meant very little to me. It was just the picture she had chosen for the cover of her book, probably a photo of one of the women she had talked about as an example of black unionists. I would have completely forgotten this image if it weren’t for the pointed question Glymph posed. Why would a woman who has been dismissed by Northerners, a woman who would have to work extra hours to pay for rations from Union soldiers whom she helps, why would that woman wear the Union flag? Blacks were treated poorly by Union soldiers. Runaway slaves who went to Union troops were often given deserted tents and forced to sleep on the ground, made to pay for food rations and supplies, and in one extreme case, a group of runaway slaves were put on a train and sent to Chattanooga where they were left at the side of the tracks. The American flag was not necessarily a symbol of sympathy for blacks.
Yet, in spite of all those dismissals of blacks by Union supporters, or because of those dismissals, that black woman has stuck an American flag in her dress. By doing this, she asserts her ability to change what that flag stands for. She claims the freedoms that flag promises for herself and forces the Union to reevaluate their ideas of what they should do for blacks. All that black women unionists sacrificed in support of the Union war efforts made it clear that they had as much a right to be a part of the Union as any white person. They refused to be forgotten or pushed aside.
Talking to Dr. Glymph at breakfast the next morning, she explained that she always took her time with her writing because lives were at stake. She was referring to the people she writes about. Their lives and how we remember them are influenced by how she portrays them in her books. Decades after their deaths, she still has the power to guard or take their agency. I cannot speak for those black women unionists, but I think she gave them a platform for their voices to be heard. She brought those women back into our historical consciousness and finally gave them the title they deserved 150 years ago: unionist.
This semester, I have had the honor of working on the Civil War Institute’s Killed at Gettysburg project, hosted at killedatgettysburg.org. The project seeks to document the lives and legacies of soldiers who died during the three days of fighting in July 1863. I am happy to be contributing to Killed at Gettysburg again, as I strongly connected with the project when I worked on it for Dr. Carmichael’s Gettysburg class last semester.
In the course of my research and writing, I have dealt specifically with two men who gave their lives at Gettysburg. One, Colonel Patrick O’Rorke of the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry, is quite possibly one of the most well-known soldiers among the battle’s dead. The other, Fourth Sergeant Charles Phelps of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, may not be quite as famous but still has a great story of his own. Over the last couple of months, I have researched the lives and deaths of these two gallant soldiers and constructed narratives to inform readers about their experiences before Gettysburg; what happened to them on July 2, 1863; and how their deaths affected other people, both at home and beyond. Supplementary interactive maps will join these narrative texts in the final product, enabling viewers to explore the ground over which Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps took their final steps and creating a more holistic reader experience.
My primary goal throughout my work on Killed at Gettysburg has always centered around putting flesh and blood behind these stories of the past. Rather than presenting O’Rorke and Phelps as ephemeral legends of a bygone era, I want to humanize them to the reader. These men who gave their lives so long ago had personalities that made them unique. In addition to remarkable heroism and bravery, they had hopes, dreams, worries, and fears, just as we do today. I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project can help close the gap between the past and the present by making readers feel like they are truly getting to know the soldiers we are profiling on a level beyond their basic achievements in life.
In many ways, it is hard to believe that it has been 154 years since the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s famed address. Living and learning in Gettysburg can sometimes make it feel as though these events took place not so long ago. This observation, and the commemorations that take place each year, beg a larger question: why bother remembering what happened at Gettysburg? What makes men like Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps worthy of attention in a modern that is world far different from that which they inhabited?
To me, we should–and do still–care about the past because of how it can help us improve in our present and our future. O’Rorke and Phelps both demonstrated highly admirable qualities in their daily lives and on the battlefield at Gettysburg that we can learn from today, even across such a wide expanse of time. Patrick O’Rorke grew up as an Irish immigrant during a time when anti-Irish sentiment was at its absolute highest in the United States. Yet, he did not allow himself to be put in a box based on his background; he excelled as a student, graduated first in his class at West Point, and appeared poised for a sterling military career before a Confederate bullet tore through his neck on Little Round Top. Charles Phelps demonstrated great loyalty and tenacity by striking down the enemy soldier who had mortally wounded his brigade commander before being killed near the Wheatfield. Only nineteen years old at the time of his enlistment, Phelps displayed strength beyond his years in his final hours. Both men ultimately put their lives on the line for the cause of the Union in which they so dearly believed. When the time came, as Lincoln said, they gave their last full measure of devotion, and that ultimate sacrifice cannot be forgotten. Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps stand as prime examples of courage and devotion that we can still learn from, and to me, that makes their stories matter even today.
Each year, Remembrance Day provides us with a perfect opportunity to consider these lessons and sacrifices from so long ago. The luminaria candles that adorn the gravestones in the Soldiers National Cemetery represent the everlasting public memory of those who gave their lives so that the nation might live. Though Patrick O’Rorke and Charles Phelps are both buried in their home states rather than the national cemetery, I believe that those candles burn for them as well. Beyond the immediate stimulus of Remembrance Day, I hope that the Killed at Gettysburg project will also keep these flames of memory alive. O’Rorke and Phelps deserve secure places in the public mind so that we in the present can continue to learn from their exemplary lives and legacies. Remembrance Day and Killed at Gettysburg both serve as important reminders of these lessons from the past, and this year we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves once again.
At Dedication Day, we remember Lincoln’s dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery. At the dedication ceremony, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a speech that has become enshrined in the American consciousness. In just a few short minutes, Lincoln delivered a speech that evoked the spirit of the Founding Fathers, honored the sacrifice of the dead, and challenged the living to commit themselves to the young nation and the principles upon which it was founded. Through the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln shaped the collective memory of the Civil War and of American ideals.
Monuments and wayside markers also shape public memory. When asked to develop a wayside marker for Little Round Top, my colleague, Savannah, and I hoped to fully honor the sacrifice of the 20th Maine men by avoiding a purely romantic interpretation of their heroism and instead acknowledging their humanness. Like the rest of us, the Maine men were imperfect. Though many fought for high ideals like patriotism and duty, others fought for less noble reasons. They fought because desertion was a crime, because everyone else did, or because they craved adventure. We wanted our wayside to show that the men who fought on Little Round Top were individuals with their own lives and motivations.
Whatever their reasons for fighting, the Maine men experienced the brutal reality of war on Little Round Top. We felt that it would do these men a disservice if we used our wayside to tell a comfortable tale about heroic action or tactical maneuvers. Instead, we hoped to develop a wayside that illustrated the savagery of war. Men were killed indiscriminately, their bodies strewn across the rocks. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain described the men, “torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth, and dead faces with strangely fixed eyes staring stark into the sky.”
The battle at Little Round Top was incredibly brutal, but in no way did we want to suggest that the casualties were senseless. The 20th Maine men died for a purpose much higher than themselves. They were sacrificed for the freedom of millions of enslaved people and for the preservation of a country that was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address is surrounded by myths. It is a widely-held belief that Lincoln wrote the Address on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. This story remains popular in the public imagination because people want to remember Lincoln as a common man with a great gift that allowed him to assume the highest office in the United States. The ways in which people alter memory are often reflective of how they want to remember historic moments.
Many want to remember Little Round Top as the place where Colonel Chamberlain led the 20th Maine to a victory that saved the Union. Popular culture, specifically the movie Gettysburg, has reinforced this version of events in the nation’s collective memory. When designing our wayside, Savannah and I had to contend with the preconceptions that tourists bring to Little Round Top.There is no doubt that Joshua Chamberlain was an able leader, but he was nothing without the dedication of his men. The 20th Maine did not save the Union, but it was one of many vital parts that contributed to the Union victory. We hope to use our wayside to complicate the traditional story of the 20th Maine.
Making our vision for the wayside text a reality proved to be a challenge. Savannah and I were given 250 words to tell a nuanced version of the events at Little Round Top, and it seemed an impossible task. But then we remembered the Gettysburg Address. In 272 words, Abraham Lincoln both inspired and redefined the nation. Surely, we could give park visitors a better understanding of the 20th Maine men and their fight for a hilltop.
Every November, on the Saturday closest to the 19th, the town of Gettysburg celebrates Remembrance Day. This day is held in memory of those who fought and died at the Battle of Gettysburg and during the Civil War as a whole. On November 19th, crowds gather to celebrate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. These events pose a few very important questions: why do we still remember the Civil War in this manner? Why do we find it so important to have an entire day dedicated just to Civil War soldiers? Why does Civil War memory matter?
Over the semester, I have been working on a project in which similar questions have arisen. I am working to create a new wayside for the 20th Maine on the Gettysburg Battlefield. The one that currently sits there is more a wayside to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain than it is to the men of the regiment. Why do officers seem to loom so far above regular soldiers? During Remembrance Day, the ordinary soldiers who sacrificed their lives are remembered, which is very important because without them, the generals who are usually highlighted would not have been able to accomplish the feats they are best remembered for. Something I have been attempting to do in developing the text for the wayside is remember the ordinary soldier and shift the 20th Maine’s story away from only being about Joshua Chamberlain. This has proved a challenging task, as the ghosts of the movie Gettysburg that propelled Chamberlain to fame do not seem to want to leave.
As I am from Maine, this project has been a special one for me. I am helping shape the legacy of fellow Mainers. I am also working to write a text that will influence visitor’s perceptions of the battle and Maine’s role in it. While Maine did have many other regiments at Gettysburg, the 20th is the one that is best remembered and most likely offers battlefield visitors’ only glimpse of the state. I want to do my fellow Mainers and their sacrifice at Little Round Top justice while at the same time making sure I am not being plagued by Chamberlain’s ghost and the idea that the 20th Maine saved the Union. In addition to all of this, I am left with the question of why this matters. Why is the 20th Maine so important, and how will the words I write shape their memory? This is not an easy question to grapple with, but as a history major, I believe that history matters and the way we remember it is important.
History helps us learn from our past and gives us context for the problems in the present, and thus, how we tell this history and how we shape the past has important contemporary implications. Do we present a past that paints the Maine men as noble and dedicated heroes, or do we portray them as men who had flaws and may not even have wanted to fight? I believe the solution is a combination of both. The 20th Maine was made up of regular men, but they did do something heroic and important. Theirs was a critical position in the Union line but, at the same time, the battle raged on for another day and the war for another two years, so by no means did the 20th Maine save the Union. This question of how to best remember is an important one, and I believe it is raised in both my wayside project and on Remembrance Day. Is it right to remember the men who died through reenactments and parades? How do we shape memory in a way that is true to history, and how do we do justice to the men that died at Gettysburg while at the same time being careful not to make them akin to gods?
Last Friday, CWI Fellows Abigail Cocco ’19 and Ryan Bilger ’19 interviewed renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer about his upcoming Dedication Day speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19th. Holzer discussed various aspects of Civil War memory as well as Lincoln’s legacy in contemporary society. Currently the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, Holzer has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books, the most recent being Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Mr. Holzer was also a featured speaker at the Civil War Institute’s annual summer conference this past June. You can watch his CWI talk here.
Holzer’s Dedication Day speech will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the rostrum in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg National Military Park, following a 10:00 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony at the Soldiers’ National Monument. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit www.lincolnfellowship.org.
Two weeks ago, the Gettysburg College community was treated to a lecture by special guest Douglas Egerton, one of the recipients of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Dr. Egerton works at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches courses on race in 19th century America. Egerton’s most recent book Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America chronicles the lives of ten men from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts United States Colored Troops, documenting their experiences from the pre-war era to their deaths.
Audience members were most familiar with these regiments because of the 1989 movie “Glory,” which depicts the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the black troops of the 54th, culminating in their famous assault on Fort Wagner. Egerton’s lecture, however, examined the lives of Shaw’s soldiers—rather than Shaw himself—and the country’s attitudes toward United States Colored Troops. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Americans began to ask if black citizens and former slaves would be willing to fight for a country in which many of them felt unwanted. In the South, the Confederate Government was quick to declare that, if captured, black soldiers would be enslaved and officers would be executed. While this policy would change later on, there was still a fair share of worry in the North that black troops would run from the battlefield and abandon their posts because of this Confederate threat. This was the crux of Egerton’s lecture: looking at the how the soldiers were depicted versus how they acted and examining the impact that the 54th and 55th Massachusetts had on public perception.
The history students in the crowd might have recognized Egerton’s work as “history from the bottom up.” Instead of emulating the film “Glory,” which focuses more on Shaw than the black soldiers, Egerton discussed the rank-and-file and told their stories through their own experiences. This confronts a large issue in the history field, in which many choose to study presidents, generals, kings, and other important leaders rather than opt for the harder story to tell: that of the common man. While historians such as James McPherson and Earl Hess have examined why soldiers enlisted, Egerton studies the motivations of a more marginalized group who faced institutional oppression and still chose to fight.
Egerton worked to emphasize that, unlike in the movie “Glory,” not all USCTs were escaped slaves. Those who joined the ranks as freeman—including Frederick Douglass’ sons, Charles and Lewis—saw a palpable public outcry against black troops and sought a way to prove that they would not turn and run in a battle but would fight just as bravely as white troops. This was an opportunity to reunite the nation and make it a better place for themselves and their families. For those who had escaped from bondage, however, the motivation was simple: fight for the families back in the South. Many who escaped had left someone behind, be it a wife, son, or daughter, and they wanted to ensure that they could secure their loved ones’ freedom and build a nation they could call their own.
Edgerton’s lecture, like his book, had a melancholy ending, as many of the troops who survived the war and served with distinction were not able to achieve the goals they had hoped. Many of them lived long lives and were able to reunite with their families, but while the South was defeated, the nation restored, and the 14th amendment ratified, some troops still faced persecution after the war. Jim Crow soon took the place of slave drivers and catchers. As for their place in memory, the soldiers were quickly forgotten by history. When the United States returned to war in the 1890s, the 1910s, and 1940s, the same issues surfaced again. The public forgot about the heroism of the USCT regiments that fought during the Civil War and again believed that black soldiers would surely run at the first sight of combat and prove to be a liability on the battlefield. “Glory” does not necessarily help combat this image, as a majority of the film is told through Shaw’s perspective and portrays many of the soldiers as runaway slaves with little to no motivation. Thankfully, historians like Dr. Egerton are working to tell these men’s stories and ensure that they will have their rightful place in American memory.
Many may not realize that Native Americans played a part in the Civil War, just as they did in many previous American wars. Some Native Americans enlisted with regular infantry units, alongside white Americans. These Native Americans believed they could achieve better treatment by the government and keep their land if they enlisted. They also got paid and fed regularly in the army. They did face discrimination by white soldiers, who believed that these Native Americans exemplified the stereotype of the lazy, drunk Indian. However, such stereotypes were often proved wrong. The most notable example of this is Company K of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, made up mostly of Native Americans, who showed their courage and strength in the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Petersburg, among others. In the South and West, most Native Americans tended to fight as separate auxiliaries. It was in this part of the country that most Native Americans had been forcibly relocated to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma as part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Foremost among these Native Americans were the five “civilized” tribes, called so because they, for the most part, attempted to integrate into American society to gain respect and stop encroachment on their land. These tribes were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee or Creek, and the Seminole, and they would come to play the biggest role in the Civil War among Native Americans, mostly because they could not escape it.
After the war started in 1861, the United States pulled all of its white troops out of the forts in Indian Territory to provide more manpower for the war in the East, leaving the Native Americans unprotected. In addition, when the government had relocated the Five Civilized Tribes, it had signed treaties promising to pay them a yearly amount of money. The tribes relied on this money to survive and provide services to their people, but in 1861 the government refused to pay them. This caused an ideological civil war within the tribes over which loyalty would serve them best. Some believed they should still keep their end of the treaty and side with the United States, even though the government had broken its promise. Others held that the treaty was now void and they should instead fight for the Confederates, as they had not broken any treaties. The Creeks, for example split in half.
Those with Union sentiment looked to Opothleyahola, who had been a prominent spokesperson and leader of the Creeks since their removal in 1830. Before the removal, he had been an advocate of the traditional ways of the Creeks and had opposed removal, but he eventually came to see that it was inevitable. He urged neutrality and encouraged the tribe to uphold its end of the treaty. Others, called the McIntoshes, disagreed and took a pro-Confederate stance. This group was named after William McIntosh, who was the son of a Scottish man and a Creek woman. Even though McIntosh had died many years before the Civil War, his descendants carried on his legacy and fought for the Confederacy.
In addition, many of the tribes that came to support the Confederate cause were originally from the South and had shared cultural ties. Some Native Americans even owned black slaves, believing this could help them assimilate into American society. Their slaves were forbidden to intermarry and were generally treated similarly by Native Americans as they were by whites. This still poses a problem today because many people of African American and Native American descent claim to be Native American, but some tribes do not accept them or recognize their status. In addition, a lot of these slaves were not freed at the end of the Civil War because the United States still, to some extent, saw them as separate political entities that did not have to abide by the Thirteenth Amendment. They became freed a year later when a treaty was signed between some Native American tribes and the government in which the Native Americans agreed to free their slaves. However, this did not stop these Native American nations from passing discriminatory laws, similar to Jim Crow laws and Black Codes, aimed at the newly freed African Americans that lived amongst them.
After the Union had abandoned Indian Territory in 1861, Confederates were quick to move in, scattering the remaining Native Americans who sided with the Union. They attacked Opothleyahola and his followers on December 26, 1861. Opothleyahola fled, reaching Kansas with no food and water and leaving the Confederates with control over Indian Territory. Those who had fled wanted to get back to their homes, and the United States saw its opportunity. Thus, the Indian Home Guards were formed. The Union did not have enough men to spare to fight the Confederates in Indian Territory, so they took advantage of the Native Americans who wanted their home back and had them fight for it in order to win the war. This decision did not come without controversy, however, as many in Kansas were afraid that giving weapons to Native Americans would cause them to turn against the state’s white citizens. They also thought Native Americans were inferior and would not be able to fight in the army.
At first, the Indian Home Guards were under the overall command of a white officer, while individual companies had Native American leaders. Later, white leadership took over, as the majority of Native Americans were illiterate and unable to do the paperwork required of officers. However, they were still often used to lead their men in battle, as Native American soldiers were more likely to follow a fellow Native American leader. There were other problems with these units, though. Many had trouble adjusting to the army’s way of conducting warfare, which was much more regimented than they were used to, and there were a lot of desertions. In addition, some Native Americans treated their army-issued guns as their personal property and used them for sport or hunting. This lead to ammunition shortages in the already ill-supplied ranks, and the government had to take the cost of ammunition used for personal reasons out of the Native Americans’ pay.
Despite all these problems, the Native Americans fought hard for their homes, leading their white commander, William A. Phillips, to remark in his reports that he was “very much pleased with the conduct of the whole Indian force.” On July 17, 1863, at the Battle of Honey Springs, the Indian Home Guard, along with other troops, gained a foothold in Indian Territory. The battle, fought between 5,700 Confederates and 3,000 Union troops, is often termed the “Gettysburg of the West” because it was the last real Confederate effort to protect this territory. This made it much easier for the Indian Home Guards to eventually take back the whole area.
The capture of the Indian Territory was important to the Union effort, as it helped them take back land that had been lost to the Confederates, but despite the important role that the Indian Home Guards played in this effort, the treatment of Native Americans after the war was not reflective of this. No matter what side the Native Americans fought on, they were all treated alike and pushed off their land as Manifest Destiny and increased settlement took hold after the Civil War. Those who had fought for the Union cause were treated just the same as those who had fought for the Confederacy. Their land was increasingly shrinking and they became the target of U.S. military action. These Native Americans fought for their homes during the Civil War, only to lose them and be pushed off of them afterwards.
The Native Americans soldiers are not remembered and their contributions are not recognized. Instead, the Civil War’s end led into the Indian Wars, in which many of the tribes that had helped the Union win were slaughtered at the hands of the United Sates military. There are no monuments to these Native Americans. The only monument which is remotely related to Native Americans is that of the 42nd New York on the Gettysburg Battlefield. It has a teepee on it, but only because the regiment was supported by Tammany Hall, which was named after a famous Native American leader. While their legacy is not remembered by white Americans, it is no doubt remembered by the Native Americans themselves, who will always know how bravely their ancestors fought for their homes. Non-natives should also keep in mind the importance of the Indian Home Guard’s bravery, for they ultimately contributed to Union victory do but not receive the recognition they deserved.
On Thursday, November 2nd, Howard University History Professor Ana Lucia Araujo visited Gettysburg College to give a lecture titled “Slavery, Memory, and Reparations: Coming to Terms with the Past When Monuments Are Taken Down.” The historian, author, and professor talked about the history of slavery as well as the concepts of memory and reparations. One form of reparations discussed recently has been the removal of Confederate monuments in the United States, which has been heavily debated for years.
Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming
2018 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Jonathan Lande, a doctoral candidate in History at Brown University, where he was the 2016 Peter Green Scholar. Jonathan teaches courses in American and African American history at Tougaloo College as the 2017-2018 Brown-Tougaloo Exchange Faculty Fellow. His current project, “Rebellion in the Ranks,” examines the desertion, mutiny, and courts-martial trials of former slaves serving in the Union army. Looking at African American soldiers who found military service offensive to their visions of freedom, “Rebellion in the Ranks” traces the resistance of African American soldiers and remaps the process of emancipation in the Union army. A portion of his research entitled “Trials of Freedom” appeared in the Journal of Social History. The African American Intellectual History Society blog, Black Perspectives, also featured a guest posting from Jonathan on desertion and black military service. He is the recipient of the William F. Holmes Award from the Southern Historical Association and the Du Bois-Wells Award from the African American Intellectual History Society.
This summer, while doing research at Stratford Hall, I happened across the name of one West Point professor who quite literally taught every cadet who fought in the Civil War. It is fairly common knowledge than many of the war’s great commanders were classmates together at West Point. For example, the class of 1842 contained George McClellan, James Longstreet, and John Pope. Such commanders influenced the course of the war by drawing upon their West Point education, and while they may have held different military outlooks, they all drew upon the teachings of one man: Dennis Mahan, professor of mathematics as well as military and civil engineering. Thus, Mahan, a relatively unknown figure, had a direct impact on how the war was waged during some of its most crucial days.
Professor Mahan graduated at the top of his class at West Point in 1824 and began his teaching career almost immediately after. The U.S. government even sent him to France for a number of years to observe European tactics. While abroad, he saw how the French used forts and extensive defensive positions to protect their cities. His class on military science at West Point directly correlated onto the battlefield, one of his key points being the use of fixed fortifications and defenses in theatre. Mahan also stressed the importance of using the surrounding geography to an army’s advantage. By 1863, the war came to a head when George Meade and Robert E. Lee, both students of Mahan, clashed here at Gettysburg. From the beginning of the engagement, Mahan’s teachings were visible. For example, Lee famously used the mountains around Gettysburg to mask his movement from the Army of the Potomac. Culp’s Hill is another area where Mahan’s teachings were used, though it tends to be overshadowed by other areas of the battlefield.
This is not to say that certain areas are more important or noteworthy than others, but much of the history of Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge already has a large scholarly following. For example, the Second Corps’ action on July 3rd has been the focus of numerous books every year–most recently Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack by Phillip Tucker–while many facets of the battle still remain untouched. Pickett’s Charge often takes the spotlight when it comes to discussing the third day, but a considerable part of the battle centered around Culp’s Hill and culminated in a Confederate attack at dawn on July third. On that morning, Richard Ewell’s forces clashed with the Union 12th Corps commanded by George Greene, a descendant of the famed revolutionary general Nathaniel Greene and a classmate of Dennis Mahan. Greene clearly subscribed to Mahan’s philosophy of battle, as the Confederate attack was crushed against the Union’s strong fortifications and stymied by its defensive strategy. When the Confederates attacked, they were met with entrenchments that Union soldiers dug during the fighting. The troops were able to dig thanks to Greene’s strategy of shuttling troops from Cemetery Ridge up to Culp’s Hill and using these men to stave of the repeated attacks while others dug entrenchments. It was these defensive tactics that were vital to holding to Culp’s Hill, and if Greene and his corps had failed, the Union Army’s right flank would have collapsed in on itself.
After living and working in Gettysburg for almost four years, I have come to realize that there are many stories surrounding the battle and the war that go somewhat unnoticed to many of us. After all, visitors love to learn about Pickett’s Charge, and it is important to continue to interpret the popular parts of the battlefield. For example, Gettysburg National Military Park is meeting visitor needs by presenting three ranger programs this fall between Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, and the Third day as a whole. It is important that we continue to tell the stories of these better-known sites, as it draws audiences in and makes them excited to learn more about the park and its history.
But stories like that of Dennis Mahan and his teachings also help us understand the war at a more detailed level. Due to time constraints and an overwhelming amount of content to cover in the classroom, the way Civil War history is taught can be confusing, and the maturation of leaders is a subject that we tend to save for figures like Lincoln and Grant. While some commanders definitely had an “X factor,” most were not born the strategists they became by the end of their careers. The great soldiers of the war honed their skills over a series of events. For many commanders, it began in the West Point lecture hall. Those young men then quickly found themselves in their first field test in Mexico. Not all of them stayed on a military track: Grant left the military and saw failures like the failed business and sickness that shaped him into the man we remember today, while Meade continued his military training and worked on topographical research. By the time the war started, Mahan’s students had a wide variety of experiences under their belts and began to piece together their lessons, a process that culminated in some of the greatest battles in American history.