The Shifting Meaning of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road

By Lillian Shea ’21

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

The part of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road running through Appomattox Court House holds various meanings for those that have used it through the years.  The early 19th-century inhabitants of Appomattox Court House viewed it as the source of prosperity for the town.  By connecting the two wealthy cities of Richmond and Lynchburg, it ensured a steady flow of traffic that would spur construction of the town’s first building, the Clover Hill Tavern, in 1819.  Without the road, many of the non-agricultural businesses in the community could not function, thus making the road instrumental to the town’s success. In 1854, a railroad stop was established 3 miles west of the town.  The road which had once been a source of prosperity spelled the town’s death sentence as people chose faster and smoother train travel over the stage road.  Taverns went out of business and the population of 100 people in the 1860s decreased to just 10 by the 1890s.

Shea Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road
The author speaks to a tour group along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Photo courtesy Lillian Shea.

The Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road held a different meaning for the Federal and Confederate troops that followed it into the village on April 8th, 1865.  The road saw two days of fighting starting on April 8th and ending on the 9th with Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.  For the men involved in these last, desperate battles of the Civil War, the road reminded them of the deaths of their comrades along with the battles that they had fought throughout the entire war.

Beyond being a place of death, it was also a site of acts of respect.  On April 9th, the road literally led both generals to the surrender meeting that ensured generous terms for the Army of Northern Virginia. On April 10th, Lee and Grant met for a second time on horseback, this time on the road.  In this meeting, Grant offered Lee’s men parole passes to ensure safe passage home, rations, and transportation.  April 12th saw the Stacking of Arms ceremony.  Fifty-five thousand Federal infantrymen lined the stage road and saluted the Confederates as they laid down their guns.  The Confederates returned the salute.  Exhausted by the fighting and grateful for the generosity displayed on the stage road, these men were ready to go home along that same road and prepare for reunification.

Even though we at the park focus on the road’s former uses, it is still active today as a pathway into the past, leading visitors through the town’s history. No longer connecting two major cities, it now connects the past to the present. Rangers describe the deep ruts and blood red mud which characterized it 150 years ago, much different from the level, tan gravel of today.  Rangers use the soldiers’ own words to describe the men weeping from relief and others embracing one another in the middle of the road as brothers, no longer enemies.  Each detail about the road adds nuance and makes the soldiers’ experiences more tangible. The Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road acts almost like a river.  Its function constantly changes, ebbing and flowing with fortune and failure, peace and war. Now it allows visitors to walk up and down its length, retracing the steps of those long forgotten so they can be remembered once again.

Antietam’s Dunker Church: Meaning in the Viewpoint of the Beholder

By Ryan Bilger ’19

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Antietam National Battlefield’s venerable Dunker Church stands out today as one of the battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. While visitors to the park commonly seek it out as a place to explore today, the church has held several different meanings for those who have interacted with it over the years. These varying perspectives on the simple white brick structure provide great insight into how material objects influenced the attitudes and beliefs of historical actors. Across the decades, the Dunker Church has remained a key object in this regard, even as its meaning has changed depending upon the viewpoint of the beholder.

Bilger Dunker Church
Dunker Church is one of Antietam National Battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. Photo courtesy Ryan Bilger.

When Sharpsburg farmer Samuel Mumma donated the land on which the Dunker Church would be built in 1851, he surely intended for the new place of worship to become a peaceful refuge and a communal gathering place. The Mumma family occupied a position near the center of the tight-knit local community, which included several of members of the pacifist German Baptist Brethren church, better known as the Dunkers. In its first decade of existence, the church filled its intended niche as an anchor for the local congregation. Its simple design and sparse furnishings reflected the devout religious beliefs and relative focus on austerity held by those who met there each Sunday, further contributing to its status in the community as a place of peace and solemnity. This meaning largely defined the Dunker Church in its early years. However, the arrival of two powerful armies at its doorstep would alter that meaning for some, and change overall perspectives on the structure forever.

On September 17, 1862, the Dunker Church stood in the center of the single bloodiest day in American history, and assumed totally different meanings for those who fought at Antietam. For the Union generals and soldiers attacking Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, the church became a landmark to guide their advance. Their hopes and goals for the day, in many cases, fixated upon it as the symbol of the victory they desperately desired. After the chaos and carnage of battle ravaged the fields of Sharpsburg, the Dunker Church transformed once again. It became a hospital aid station for wounded Confederate soldiers desperately in need of treatment, and, according to one account, an embalming facility for Union dead. The pacifist meeting house became a scene of suffering and death, creating experiences that surely shaped how the soldiers and surgeons who passed through it thought about the maelstrom of war. The Battle of Antietam radically altered the meaning of the Dunker Church for those who interacted with it in September 1862.

Today, Antietam National Battlefield works effectively to stimulate visitor thinking on the different meanings ascribed to the Dunker Church and how people have interacted with it throughout history. The church occupies the position of Stop #1 on the battlefield auto tour, ensuring that visitors take time to observe the structure and reflect on its significance. Additional related artifacts in the Visitor Center museum highlight the dichotomy of uses and meanings, and interpretive signs and markers, as well as the Battlefield Ambassadors program on weekends, further contribute to promoting visitor reflection on the variation in the relationship between the Dunker Church and those who used it across the years. Overall, this targeted interpretation contributes well to ensuring that visitors remain mindful of how historical objects interacted with the people who used them in different, nuanced ways, and it should continue to do so into the future at Antietam.

Doors into the Past

By Emily Vega ’19

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Vega Magazine Doors
A view of the magazine door. Photo courtesy Emily Vega.

Submerged into the side of a grassy hill are two large white doors. As one looks at Fort Stevens from a distance, the doors seem misplaced. They randomly appear in a visitor’s line of sight as he/she examines the curves and dips of the earthwork before them. But these doors tell a much more interesting story than might be expected. To the left of these doors once stood the home of Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, a free African American woman, whose family originally owned eighty-eight acres of land in the Brightwood area of Washington, DC.  At a time of few economic opportunities for the African American community, having this land was an important part of being self-sustaining. On this high ground, Thomas’s family farmed and sold parts of their holdings to relatives and other African American families.

Due to Washington’s position between Virginia and Maryland, it made the city an incredibly vulnerable and easy target during the Civil War. With the Confederates approach looming, the Defenses of Washington went into motion and made it one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world.

Ms. Thomas had a small cottage approximately twenty feet away from the cellar doors where she lived prior to the Civil War with her six-month old daughter. But with eminent threat to the city, Union troops took possession of Ms. Thomas’ property and dismantled her home. They used her land to construct Fort Massachusetts, which was later renamed Fort Stevens.

Vega Fort Stevens

During the war, the white cellar doors actually served as the magazine for the Fort. Fort Stevens is the only location within the city limits to face a battle to protect the capitol. Nothing survived on Ms. Thomas’ original property after the Civil War and there is great debate about whether she ever received the compensation she had been promised.

More broadly, Fort Stevens served not only as protection from opposing forces but also as a safe haven for enslaved people. This movement of African Americans to the area during the Civil War can be seen in the cultural landscape of the city today. Today, the majority of the 68 forts constructed to defend the city during the war have been lost to the growing urban city and built over. The National Park Service is preserving the few forts that do still maintain their shape but to a visitor’s eye, they are often hard to spot in the brush of parks.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington’s mission is to educate the residents of the capitol about the fortifications that once existed in their neighborhoods and the Civil War history that is found in their parks. But one struggle that CWDW faces is finding effective ways to engage the local communities who do not know the historical value of these green spaces. While many visitors see the fort locations as a place to enjoy the sun or walk their dogs, they often fail to connect with the history of these spaces. Through public programming and events, CWDW hopes to get the community more interested in the history that exists in their neighborhoods. These white cellar doors were once a part of a home, then a part of battleground, and now exist as an artifact of Washington, D.C.’s own Civil War history.

 

Vega
Emily Vega on the job during the 154th Battle of Fort Stevens Commemoration. Photo courtesy Emily Vega.

Of Rocks and Revolutions

By Benjamin Roy ’21

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Roy firing a musket
The author firing a flintlock musket at Minute Man NHP during a black powder demonstration. Photo courtesy Benjamin Roy.

It is difficult to explain how the most advanced military technology of the 18th century relies upon a rock to function. Examined with modern eyes, the flintlock musket is as absurd as the macaroni fashion of the era. A petite vise grips a hunk of flint, which when thrown upon a steel battery, showers sparks on a criminally unmeasured amount of black powder. This produces a blinding flash, ushering a jet of flame through an eighth inch wide hole in the barrel. The powder condensed behind the ounce ball of lead is transformed from inert sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate into instant leviathan strength. The bullet careens down the barrel until its ejection from the twelve gauge bore, destined for whatever organic matter may halt the progress of this thoroughly unnatural reaction.

The Flintlock musket is itself a metaphor for the era of change it helped affect. It is not quite ancient, yet not thoroughly modern. It is a prime example of the enlightenment’s infantile understanding and dangerous fascination with science and nature; and it had an undeniable power to upend the natural order. The flintlock musket was the final expression of Colonial dissent leading up to the American Revolution. Concord’s Reverend Emerson spoke for many Provincials when he thundered to his flock, “Arise my injured Countrymen, and plead even with the Sword, the Firelock and the Bayonet, plead with your Arms.” The roaring plea of the flintlock musket would register with seismic power, upending an entire Empire. The firelock was the engine of revolutionary social and political change, and every aspect of its use was involved in the buildup to Revolution on April 19th, 1775.

Reloading begins with tearing the paper cartridge to expose the black powder. Exhibiting Puritan thrift, old newspapers were often recycled into paper cartridges. Those repurposed newspapers would be twice formative in the story of the Revolution. High literacy rates in Massachusetts meant that most of the Militiamen who were tearing these cartridges could read what was written on them. And there was no shortage of newsprint. Tory newspapers were outnumbered in Massachusetts four to one, their voice drowned out in the popular clamor for liberty. The same incendiary words that pushed the people of Massachusetts further to the edge of revolution would contain the powder they would use to ignite it.

A draught of powder is poured into the pan, the piece is cast about, and the rest is unceremoniously dumped down the throat of the gun. Without this source of energy, the weapon is impotent. Powder, and other supplies of war, were what the British marched on Concord to find, looking for the “35 half barrels of powder” hidden there. Powder had long been a critical point of contention. When the British seized gunpowder from The Cambridge Powder House on September 1st, 1774, the response commanded respect. The alarm brought 20,000 militiamen from all over New England to Boston to see just what the British thought they were doing. In the mass of armed humanity that choked the roads to Boston, a poor countryman with flintlock musket laid over his shoulder, met a haughty, well known Tory on horseback and defiantly taunted, “Damn you, how do you like us now, you Tory son of a bitch”? Resistance to British rule was rapidly becoming an engine of social change, the muscle of which was the flintlock musket.

The steel rammer drives the whole cartridge into the claustrophobic breech. Even this steel rammer is an important aspect of the coming war. Steel rammers were a technological innovation that allowed the soldier to load faster; yet some British regiments were still equipped with older, wooden rammers on April 19th. In contrast, the town of Lincoln, among others, provided each of its Minutemen with steel rammers, demonstrating that this local democratic force was on an equal, if not better technological footing with their opponents. British arrogance concerning the “raw, undisciplined cowardly men” of the Provincial Militia, would shatter against the hard front of burnished Provincial steel.

Loaded, the musket is ready to emit its deadly articles. The charge in the pan is ignited with a terse hiss, followed by the baritone detonation of the main charge. The different sounds of gunfire that erupted on April 19th speak eloquently of the dispute that aroused them. The ordered volleys of Lord Percy’s relief column garnered cheers from the bludgeoned Regulars of Lt. Colonel Smith’s original force signaling that help had arrived, that the omnipresent might of the Crown would escort them back to Boston. Alternatively, the scattered, peppering fire of the militia, like a chorus of voices speaking at the local meetinghouse, alerted the British that they had blundered into another ambush. Those shots, the ubiquitous “shot heard round the world,” resounded like a thunderclap across the thirteen colonies. In New York, a disgusted Loyalist observed a band of Patriots celebrate the news “with avidity” and “paraded the town with drums beating and colours flying, (attended by a mob of negroes, boys, sailors, and pickpockets) inviting all of mankind to take up arms in defence of the ‘injured rights and liberties of America.’” The gunshots fired on April 19th reverberated in Patriot ears as a universal call to arms.

The flintlock musket was simultaneously ornate and savagely simple and brutal. The weapon of both Empire and Revolution, it would destroy an old order, and enforce a new one. Nearly 250 years removed from the American Revolution, the flintlock musket, and the war it won, still produces awe. Like the modest stone that slew Goliath, a small, sharp flint, thrown against steel, would topple an Empire.

SOURCES

Borneman, Walter R. American Spring: Lexington, Concord. and the Road to Revolution. Boston: Back Bay Books. 2014.

Darling, Anthony D. Red Coat and Brown Bess. New York: Museum Restoration Series. 1977.

Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994.

Galvin, John R. The Minutemen: The First Fight, Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Dulles VA: Potomac Series. 2006.

Gross, Robert A. Minutemen and their World. New York: Hill and Wang. 1976.

Tourtellot, Arthur B. Lexington and Concord: The Beginning of the War of the American Revolution. New York: W.W Norton and Company. 1959.

C. Keith Wilbur, The Revolutionary Soldier: 1775-1783. (Guilford CT: Rowan and Littlefield, 1993).

The “Bloody Books” of Special Collections

By Laurel Wilson ’19

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

L Wilson bloody book

Gettysburg College’s Special Collections and College Archives is home to a wide variety of incredible items, including many items that are related to the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the Battle of Gettysburg related items in the collection, few demonstrate just how intimately the battle affected the College better than the so-called “Bloody Books.” These books, whose presence in Gettysburg predated 1863, remained in the College’s libraries during the battle and bore witness to the College’s transformation into a Confederate field hospital in the aftermath of the fighting on July 1st. They have remained in the College’s possession ever since, and contain reminders of the battle within their pages to this day.

At the time of the battle, the College had three relatively small libraries located on the second floor of the main College building, now known as Pennsylvania Hall. In addition to the main college library, the two student literary societies, the Phrenakosmian and Philomathaean, each had their own libraries as well. All three of these libraries would be pressed into service as hospital rooms, which may have led to some of the books in their collections becoming bloody or otherwise damaged. One relatively early reference to bloody library books can be found in E.S. Breidenbaugh’s The Pennsylvania College Book (1882), which states: “Many blood-soaked volumes in the Library still remind of the use to which it was put.”  Later publications seem to have taken this description of “blood-soaked volumes” in the College library and run with it, as A. R. Wentz did in his book, History of the Gettysburg Theological Seminary (1926). Wentz details: “The southern troops were very indignant at ‘the Dutchmen’ for having shot down so many of their men. As if to express their indignation, they carried their wounded into the library room of the College building, supported the heads of some of them with volumes of old German theologians, whose pages thus were sealed together by the blood that flowed from the hearts of dying heroes.” .

As it pertains to the books in Special Collections, the nickname “Bloody Book” is admittedly a slight misnomer. Unlike the books so colorfully described by Wentz and Breidenbaugh, the books that the nickname currently refers to do not, to the knowledge of Special Collections staff, actually contain any bloodstains. Instead, these books contain the signatures and notes of wounded men who were likely trying to stave off the boredom that came with being stuck in the hospital. There are two books in Special Collections that have such notes and signatures either within their pages or scratched into their covers. The more well-known and well-documented of the two books is an 1847 Patent Office Report from the Philomathean Society library. It contains the signatures of three Confederate soldiers from 42nd Mississippi: J.B. Blackwell, Co. E., John Rogers, Co. H, and John A Womack, Co. H.

L Wilson signatures
Signatures in 1847 Patent Office Report book. Photo courtesy Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The other book, a 1768 copy of Letters from the Marchioness de Sevigne, was also in the Philomathean Society Library during and after the battle. It was discovered recently by Special Collections’ book conservator, who noticed that there were names and notes scratched into the cover. The names and notes are a bit difficult to make out, but one of the notes reads fairly clearly: “H. Campbell is Dead.” H. Campbell may refer to Harmon Campbell, a soldier from the 23rd North Carolina who was wounded in the back, thigh, and head on July 1st and died on July 13th. The 23rd NC was virtually decimated on nearby Oak Ridge, so it is entirely likely that Campbell was brought to the College hospital to be treated for his wounds, from which he later died.

L Wilson Campbell book
The second “Bloody Book,” bearing the notation “H. Campbell is dead.” Photo courtesy Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The books that remained in the College’s libraries during the battle would bear witness to the battle’s bloody aftermath as the College was transformed into a makeshift hospital. It is for this reason that they have earned the nickname “Bloody Books,” even if they are not literally bloody. These books are currently used to teach students about the role of the College as a hospital and to give insight into what it would have been like for the wounded soldiers who were sent there. They show in a very tangible way just how the history of the Battle of Gettysburg and the history of Gettysburg College intersect and intertwine with each other, making them an incredibly valuable resource for students and researchers interested in exploring those connections.

 

Sources:

Breidenbaugh, E. S. ed. The Pennsylvania College Book, 1832-1882. Philadelphia: Lutheran  Publication Society, 1882.

Fortenbaugh, Robert, “The College and the Civil War.” In The History of Gettysburg College, 1832-1932. Edited by S. G. Hefelbower, 178-229. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 1932.

Wentz, Abdel Ross. History of the Gettysburg Theological Seminary of the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States and of the United Lutheran Church in America, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1826-1926. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1926.

Gettysburg’s Stone Walls: Restoration or Rehabilitation?

By Kevin Aughinbaugh ’18

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

They are as simple as a pile of rocks, as utilitarian as a fence, and at times, exemplars of the kinds of debate that occurs at National Parks. Dry-laid stone walls are both a vital and ubiquitous feature of many battlefield landscapes. Solely constructed of large and small stones, these walls have the potential to last hundreds of years, without any binding agent apart from gravity. Hadrian’s Wall is one of the most famous of these stone walls, built in the year 122 A.D. to provide for the defense of Roman Britain; portions of the wall are still standing today. These walls are known for their strength and longevity, and in tribute, Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War even christened one of their leaders “Stonewall” for his steadfastness during battle.

 

Dry-laid stone walls were common in the Gettysburg area during the 19th century, as they provided a durable and economical way to enclose crops and livestock on a farm. Due to the local geology, diabase, or “Gettysburg Granite,” is found close to the surface of farm fields, and was frequently brought up by farmers during plowing and tilling. Putting these stones to use as fencing provided a long lasting alternative to wood fencing such as Virginia worm or post and rail fencing. For the local Adams County farmer, these stone walls were nothing more than a utilitarian tool. Used for demarcating property and field boundaries, protecting crops from large roaming herbivores, and providing a strong enclosure for various farm animals, these walls were regarded as an important tool in normal farming practice.

As June 1863 turned into July, the clouds of war began to converge on Gettysburg, and on the morning of July 1, 1863, those clouds broke with a single carbine shot, resulting in a hailstorm of lead that inundated the town and surrounding area for three days. As the battle raged, the dry-laid stone walls that had for many years contained animals and protected crops took on a new role, containing and protecting soldiers. Re-purposed as breastwork material, these stone walls provided defensive cover at places such as Devils Den or the Angle. Additionally, these stone walls could also contain and constrain advancing soldiers by forming a hard barrier within the field of battle, wasting precious time and unduly exposing the attackers to enemy fire. For soldiers, these stone walls took on the dual meanings of protection or annihilation, based on which side of the wall they were located.

Following the battle, the stone walls on the battlefield were rebuilt as farmers began to reassemble pieces of their fractured lives. As the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (and subsequently the US War Department and US National Park Service) began to create a battlefield park, these dry-laid stone walls once again changed in their role. Rather than being simply an object on top of the landscape, these stone walls became critical pieces integrated into the early battlefield landscape by marking historic fields as well as battle positions and breastworks. By the Depression era, many of the stone walls were beginning to crumble, weakened by 70 years of weathering. As a way to simultaneously improve the national park grounds and provide employment to the unemployed, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed young men to restack these stone walls and undertake other battlefield improvements.

Aughinbaugh stone wall
As part of the park’s effort to return the battlefield to its 1863 character, dry-laid stone walls are currently being restacked in accordance with National Park Service guidelines. Photo courtesy Kevin Aughinbaugh.

After another 70 years, many of these walls are in need of repair once again. As part of the park’s effort to return the battlefield to its 1863 character, stone walls are currently being restacked in accordance with National Park Service guidelines. Using historic photographs and traditional techniques, these walls are being restacked to continue their role as interpretation aids. However, this rehabilitation work is controversial, as freshly restacked dry-laid stone walls appear drastically different from the dilapidated rock piles that generations of visitors have become accustomed to. The debate over the appearance of the walls penetrates deeper, to the question of what type of battlefield is to be represented.  Should park staff rebuild the walls to show the area prior to the battle, represent the walls as they might have looked during the battle, or present the walls as they would ideally look? Each of these orientations carries with it different connotations and interpretations of battlefield preservation.

 

Under Park Service guidelines, newly constructed stone walls should conform to standards of “like character.” Simply put, a stone wall is a stone wall, no matter the specific material or color. What matters, is that visitors see where stone walls were used, as opposed to other types of fencing. Others disagree, however, arguing that the walls should be exact replicas using the same material and design to the original 1863 walls.

On the small scale, this conflict is a disagreement between the Park Service and the public about how to “properly” construct a stone wall that can serve as an interpretive tool. On the larger scale, though, this current conflict represents the ever evolving thought process regarding how to represent the landscape to the visiting public. To some, it is necessary to restore (make it exactly the same) the battlefield to 1863 conditions, to others, rehabilitation (preserving the most important features) of the battlefield is key. Using these stone walls and the current debate on their appearance would provide an excellent opportunity for Gettysburg National Military Park to engage visitors in how they go about making historic landscape decisions, and the nuances surrounding the care for the park’s character-defining resources.

Aughinbaugh with Stone Wall
Kevin Aughinbaugh has worked closely with the battlefield landscape this summer. Photo courtesy Kevin Aughinbaugh.

Sources: Gettysburg National Military Park. “National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet.” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (NPS Form 10-900-a). 2004.

“Wirz’s Jewelry”: Memories of Captivity

By Jessica Greenman ’20

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

Captain Henry Wirz remains one of the most controversial figures in Andersonville’s history.  One of just a handful of soldiers convicted of and executed for war crimes after the Civil War ended (not the only one, though perhaps the most notorious), he has taken on a dual identity in American memory as a remorseless criminal and an honorable martyr .  Few physical reminders of Camp Sumter survive—only the earthworks and underground remains of the stockade wall logs indicate that a grassy Georgia field once held forty-five thousand Union prisoners of war.  Written accounts and sketches, however, provide a fairly reliable basis for fabricating reproduction objects. One of the most memorable  is “Wirz’s Jewelry”—the ball and chain with which Captain Wirz punished prisoners who attempted escape, stole supplies, or offended the Swiss officer.  This instrument of confinement, carries its own complex symbolism, which has influenced historical memory of Civil War prisons.

Greenman Ball And Chain
Wirz’s ball and chain on display in the National Prisoner of War Museum, Andersonville National Historic Site. Photo courtesy Jessica Greenman.

With the stocks and other restraints, the ball and chain physically represents the experience of captivity.  The image of prisoners chained to a 32-lb cannon round perhaps more readily evokes empathy for soldiers’ loss of freedom than a sketch of men roaming within the (admittedly severely overcrowded) stockade.  Still, it seems a rather tame aspect of the prisoners’ plight—after all, these devices are meant to confine, not to harm.  The “chain-gang” is easy to interpret as one of the less horrifying, and perhaps more necessary evils of prison security. As an element of the camp’s story, it  is certainly easier to hear about than mass death from dysentery, scurvy, and starvation, or the shooting of prisoners who tripped and fell across Wirz’s dead line (a boundary preventing prisoners from approaching the stockade wall by threat of immediate death).  To Lost Cause sympathizers of Wirz, it may even symbolize mercy and self-restraint (no pun intended) on the Captain’s part.

On closer examination, however, another narrative emerges.  In postwar accounts of prison life, Andersonville survivors remembered the ball and chain in a different light.  Survivors testifying against Wirz described in graphic detail the sufferings of chained prisoners.  Previously healthy men deteriorated quickly from exposure.  Some contracted disease after being chained next to sick men.  At least one man displayed scars from where the irons dug into his skin.  Extended periods of time in such restraints left the men dehydrated, weak, and ill-equipped to survive in the already harsh conditions of the prison.  It is uncertain if or how many prisoners died as a result of the ball and chain.  Perhaps it is not so hyperbolic, then, that many Andersonville survivors characterized them as instruments of torture.

It is of course important to remember that these witnesses were remembering the physical and psychological trauma inherent to captivity, and many were eager to see the man with the most direct influence over daily prison life punished for their ordeal.  Most prisoner diaries are not detailed enough to fully explain life at Andersonville, leaving historians to rely at least in part on often-exaggerated postwar accounts and memoirs.

In this way, “Wirz’s Jewelry” serves as a microcosm for memory of Andersonville itself—prisoners were not confined in the stockade, or the chain-gang, with the overt intent to kill.  Captain Wirz was not directly responsible for the starvation, overcrowding, and disease that plagued Camp Sumter, causing many more fatalities than any kind of violence.  However, he did on many occasions order rations withheld even when they were available.  He demanded that guards shoot suicidal prisoners who intentionally crossed the dead line without hesitation.  He ordered men chained outside the stockade, even more exposed to the Georgia sun and rain than they were normally.  He boasted that he could kill more Union soldiers than General Lee’s army.

Captain Wirz may not have been directly responsible for thirteen thousand deaths, but undoubtedly intentionally caused or hastened some, and contributed to the conditions that caused many more.  Likewise, other members of Confederate leadership may have been responsible for suffering caused by overcrowding and inadequate supplies, but they did not necessarily deliberately set out to create those conditions—instead, the exigencies of war drew their attention elsewhere.

Civil War memory is a tangled, uncooperative thing. The cultural wounds that Reconstruction failed to dress can be traced to places like Andersonville—where no one was wholly responsible for unparalleled human suffering, yet no one was blameless either.

The Camel Corps Experiment

By Abigail Major ’19

“Did you know there was a push to create a Camel Corps right before the beginning of the American Civil War?” This certainly seems like an interesting piece of trivia to share around the dinner table, but what was the Camel Corps and what insights can it provide on U.S. military thinking in the mid-19th century? I believe that the Camel Corps Experiment, regardless of whether it was deemed an utter failure or not, demonstrated progressive military thought and the desire of its advocates to explore advancements in both mobility and technology for military practices.

Continue reading “The Camel Corps Experiment”

Monumental Questions: 1860s Civil War Monument Vandalization at Manassas

By Ryan Bilger ’19

On October 4, 2017, I awoke to the news that the Stonewall Jackson equestrian monument at Manassas National Battlefield Park had been vandalized. Having worked there as a Pohanka intern during the summer of 2016, I was saddened to hear this. Now, I have no great love for the Jackson monument. It makes the Southern general look like Superman atop a horse that appears to have had a good amount of steroids mixed with its oats and hay. Yet, I believed then, as I do now, that covering the monument in colored paint was an extremely inappropriate act of vandalism.

The incident raised questions in my mind. In this era of tense controversy over Confederate monuments, vandalization seems to have become a common occurrence. Is it a particularly new one, though? How much of a history is there of defacing Civil War monuments? I still remember the outrage that I felt, even at nine years old, when another band of anonymous cowards vandalized three of Gettysburg’s monuments in 2006, inflicting damage that took years to fully repair. How much further back do these stories go? As I pondered these questions, two examples from the battlefield at Manassas came to mind. One took place during the Civil War itself, while the other happened in the years following the war. Both constituted malicious acts that influenced the memory of those who fought and died in the two battles that took place on those hallowed fields. This phenomenon, then, does indeed have a history, one that stretches all the way back to some of the earliest days possible.

On July 21, 1861, as Union forces streamed up the side of Henry Hill in the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), Confederate defenders desperately attempted to push back the onslaught and earn an important victory. One of these units responsible for defeating the oncoming Yankees was a brigade of Georgia regiments under Colonel Francis Bartow. The Colonel stood as a father figure for his men, who referred to themselves as “Bartow’s Beardless Boys.” Sadly, their time with their beloved commander proved short, as he fell mortally wounded in the chest leading them in a counterattack across the hill. The soldiers of Bartow’s brigade decided almost immediately after the battle that they wished to honor their slain commander on the field on which he fell, and officers in the 8th Georgia set about ordering a monument to fulfill that purpose. According to Melvin Dwinell, a second lieutenant in the regiment and editor of the Rome Tri-Weekly Courier, the original Bartow memorial was a rounded column of “plain white marble, six feet long, four feet above ground, and about eight inches in diameter at the top.” The monument was dedicated on September 4, 1861, just over six weeks after Bartow’s death, at a ceremony attended by thousands of Georgia soldiers. These Confederates had erected one of the very first Civil War battlefield monuments, but unfortunately for them, it was not destined to last long as a reminder of the lost Bartow.

Bartow Monument
Artist’s rendering of soldiers standing by the Francis Bartow monument. Library of Congress, via Civilwartalk.com.

In the months after the construction of Francis Bartow’s monument, the marble shaft fell victim to a multitude of vandals. Observers noted that some visitors to Henry Hill, tourists interested in seeing the site of the great battle, had chipped away pieces of the memorial to keep as souvenirs. Others had damaged Bartow’s column by inscribing their names on it in pencil, perhaps to make memories or leave their mark on the battlefield; one correspondent wrote in December 1861 that it had been blanketed in writing to the point of “not so much space being left as one might cover with his finger nail.” The monument remained in this decrepit state until March of 1862, when Union troops took possession of the fields of Manassas, including Henry Hill. The site of a monument to a dead Rebel general surely galled many of these Federal soldiers, and one regiment took matters into their own hands. According to a New York soldier, members of the Fourteenth Brooklyn became “so exasperated at the treatment of their fallen companions as to break the marble monument erected over the remains of a secesh General who fell on that field.” They destroyed Bartow’s memorial in order to reclaim the memory of that space, and to deny it to Confederates like the fallen general. Georgia soldiers attempted to find the monument they had so lovingly dedicated after Confederates reclaimed Henry Hill in the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862, but they discovered only shattered fragments. The Francis Bartow memorial had thus fallen victim to two types of vandals: memory-making tourists and angry Federal troops. Even as the Civil War was still being fought, the memory of those who fell during its course became a flashpoint for controversy.

The impulse to memorialize the fallen of the two battles at Manassas evidently remained alive in the minds of many Northerners. Shortly after the Grand Review in May 1865, the U.S. Army approved the construction of two memorials on the Manassas battlefields. One was erected on Henry Hill near the remains of the Henry House, while the other was constructed at the Deep Cut, the sight of a fierce Union attack during the Second Battle of Manassas on August 30, 1862. The men of Colonel William Gamble’s cavalry brigade built the monuments, using red sandstone from the battlefield’s famous unfinished railroad, in about three weeks, and dedication ceremonies took place on June 11, 1865.

Monument_on_Battlefield_of_Groveton
Photograph by Alexander Gardner of the Groveton Monument, taken shortly after its dedication in 1865. Wikimedia Commons.

While the memorial on Henry Hill remained largely intact, the Deep Cut’s monument, often referred to as the Groveton Monument, suffered intense vandalism. The soldiers who built the monument had decorated it with shells and cannon balls found on the battlefield, as seen in Alexander Gardner’s photograph of it in June 1865. However, these artifacts presented attractive targets for relic hunters, and they soon set about picking the Groveton Monument clean to obtain them for themselves. These vandals pried the precious shells and balls out of the mortar with which they had been attached to the base, and some even took away pieces of the wooden fence surrounding it. By 1886, there was nothing left but an empty stone pylon, slowly becoming covered by the four trees that had been planted around it. The desire for personal gain and profit led to the vandalization of another Civil War monument, thereby disrespecting the legacies and the memory of the soldiers who had fought and died at Second Manassas.

These stories from the Manassas battlefield remind us that Civil War monument vandalization is not a new phenomenon. Instead, it unfortunately has a long history, stretching back as far as the 1860s themselves. Each of these types of vandals acted on their own individual attitudes towards the war and its legacy; the relic-hunters saw it as a get rich quick opportunity, the soldiers of the Fourteenth Brooklyn felt that there was no place for Confederate memorialization, and the tourists used Bartow’s monument as a way to remember their trip. In effect, all of these vandals, based on their personal viewpoints, worked to alter and reshape popular memory of the war by altering monuments from their original, intended state or even destroying them entirely. The motivations may have shifted over the last century and a half, but the impact remains the same on the war’s memory: a destructive act that shows disregard for those who gave their lives in the conflict. The sad truth appears to be that as long as there have been Civil War monuments, there have also been those who wish to destroy them.


Sources:

Adelman, Garry. “The Deep Cut’s Missing Piece.” Civil War Trust. Accessed April 2018.

Panhorst, Michael W. “‘The first of our hundred battle monuments’: Civil War battlefield monuments built by active-duty soldiers during the Civil War.” Southern Cultures no. 4 (2014): 22. Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost.

Pope, John. “The Second Battle of Bull Run.” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine vol. 36 (1886): 441. Google Books.

Stonewall Jackson Monument Vandalized at Manassas National Battlefield Park.” INSIDENOVA.COM. October 04, 2017. Accessed April 23, 2018.

Zenzen, Joan M. Battling for Manassas: The Fifty-Year Preservation Struggle at Manassas National Battlefield Park. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

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

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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

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

800px-Lighthorse_restored
“Light Horse” Harry Lee. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sources

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

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

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

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

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