John Held and Joseph Seitz: Soldiers of the 26th Wisconsin Infantry

By: Jaeger Held ’23

In the early afternoon of July 1, 1863, several hundred soldiers of the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry advanced through the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On that summer day, the German–American regiment would suffer heavier losses than on any other day during the American Civil War. Among its members were John Held, a private in Company D, and Joseph Seitz, a private in Company K, the author’s 4th great-uncles.

John Held was born in Prussia in 1839. He and his elder brother Joseph immigrated to the United States and settled in Racine, Wisconsin, by the 1850s. When the American Civil War began he was living in Racine and his occupation was listed as a cooper. On August 19, 1862, during the second year of the war, he enlisted in the Union army for three years’ service around the age of twenty-three. He was described at enlistment as having gray eyes, light hair, a light complexion, standing five feet, five inches in height, and having a slender build.

Corporal John Held, Co. D, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, 1862 portrait, image courtesy Terrence Held.

Joseph Seitz was born on March 2, 1836, in Heiligenzell, located in present-day Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He and several members of his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Wisconsin by the 1850s. Joseph’s younger sister Marianna Seitz met and married Joseph Held of Racine, Wisconsin, the brother of John Held. When the American Civil War began he was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and his occupation was listed as a painter. Milwaukee, along with Cincinnati, Ohio and St. Louis, Missouri, formed what came to be called the “German Triangle” of settlement in the midwestern United States in the mid-19th century. On August 21, 1862, Joseph enlisted in the Union Army for three years’ service at the age of twenty-six. He was described at enlistment as having brown eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion, standing five feet, four and one-half inches in height, and having a medium build. Joseph and John were both mustered in on September 17, 1862, and each was paid a bounty of $25.

Private Joseph Seitz, Co. K, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, postwar portrait, image courtesy Terrence Held.

The 26th ‘Sigel Regiment,’ also known as the ‘Second German Regiment’ of Wisconsin, named in honor of German-born major general Franz Sigel, was composed almost entirely of men of German birth or German parentage. On the day their regiment was organized in Milwaukee, the bloodiest single-day battle of the war was fought along Antietam Creek in western Maryland. John Held and Joseph Seitz were both listed as being present with their regiment during the fall of 1862. After a brief period of training at Camp Sigel in Milwaukee, the 26th Wisconsin was transported by rail to Washington, D.C., in early October 1862 where it was assigned to the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, of General Sigel’s largely German 11th Corps, recently attached to the Army of the Potomac, then stationed around Fairfax, Virginia. The 11th Corps was held in reserve during the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg in December, and John and Joseph were both listed as present that winter as their regiment participated in the infamous Mud March in January. The near brothers-in-law were both listed as present throughout the spring of 1863 as the Army of the Potomac again prepared to fight the Army of Northern Virginia.

Recruitment poster in German for the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, image courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society.

In early 1863, Sigel resigned as commander of the 11th Corps, and corps command was given to Major General Oliver O. Howard. The 11th Corps’ 3rd Division, to which the regiment belonged, was commanded by Major General Carl Schurz, a German revolutionary, and the 2nd Brigade was led by Polish-born Colonel Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski. In late April and early May 1863, John, Joseph, and the 26th Wisconsin participated in the Chancellorsville Campaign in Virginia. During the evening of May 2, 1863, as the regiment rested at the edge of a forest known as the Wilderness, Confederate soldiers led by General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson attacked. Jackson’s 28,000 men struck the exposed end of the 11th Corps, the right flank of the Union line. The 26th Wisconsin formed into line of battle and delivered several volleys into the advancing Confederates. After a twenty-minute struggle, the Badger state Germans were forced to retreat. In its first battle, out of 471 engaged, the 26th Wisconsin suffered 204 casualties in killed, wounded, and missing, including their colonel, the fifth-highest losses of any northern regiment on the field. After the Union withdrawal back across the Rappahannock River, John and Joseph were with their regiment as the Army of the Potomac pursued the Confederates northward into Pennsylvania.

26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry 1862 national colors, image courtesy Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

On the morning of July 1, 1863, the 26th Wisconsin and the rest of the 11th Corps were encamped around Emmitsburg, Maryland when they received word that Confederate infantry were advancing in force near the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Wisconsin Germans set out on a forced march north towards Gettysburg. After a fatiguing thirteen-mile journey, the regiment arrived in the borough by early afternoon and rested in an apple orchard at the northern edge of town. Krzyżanowski’s brigade eventually received orders to advance across the plains of Gettysburg to reinforce Brigadier General Francis Barlow’s exposed 1st Division of the 11th Corps, positioned on a knoll owned by farmer John Blocher. As the 26th Wisconsin advanced on the right of the brigade, the regiment engaged Georgians of George Doles’ and John B. Gordon’s brigades. The regiment exchanged volleys with the Confederates but was eventually flanked and forced to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. In the savage fighting north of town, the regiment suffered severely, losing their state colors, both remaining field officers, and 210 casualties in killed, wounded, and missing out of 458 men present at Gettysburg. The regiment was positioned on Cemetery Hill during the second and third days of the battle and not engaged. For his actions in the battle, John Held was promoted to the rank of Corporal, dated July 1, 1863.

Following the Battle of Gettysburg, the Sigel Regiment and the remainder of the Army of the Potomac pursued the Army of Northern Virginia back into Virginia. In September 1863, two divisions of the 11th Corps, including the 26th Wisconsin—so reduced in number the regiment was now led by a company officer, Captain Frederick C. Winkler—were transferred by rail to northern Alabama to relieve the Army of the Cumberland then under siege in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Second German regiment was present at the Tennessee battles of Wauhatchie, during the night of October 28-29, 1863, and Missionary Ridge, on November 25, 1863. During a reorganization of the Union armies in the spring of 1864, four divisions of the 11th and 12th Corps were combined to form the new 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. The Sigel Regiment, led by Major Winkler, was assigned to the 20th Corps’ 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division. As part of this command, the 26th Wisconsin participated in the Atlanta Campaign in north Georgia, fighting in many battles including Rocky Face Ridge, Buzzard’s Roost Gap, Resaca, Cassville, Burnt Hickory, Dallas, and New Hope Church in May 1864 and Pine Mountain, Golgotha Church, Lost Mountain, Muddy Creek, Noyes’ Creek, Kolb’s Farm, and Kennesaw Mountain in June. By mid-July, the Union army had advanced to within a few miles of Atlanta. On July 20, 1864, Confederate forces launched a massive frontal assault against Union lines positioned along the southern bank of Peachtree Creek. The Confederates were repulsed, though at a heavy cost. The 26th Wisconsin, led by Lieutenant Colonel Winkler, lost thirteen soldiers killed or mortally wounded in the action and captured the colors of the 33rd Mississippi Infantry. Numbered among the slain was Corporal John Held, who fell, according to his company commander, “in the line of his duty as a soldier by a Rifle Ball fired by the enemy of the U.S. in consequence of which he was killed instantly.” After a six-week siege, Atlanta fell to Union forces on September 2, 1864.

Corporal John Held’s military headstone, Marietta National Cemetery, Georgia, image courtesy Helen Gaskill.

In the fall of 1864, Joseph Seitz was reassigned from the Sigel Regiment and served on detached service in Chattanooga, Tennessee until he rejoined the regiment at war’s end in the spring of 1865. Three of Joseph’s brothers, Fidel, Ferdinand, and Charles, also served in the Union Army. Fidel Seitz enlisted in 1861 and served in Company B, 1st Nebraska Infantry, fighting at the Battles of Fort Donelson, Tennessee on February 15, 1862, and Shiloh, Tennessee on April 7, 1862. He deserted on February 22, 1863, near Arcadia, Missouri. Ferdinand and Charles were drafted in 1864. Charles Seitz served in Company F, 39th Wisconsin Infantry, a unit of ‘Hundred Days Men’ assigned to garrison duty in Memphis, Tennessee, where his regiment defended the city from an attack by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in the Second Battle of Memphis on August 21, 1864. Ferdinand Seitz was drafted into Company B, 18th Wisconsin Infantry, attached to the 93rd Illinois Infantry, and participated in the Savannah Campaign in November and December 1864 and the Carolinas Campaign in early 1865, fighting at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 20-21, 1865. Joseph Seitz mustered out with the remainder of the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry near Washington, D.C., on June 13, 1865. John Held was initially buried on the Peachtree Creek battlefield, before being reinterred in the Marietta National Cemetery in Marietta, Cobb County, Georgia in the fall of 1866. Joseph Seitz returned to Wisconsin and died on April 14, 1913, in Racine, and he is buried in the Holy Family Catholic Cemetery in Caledonia, Racine County, Wisconsin.

26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry 1864 state colors, image courtesy Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

During three years of service, the 26th Wisconsin Infantry lost 191 men, including Corporal John Held, killed and mortally wounded, the fourth-highest percentage of any Union regiment. Colonel James Wood, commanding the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 20th Corps, in his official report, said this of the conduct of the 26th Wisconsin in the Battle of Peachtree Creek: “Where all behaved well, it may be regarded as invidious to call attention to individuals, yet it seems to me I cannot discharge my duty in this report without pointing out for especial commendation the conduct of the Twenty-sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry and its brave and able commander. The position of this regiment in the line was such that the brunt of the enemy’s attack fell upon it. The brave, skillful and determined manner in which it met this attack, rolled back the onset, pressed forward in a counter charge and drove back the enemy, could not be excelled by the troops in this or any other army, and is worthy of the highest commendation and praise.”


1st Regiment, Nebraska Infantry. National Park Service.

18th Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry. National Park Service.

26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

26th Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry. National Park Service.

39th Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry. National Park Service.

Bartsch, August. “Letter to the family of Corporal John Held from Captain August Bartsch, Company D, 26th Wisconsin Infantry, October 10, 1864.” Held Family Tree.

Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers who Served in Organizations from the State of Wisconsin. The National Archives.

Gettysburg Stone Sentinels, 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment monument.

Germans in the Midwest. National Museum of American History – Smithsonian Institution.

Held Family Tree.

John Held (1839-1864).

Joseph Seitz (1836-1913).

Pula, James S. (1998). The Sigel Regiment: A History of the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865. Savas Publishing Co.

U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865.

U.S., Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, Wisconsin.

Healing a Nation Sick at Heart: Fighting a Spiritual Pandemic with “Our Better Angels”

By: Christopher R. Fee

Fee headshot
Dr. Christopher R. Fee, Professor of English at Gettysburg College

This summer has been a hot and uncomfortable one, literally, metaphorically, and spiritually: We seem to be at a cross-roads in history. A particularly notable flash-point occurred when armed right-wing paramilitaries occupied the Gettysburg Battlefield on the Fourth of July on the basis of a rumor of flag-burning already widely discredited at the time. Two weeks later the source of that rumor was outed, and it turned out to be a left-wing agitator.

During this summer of unrest, such out-of-all-proportion responses to threats—real, imaginary, and invented—seem all too common, and the fact that we are in the middle of the greatest pandemic in a century is not at all incidental.

Moreover, the time and place of this particular incident are themselves hardly inconsequential: July the Fourth is the most seminal of American holidays, while the Gettysburg Battlefield is the most iconic monument in the landscape of the American imagination, sanctified by none other than Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most revered martyr in our secular pantheon.

On the very eve of the Civil War, Lincoln uttered a sentiment which comes to my mind when I see Americans treating each other with disdain and even hatred over political differences:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Lincoln Inauguration LOC
Inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, March 4th 1861. (Library of Congress)

Lincoln has been much criticized for not taking a stronger stand against the evils of slavery at that moment, and I do not wish to be accused of not seeing the hateful legacy of that vile institution reverberating in the actions and inactions that required the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the first place. Slavery was evil, Jim Crow was evil, and the institutionalized 21st century racist oppression that engendered the BLM reaction is the unspeakably evil step-child of that legacy.

As a local Quaker and peace-maker, however, I must align my words and deeds with those of my spiritual forebears in this very community who steadfastly worked for justice and freedom and equality while at the same time refusing to hate and to vilify those they opposed: They loathed the sin of slavery and had to react strongly against it, but never violently, and they were at all times required to love the sinner with all their hearts.

I must do the same, and as Friends always have, I call on the broader community to do so, as well.

There has been a lot of fast and loose talk about “a second Civil War” this summer, and although that seems incendiary and unhelpfully volatile rhetoric to me, I’ll leave it to the many fine scholars of the Civil War who read this blog to debate the finer points of comparison on that score.

I’m a medievalist, and my expertise is more grounded in the cultural backlash caused by the pandemic that has catalyzed the current crisis, so I’ll confine myself to those aspects of this summer’s discontent that I can comment upon professionally:

When people are frightened and are faced with how little control they really have over their lives, they often respond inappropriately, and all too often violently.

This is nothing new: we have accounts dating back thousands of years that illustrate this point.

I’ve spent the past few months deeply immersed in the literature of pandemic, from the Bible to Boccaccio’s Decameron, from Greek historians to modern novelists. As a medievalist, I’ve always had a professional interest in the Plague, but of course this spring it became personal for all of us. Many of the greatest works of literature touching on the Plague describe deep and powerful connections between a physical disease that wracks the bodies of a populace and a spiritual malaise that corrupts the soul of a people.

Indeed, since ancient times Plague has been both a very real terror and an extremely powerful metaphor, from Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague and Albert Camus’s La Peste. Given the pandemic and social unrest raging all around us, it would be worth our while to consider the realities of life in America in the summer of 2020 from the perspectives of these latter two books, which use the metaphor of pestilence to make diametrically opposed points:

Jack London described a world which descends into savagery and brutality because of a deadly pandemic. London’s core notion is that civilization is at best a thin veneer, and that descending chaos unlocks the bestial within us all, freeing us from all constraints and decency. His vision is dark and horrifying and ultimately offers little hope, because to London, even the shackles of morality and the semblance of polite society merely channel and control the innate human need to dominate and to subjugate.

Jack London LOC
Jack London (Library of Congress)

I would submit that both the internet troll who circulated that fake account of threatened flag-burning and the armed reactionaries who took his bait are illustrating the worst fears of Jack London.

Camus, on the other hand, describes in detail a terrible outbreak of Bubonic Plague that decimates the population of the city of Oran in Algeria, unleashing countless horrors. But while Camus fully acknowledges the worst of which we are capable, he focuses on the best, offering ultimately a vision of hope in the midst of despair, of light flickering defiantly against the impending shadows. Camus wrote his novel shortly after World War II, and the Plague in his book is often seen as an allegory for fascism, although it is also much, much more: Camus calls for us to stand firm in our humanity, to be our best even when faced with the utter worst. He does not promise us that everything will be OK, that we will have a Hollywood ending, and that everything will work out for the best. No, Camus implores us to be kind, to be thoughtful, to care for others, to alleviate suffering and ignorance, if only for a moment; Camus offers us the opportunity to be at our best by shining our light against the worst the darkness can offer, not for glory or accolades, but because it is right, and because that is what makes us human.

I am more inclined to look for the best than the worst in people, and those who stand their ground peacefully—Walls of Moms in Portland, Black Lives Matter protesters, and professors on the Battlefield of Gettysburg—give me hope in this regard:

On the Fourth of July, a couple of my bravest friends and colleagues, historians of international repute, gently tried to provide some context for the monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield and the debates concerning them. They were harassed and threatened and insulted for their trouble. They did not attempt to agitate nor to incite those armed protestors who confronted them: They are public scholars, and it is their vocation and avocation to try to shine a light in the darkness.

It is perhaps especially notable that those who shouted them down refused to wear masks; there was a time when those who revered the icons of the fallen Confederacy hid behind masks and hoods, but now they take pride in appearing openly, and, moreover, they refuse to wear protection against spreading a disease they feel is a hoax.

Those brave, unarmed teachers, meanwhile, were attempting to maintain their own dignity, as well as their respect for those with whom they disagreed, simply by offering thoughtful responses to mindless hate.

Camus Wikimedia Commons
Albert Camus (Wikimedia Commons) 

Just as Albert Camus himself worked diligently throughout the war, undermining a cacophony of Nazi propaganda with solitary, tiny little messages of truth in an underground newspaper, my colleagues held their candles to the darkness, offering flickering glimmers—not because a spark will overwhelm the darkness—but because without those tiny sparks of light and love and hope and good, darkness and hate and despair and evil threaten to overwhelm us all.

They offer stirring examples and object lessons for the rest of us, issuing a call for us to embrace the light, however much fear and hate tempt us to turn to the dark. By doing so, we choose the path blazed by Camus, and reject the road mapped by London.

That’s what those history professors did on the Battlefield of Gettysburg on July the Fourth; they embodied the ideal encapsulated in the closing of Camus’s La Peste:

“What we learn in time of pestilence: That there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Lincoln came to a similar conclusion in his First Inaugural Address when he implored us to invoke “the better angels of our nature.”

I leave you with those words, which do not offer us a perfect solution, but rather offer just a glimmer of how we might begin to work towards such a solution; to evoke a favored Quaker phrase, “I love to feel where the words come from,” and I feel that Lincoln’s words come ultimately from love of his fellow Americans, a palpable desire for reconciliation courageously embodied by my dear friends and colleagues at the height of this summer’s madness.

About the Author: Christopher R. Fee is Professor of English at Gettysburg College and a scholar of the Middle Ages. Fee is the author of several books on Medieval topics, as well as the editor of American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore, and the award-winning Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories in American History. Fee’s latest two works,  From Black Death to Zombie Apocalypse: Great Plagues in History and Literature  and The Truth About Tall Tales: American Folklore from Johnny Appleseed to Paul Bunyan, will be released this month. Fee is a practicing Quaker and the former Clerk of the Menallen Friends Meeting, an active waypoint on the Underground Railroad just ten miles north of Gettysburg.

“Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past”: Fitzgerald’s Forgotten Civil War Literature

By Cameron Sauers ’21

“So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” These are the brilliant last lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, lines that speak to the fallibility of Gatsby’s American Dream and his inescapable, yet simultaneously unreachable, past. The legendary ending sentence in The Great Gatsby has captured me since I first read the book as a freshman in high school and made me want to read every Fitzgerald book I could find. The more I read, the more I realized the unique implications this famous last line had for Fitzgerald’s own life and literary career. Currently, Fitzgerald serves as the visible face of the Roaring 20’s, or the “Jazz Age,” a decade of extravagance known for dancing, drinking, and merry-making. As forward-looking as he may have tried to live his life, though, Fitzgerald found the past inescapable. “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” is Fitzgerald’s first hint to the public that, despite his best efforts, he could not escape the past, particularly the Civil War, and neither could the Roaring 20’s.

Cover of a 1976 re-release

“The Cruise of the Rolling Junk,” a lighthearted story about newlyweds on a road trip gone wrong, is brimming with Fitzgerald’s fascination with the American Civil War. The story was published as a series of articles in Motor magazine and recounts the disastrous elements of Scott and Zelda’s journey from their Connecticut home to Montgomery, Alabama, where Zelda’s parents lived. As the title suggests, Scott and Zelda’s car was prone to break-downs, often leaving them stranded or waiting for repairs. In between car troubles, the Fitzgeralds did some sightseeing. Stops on this road trip included Civil War sites, like Richmond, where Fitzgerald comically complained about the city’s roads, wondering if the same barriers meant to stop the Union army were the ones that frustrated him.

The Fitzgeralds also visited the Confederate Museum (now known as the American Civil War Museum) in Richmond, which prompted this passage:

“We visited the Confederate museum and pored for an hour over shredded battle flags and romantic sabers and grey uniform coats, and, as we passed from room to room, the proud splendor of each state’s display was dimmed only a little by the interminable lists of living women who had managed in some way to get their names linked up with these trophies. The trophies needed no sponsoring by the Miss Rachael Marys and Mrs. Gladys Phoebes whom one pictured as large-bosomed and somewhat tiresome old ladies engaged in voluble chatter upon their ancestors in the sitting rooms and boarding houses of Macon, Georgia.”

Though Fitzgerald was clearly awed by the artifacts on display at the museum, he appears to have been somewhat annoyed by what he saw as the self-importance of the southern women who so zealously attached their names to each artifact. (Interestingly, the museum found Fitzgerald to be just as unremarkable as he found its donors, as it was only recently that his signature was found in the museum’s guest ledger for July 24th, 1920). The disdain Fitzgerald harbored for the antics of Marys and Phoebes appears to reflect Fitzgerald’s belief that the Civil War was a male-centric conflict in which women could play only subsidiary or tangential, unimportant roles. The portrayal of Marys and Phoebes in “Rolling Junk,” combined with Fitzgerald’s other writings and the restraints he placed on his wife throughout their life, such as refusing to allow her to pursue a career as a ballerina or writer, leads to the conclusion that Fitzgerald thought that males should drive the course of history, and that historical memory should concentrate on their actions alone. As part of a generation that had not experienced the Civil War itself, yet engaged in its own “updated” form of Civil War commemoration through mediums such as literature, film, and historical tourism, Fitzgerald applied his own literary memorialization efforts to his impressions of the museum, forging his own version of Civil War memory in “Rolling Junk.” But even as Fitzgerald continued to dwell on the past and contemplate his own personal relationship with the Civil War, his career continued to progress forward rapidly. Just a day after Fitzgerald’s unnoticed visit to the city, The Richmond Times Dispatch published a brief article noting the success of Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise. (Though complimentary of Fitzgerald’s literary prowess, the article’s timing was mere coincidence, as the Fitzgeralds’ brief visit to Richmond received apparently little attention in the moment).

Scott and Zelda in September, 1921 (via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” and the road trip described therein was not Fitzgerald’s first brush with the Civil War. He grew up surrounded by a society still fascinated by the American Civil War. As a child, Fitzgerald found much enjoyment in stories his father, Edward, would tell about how he helped Confederate spies find their way in Maryland when he was a boy. Additionally, Edward’s first cousin, Mary Surrat, was hung for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Fitzgerald also would later blame his father’s financial failures on the Confederate defeat, which Fitzgerald claimed to have sapped any sort of ambition from Edward. Edward’s colorful stories helped convert Fitzgerald into a Confederate sympathizer, which was evident in some of Fitzgerald’s earliest writings. As a primary school student, two of Fitzgerald’s first four stories published in school journals centered on the Civil War, including “The Room with the Green Blinds,” which provides an alternative ending to the life of John Wilkes Booth.

Fitzgerald expanded his personal connection to the Civil War when he married his wife, Zelda. Zelda’s family, the Sayre family, had deep roots in Montgomery, which had served as the first Confederate capital. Fitzgerald called the city “the cradle of the Confederacy, the utter heart of the old south” in “Rolling Junk,” illustrating his acute awareness of the powerful connection between his wife’s hometown and the genesis of the conflict. Additionally, the Sayre family’s burial plot was located in Oakwood cemetery, which also contained the graves of many Confederate dead. Furthermore, in 1918, Zelda graduated from Sidney Lanier High School, named for the famous musician who also served in the Confederate army and worked as a blockade runner. These various connections to the Confederacy highlight just some of the ways in which Zelda, her family, and her husband (like many members of the American public) were immersed in a culture still very much in tune with the Civil War and the long shadows of its memory. (For comparison, the time gap between the American Civil War and the Fitzgeralds’ 1920 road trip was smaller than our current distance from the Second World War).

Fitzgerald drew upon his connections to the war, using them as inspiration to follow up “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” with several more Civil War-related stories. In 1937, Collier’s, a now defunct weekly magazine, paid $1,500 for a story titled “Thumbs Up” that Fitzgerald authored based on the Civil War recollections of his father. It is worth noting, however, that the story was declined by thirteen other publications before being accepted and received only a small fraction of the $5,000 he used to command from magazines. With his literary appeal fading, tapping into the public’s enduring fascination with the Civil War enabled Fitzgerald to get back into print. Just one year prior, Esquire published Fitzgerald’s, “The Night of Chancellorsville,” which tells the story of two young prostitutes whose train takes them through the Chancellorsville battlefield, bringing them into contact with wounded from the battle. Fitzgerald also wrote “A Patriotic Short,” one of a string of stories centered on a struggling Hollywood hack tasked with writing a short film that “was based on the career of General Fitzhugh Lee, who fought for the Confederacy and later for the U.S.A. against Spain—so it would offend neither North nor South.” “Chancellorsville” and “Patriotic Short” are not among Fitzgerald’s best stories nor even his decent ones. However, when all of his creative energy was sapped, Fitzgerald turned to the Civil War. He just needed to write something– anything that would sell.

The Civil War, besides being a quick way to make some cash without exhausting his energy, was also a lens through which Fitzgerald could reflect on his own life. His last completed novel, and the one Fitzgerald thought would be his masterpiece, Tender is the Night, centers on the young Dr. Dick Diver, whom Fitzgerald modeled after himself. Fitzgerald writes that Diver was “like Ulysses S. Grant in Galena,” hoping “to be called to an intricate destiny.” This is the novel’s lone reference to the Civil War, which makes its inclusion fascinating. The novel takes place in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but Fitzgerald still felt a Civil War simile would best describe the main character. The rest of the novel centers on Diver’s struggles to care for his mentally ill wife who, like Zelda Fitzgerald, was in and out of sanitariums. Fitzgerald hoped that he would be able to rescue his languishing literary career (and life) with Tender is the Night. Having missed out on being deployed overseas during the First World War, a conflict which defined Fitzgerald’s generation, Fitzgerald had to turn to a different, but still shared, national experience to explain his main character to the reader. Perhaps he also thought of the novel as a representation of his own Civil War – a conflict between the literary genius and the man who deeply loved his wife. Fitzgerald was approaching a point where he had to choose between devotion to his ill and struggling wife and any hopes of a prosperous career. If Fitzgerald did view his life as sort of “civil war,” for him, there was no clear victor: Fitzgerald would die of a heart attack in the apartment of a lover in December 1940, failing to achieve the heroic destiny of his imagined historical facsimile, Ulysses Grant.

Fitzgerald in 1937 (via Wikimedia Commons)

It is fitting that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a dominant voice of the Roaring 20’s, a decade striving for a radical new way of living, yet unable to escape the echoes of the past. In a whirlwind life of parties, dancing, and gin, which certainly inspired some of his best writing, Fitzgerald frequently was drawn back to the deep and haunting influences of the American Civil War. Ruminations on the Civil War occupied Fitzgerald’s mind throughout his whole life. When the Great Depression hit and the country had little use for tales of flappers, extravagance, and splendor, Fitzgerald returned to the comfort of one of his favorite early literary topics, the Civil War, which had become a permanent and lasting fixture of American literature. William Faulkner’s oft-quoted statement, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863,” appears in countless works on the Civil War, and I myself mentioned Dr. Caroline Janney’s recent lecture use of Robert Penn Warren’s famed quote, “in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality” in a post last semester. But we do not include Fitzgerald in Civil War scholarship because, rather than creating and defining Civil War memory, he merely (yet tellingly) exemplified it by being a voice of a generation that could not rid itself of the ripple effects of Civil War memory. As Fitzgerald struggled to look towards the future amidst both a nationwide and personal depression, he returned, time and time again, to the Civil War. The strong and enduring cultural currents of the Civil War have ensured that it cannot ever be fully divorced from even the most radical of generations and decades. The “Jazz Age” ultimately found itself unable to “beat on” along its own light-hearted and reckless path, with Fitzgerald and his contemporaries ultimately becoming like the famed Gatsby boats, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


Bruccoli, Matthew Joseph, and Scottie Fitzgerald Smith. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Cowley, Malcom. “F. Scott Fitzgerald Thought This Book Would Be the Best American Novel Of His Time.The New Republic, August 20, 1951. September 24, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2019.

Daniel, Anne Margaret. “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Sayre, and Montgomery, Alabama in 2013.” The Huffington Post. December 07, 2017. Accessed January 25, 2019.

McCrery, Anne. “F. Scott Fitzgerald Signature Found in Museum’s Archives.” American Civil War Museum. Accessed January 25, 2019.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “A Patriotic Short by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Accessed January 25, 2019.

Fitzgerald, F.Scott. The Great Gatsby. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender is the Night. Penguin Books, 2019.

“Review of The Cruise of The Rolling Junk.” Literary Lindsey. June 21, 2012. Accessed January 25, 2019.

Finding Meaning in the Flag: The KKK Era

By Olivia Ortman ’19

This post is the seventh in a series about the Confederate flag in history, memory, and culture. It offers one Fellow’s individual perspective as she investigates different sources and opinions. Read the first post here.

Image drawn by Arthur Szyck in 1949. Bubble in top corner reads: “Do not forgive them oh lord, for they do know what they do!” Bottom bubble reads: “Each negro lynching is a national disaster! Is a stab in the back to our government in its desperate struggle for democracy…”

In 1972, black Vietnam soldier, Frank J. Francis sat down for an interview with Forward, an African American newspaper in New Jersey. The purpose of the interview was for Francis to share his experiences with racism in the army. At one point, Francis began talking about the Confederate flag. He told his interviewer, “If anyone is familiar with the South, then one knows that throughout the South black people have been and are still being terrorized by such organizations as the KKK or the White Citizens’ Councils, extreme anti-black, racist organizations. These people use the Confederate flag as a symbol of their allegiance to the racist South and all of its anti-black policies.” Francis further shared that the flag was often displayed by white men; there were four Confederate flags in his company alone. The black soldiers found these flags highly antagonistic because, as Francis explained, that flag could only mean one thing: The presence of racist organization members and sympathizers. Even in Vietnam, Francis’s most concerning battle was the one he had to fight over his skin color . Others, however, would have a very different experience with the Confederate flag and its symbolism in those circumstances.

Francis’s association of the flag with racism was not unique; it followed a century’s worth of tradition. One of the first hate groups to adopt the Confederate flag as their symbol was the Carolina Rifle Club of Charleston, South Carolina. The group was formed in 1869 to defend the white race against “negro aggression.” Although their official flag was their state flag with a C superimposed over the palmetto tree, in the late 1870s, the club’s president boasted that it was “the first military body of white men which paraded in the streets of the city or the State, bearing arms…under the Confederate Banner, since the struggles of the War had ceased.” The South Carolina Rifle Club would be the first of many hate groups to carry the flag while preaching white supremacy.

The hate group most commonly associated with the Confederate Flag, the Ku Klux Klan, did not pick up the Confederate flag until much later. Although the KKK was formed in 1865 by a group of ex-Confederate soldiers, their connection to the flag was individual, not organizational. Several of the founding members had Confederate flags draped over their caskets when they died, denoting their involvement in the Confederacy, but the group itself did not specifically identify with the flag. Actually, since the early 1900’s, the KKK’s official flag has been, and still is to my knowledge, the U.S. flag. The group’s goal was to defend America, which (to them) meant enforcing racial segregation and black subordination at the time.

The first serious connection between the KKK as an organization and the Confederate flag was made in 1946. Stetson Kennedy, a labor organizer and investigator from Florida, went undercover to investigate a Klan in Atlanta. During the initiation ceremony, Kennedy noticed the presence of a Confederate flag draped across the altar. His description of the ceremony was featured in the May 27th edition of Life magazine, along with a story of the Klan’s attempted comeback.

Although there is nothing that explicitly states why the different Klan factions began incorporating the Confederate flag into their iconography, it was most likely a desire to identify with their Confederate ancestors. Historian John Coski explains that World War II had reinvigorated a sense of regional identification and the flag’s connection to a unique southern identity. The Klan’s adoption of the flag coincides with the end of World War II and an overall southern desire to connect with the flag. The Klan members in the 1940’s were also amongst the first generations of Klansmen not directly connected to the Civil War. The original founders of the KKK and many of the members of early Klans were Confederate veterans. These early members did not need the Confederate flag to be identified as men who fought to preserve a distinctly southern way of life . For later generations of Klansmen who had not fought in the Civil War, the flag provided a tangible connection to since-deceased Confederate soldiers, men whom Klansmen upheld as heroes.

The Klan’s connection to the Confederate flag would continue to grow throughout the 1950’s and beyond. By the mid-1960’s, the Confederate flag became almost synonymous with the KKK and white supremacy. Life magazine did a series of articles on the KKK throughout 1965, each one featuring prominent Klansmen standing in front of large Confederate flags. The first article was printed in the February edition and discusses several hate groups in America. The section dedicated to the KKK is preceded by a full-page image of Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton in full regalia posed in front of a very large Confederate flag. The magazine quotes other Klan members stating, “Fools, traitors, and Communists seek to mix our race with the blood of an inferior and cannibalistic black race,” as well as, more simply, “We’re against the niggers.” The implication could not be made any clearer. By posing a prominent Klan member in front of the flag, Life and Shelton were claiming the Confederate flag as a symbol for the KKK and therefore intertwining the flag with the group’s racist agenda.

Two months later, Life’s April edition featured a full article on the KKK alone. Halfway through the article, a Klan member is pictured holding a Bible and a copy of the Constitution and wearing a Confederate flag vest. Above the picture is the quote, “We love Negroes, in their place – like shinin’ shows, etc.” The May edition provides the most shocking connection to racism of all. Life covered the trial of Collie LeRoy Wilkins, a 21-year-old Klansman who murdered Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights advocate. Throughout the trial, Wilkins ranted and raved about his violent ideas concerning blacks and the whites that helped them. Regardless of these horrifying comments, the jury found Wilkins not guilty and set him free. What was the first thing Wilkins did upon release? Wilkins marched in a Klan parade where he proudly waved a Confederate flag to the applause of the crowd. Growing up in an atmosphere like this, it is no wonder that Frank Francis would see the Confederate flag as being solely a symbol of racist hate groups.

Imperial Wizard, Robert M. Shelton, signs autographs at a KKK rally in Hattiesburg, Miss. in 1965. The flag in the corner appears to be a Confederate flag.

Surprisingly, however, the flag was also used as the symbol of an anti-racist group. In 1970, just two years before Francis gave his interview, the newspaper Great Speckled Bird printed an article about a group calling themselves Young Patriots. The Young Patriots were young white activists based in Chicago who used community service to address issues of oppression within impoverished white communities. Although their primary focus was on poor whites, the Young Patriots used their work as a platform to foster a partnership with African Americans who were also being oppressed by rich whites. The group had modeled itself after the Black Panthers and actually worked very closely with the Panthers to spread acceptance and awareness of struggles faced by African Americans.

Members of the group were very proud to share photos of a rally held jointly with the Panthers in Chicago. In these photos, a Confederate flag hangs behind the podium right next to the Panthers’ flag. For these young white men and women, the Confederate flag represented their southern heritage and what they celebrated as a uniquely southern tradition of rebellion . The Young Patriots ignored the causes of the Civil War, reducing it simply to an act of resistance by southerners, therefore making the Confederate flag the ultimate symbol of resistance to authority. The group then used the flag as a connection between themselves and poor white southerners, visually stating that they all had distinct southern roots based in rebellion. By displaying the Confederate flag, the group hoped to rally impoverished whites to join African Americans in resistance against their mutual oppressors.

Support for the Young Patriots varied amongst African Americans. Those who supported the Black Panthers usually looked favorably upon the Young Patriots, although they acknowledge there were still some racist qualities that needed to be ironed out. Others who felt the Black Panthers were too militant typically classified the Young Patriots in the same category of radicalism. Although neither that article nor the other dozen articles I looked through specifically mentioned how African Americans felt about the group’s use of the Confederate flag, its continued use seems to imply a measure of acceptance from the African American community. The Young Patriots worked very closely with the Panthers and often displayed the Confederate flag beside the Panthers’ flag. Since the Panthers allowed this, they must not have been overly offended by the flag. Maybe the Panthers saw this as a small token of revenge against white southern supremacists: They were appropriating one of the most dominant pieces of those supremacists’ iconography and imbuing it with a message of black support in order to ultimately empower the African American community to defeat such racism. However, it is likely that the Confederate flag was still very jarring for African Americans unfamiliar with the Young Patriots . Most African Americans’ only experiences with this flag had been instances of hate and racism. For them, it was a symbol of oppression and white supremacy. Considering the pervasiveness of this interpretation of the flag, one can understand how wary many African Americans must have felt when confronted by the Young Patriots bearing the flag aloft. However, the group’s use of the flag proved that the flag’s symbolism was not, and never would be static and that – as is still true today – specific historical context matters when determining the flag’s multi-pronged messages.


“Great Order Will Not Die, Confederate Veteran Says.” Wisconsin Kourier (Washington, DC), December 26, 1924. Accessed April 14, 2018. KKK Newspapers.

“Interview with Frank J. Francis.” Forward (Fort Dix, NJ), February 1, 1972, 7th ed. Accessed April 5, 2018. Independent Voices.

Joye, Barbara. “Young Patriots.” Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta, GA), March 9, 1970, 10th ed. Accessed April 5, 2018. Independent Voices.

Kelley, Robert W. “Pictorial Summation of a Tragicomic Mistrial.” Life, May 21, 1965, 32-39. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“KKK.” Life, April 23, 1965, 28-35. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“October 28, 1965, Ku Klux Klan Rally in a Hattiesburg (Miss.) Field Featured on the Front Page of the October 29, 1965, Hattiesburg American. Speakers on Stage. Robert M. Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, Signs Autographs.” October 1965. Moncrief Photograph Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In Wikimedia Commons. June 22, 2005. Accessed September 16, 2018.

“Stetson Kennedy Dies at 94; Infiltrated Ku Klux Klan.” The New York Times. August 28, 2011. Accessed April 16, 2018.

Suiter, John. “Black Panthers: The Algerian Festival, Police Decentralization, and Hard Words to Student Radicals.” Berkley Barb, August 8-14, 1969. Accessed April 14, 2018. Independent Voices.

Szyck, Arthur. “Do Not Forgive Them, O Lord, For They Do Know What They Do.” Cartoon. New Caanan, CT. 1949. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed April 14, 2018.

“The Fearmongerers.” Life, February 7, 1965, 71-77. Accessed April 5, 2018.

“The Ku Klux Klan Tries A Comeback.” Life, May 27, 1946, 42-44. Accessed April 5, 2018.

The McLean House: Symbol of Reunification or Surrender Grounds?

By Carolyn Hauk ’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. 

While enjoying live music in a small coffee shop nestled in historic Appomattox, Virginia, a local asked me where I was from and what had brought me here this summer. Mine was a new face among the Friday night crowd and I expected some curious glances. However, when I explained that I was working at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, I was surprised to hear in return, “Oh, the Surrender Grounds”. This reference to the park – and the McLean House in particular – revealed one of the long-standing interpretations of the town’s events that still lives on today. Here, on April 9th, 1865 met two of the most skilled generals that ever led men into battle – with lasting implications for the nation’s future.

Two years prior, grocer and entrepreneur Wilmer McLean had moved his family to the small hamlet of Appomattox Court House to escape the war that had literally broken out in the backyard of his Manassas plantation. Originally a guesthouse in the Raine family tavern complex, the substantial brick McLean house reflects the well-traveled Lynchburg-Richmond State Road and the brisk stage-coach and hospitality businesses that helped to establish the village of Appomattox Court House in 1846. For the McLean family, this was now home – at least temporarily.

After nine months of laying siege to Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army finally pushed General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia west, resulting in the week-long pursuit known as the Appomattox Campaign. At each turn, Lee’s plans to secure rations and join with North Carolina Confederate forces were thwarted. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Confederates lost two battles in the village. Finally, on April 9th, 1865, Lee and Grant convened in the McLean front parlor since it was Palm Sunday and the Courthouse was closed. In just over one and a half hours, the Terms of Surrender were written out by Grant and signed by Lee. As Grant had surmised, this triggered a series of Confederate surrenders that led to the official end to the Civil War.

For the Union, the McLean parlor symbolized victory — the beginning of the end of a tumultuous, four-year war. For the Confederacy, however, it meant something altogether different. During Reconstruction, the Southern war narrative would twist into a gallant, prideful story of resistance despite inevitable odds. For the Confederates, the McLean parlor did not represent defeat; rather, it was the surrender of the fight against their aggressors, the germ of what would become known as the ‘Lost Cause’. Semantics aside, for a few hours on that April afternoon the McLean parlor resonated with respect, humility, and humanity as two war-weary generals convened to bring about a peace in accordance with President’s Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “with malice towards none”.

In the years following Reconstruction, the events of Appomattox have been interpreted in polarizing ways. The war may have ended, but the cultural and political divide remains. Is the McLean House a national symbol of the reunification of our country or is it merely the Surrender Grounds? The battle, it seems, rages on.

Today, the McLean House  is even more relevant as a monument to peaceful, humane conflict resolution. Here, two adversaries met face to face, as equals. They were not motivated by power, nor revenge, but by the greater good to put down arms, pick up pens, and “with malice toward none,” begin the process of putting to an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.

Hauk McLean House
Carolyn Hauk ’21 in front of the McLean House at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Photo courtesy Carolyn Hauk.

Richmond National Battlefield Park

By Albert Wilson ’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. 

Richmond National Battlefield Park consists of thirteen sites around Richmond that document the battles for control of the Confederate capital. Several of the park sites feature earthworks; at Fort Harrison the earthen wall of the fort towers twenty feet over the ditch below, by the Totopotomoy Creek the earthworks have been eroded to barely a few inches in height. But the most infamous earthworks are on the Cold Harbor battlefield.

The earthworks that remain at this site are all original. Some are in pristine condition, all they are missing are reinforcement and header logs. Usually one is forbidden on earthworks, but there is a segment along one of the park’s trails where visitors are allowed to walk down through a segment of earthworks and get an impression of what fighting in these trenches was like. Forest had taken over much of the property. While the ground was clear land during the battle, today tree growth (and thus root growth) as well as leaf cover helps to prevent erosion of these earthworks in the sandy soil. It then becomes a challenge for visitors to imagine that battlefield not as a forest but as a open field, earthworks not as a line of earth but as a barrier crowded by soldiers.

Now the 1864 Overland Campaign had a two-fold goal for the Army of the Potomac: capture Richmond and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia along the way. The Confederates countered this by staying between the Union army and Richmond, and by digging earthwork defenses wherever their army stopped. Many Union soldiers feared (and found true) that once the Confederates were dug in, these earthworks were an almost impenetrable defense. The morning of June 3, 1864 finds the Confederates dug into earthworks with Richmond just 10 miles to their backs. At 4:30am, General Grant orders a frontal assault upon this line of earthworks that proves futile, as the Confederate defenders fire volley after murderous volleys into advancing Union soldiers. After the bloodshed of that morning, many Union soldiers were hesitant (if not outright refused) to advance again upon enemy earthworks, as the horrors of Cold Harbor were clear in their heads.

The earthwork remains are pivotal to the story of Cold Harbor, not just as a line of defense on June 3, but what these earthworks mean in the mythology of the Civil War. It is shortly after the Battle of Cold Harbor that the insult of “Grant the Butcher” begins appearing in newspapers unfriendly to the Lincoln administration. This attempt at slander accuses Grant of throwing wave after wave of troops into impenetrable Confederate lines because Grant did not care that greatly for the lives of his soldiers. Visitors to the park still repeat and still believe the line of Grant the Butcher over 155 years later. When discussing the battle, the easiest way to dispel this myth is putting the bloodshed into context. Grant suffered heavily, taking almost twice as many casualties as Confederate General Lee. But this battle’s casualty figure does not make it the bloodiest battle of the Overland campaign, and there are individual days of the Civil War bloodier than the two weeks spent at Cold Harbor. Grant would write in his memoirs “I have always regretted the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” It is not hard to imagine the bloodshed when looking down range from the top of an earthwork line.

While some segments of earthworks seem impenetrable, other segments are quite vulnerable. About halfway through a tour, one comes to a spot where the line of earthworks is about 80 yards back from the crest of the hill. This is a poor position for earthworks because it provides a limited line of fire for the trench’s occupiers. Now on the morning on June 3, despite being ordered to attack, the Union divisions opposite this poorly positioned segment of earthworks failed to attack. So I end my tours with a what if- what if the Union army attacked that poorly positioned segment of line and broke through? The entire memory of the battle could have changed at that segment of earthworks; from a battle that was a vain assault on the part of the Union, to an attack celebrated as the victory that could have ended the war in June of 1864. Visually, one segment of earthworks is only distinguishable from another in terms of height, depth, and length. But each segment of earthworks presents examples on how the story of Cold Harbor is told, and how that story is remembered.

Wilson Cold Harbor trenches
View down a segment of Confederate earthworks on the Cold Harbor Battlefield. Photo courtesy Albert Wilson.

Andersonville’s Providence Spring

By Maci Mark ’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. 

At Andersonville National Historic Site there is not much left of what was here in 1864 when this site operated as a prison, aside from the earthworks, which now have pleasant green grass growing on them. The petrified stumps of the original stockade do still remain in the ground, but otherwise the park is a quaint pretty scene of rolling hills with tall grass. The only visible indication of the horrors that prisoners suffered here is in the cemetery. The headstones of the prisoners have no space between them, they are placed exactly where the prisoners were buried shoulder to shoulder in trenches, 13,000 of them side by side. Most of the stones have names on them but about 400 do not. This is something distinctive about Andersonville, the fact that so many of those who died here are known. This is thanks to a paroled prisoner, Dorace Atwater, and the secret list of the dead he kept when working in the hospital and the dead house. But sadly, this list was destroyed in a fire that consumed Atwater’s home in the early 20th century.  Visitors frequently ask whether the museum has the Atwater list, but the best we can do is direct them to a book in the bookstore that has a portion of the list.

Our bookstore contains lots of books about Andersonville and the broader Civil War, and various knick knacks that visitors can buy to show that they were here. But there’s a common theme amongst much of our merchandise: the image of Providence Spring. It is on the magnet, the key chain, the pocket watch, post cards, and the pin, and there are even little bottles with labels where a visitor can collect water from the spring. Providence Spring is a spring that came up in August of 1864 and was deemed a miracle for the prisoners. The prisoners’ water source, Stockade Branch, was contaminated with human waste and oils from the Confederate guards’ camp before it even got to the prisoners. The prisoners would get sick from the water and would have to resort to digging wells (the Georgia water table is about 70 feet down and they only had spoons or broken canteens) or drinking from the stream. The prisoners had been praying for a miracle, in the form of clean water or exchange, and one came in a thunderstorm that broke down the stockade wall, bringing with it lightning that struck the ground and brought forth a spring. This spring had clean water that the prisoners could drink without getting sick. This was deemed a miracle, and in 1901 with the help of the Woman’s Relief Corps, the survivors of Andersonville placed a monument to the Spring which has become a popular symbol of the site.

The pathway leading to Providence Spring. Photo courtesy Maci Mark.

Park rangers at Andersonville NHS today explain that the spring was covered up when the Stockade was built and that the rains of August 1864 uncovered it. But there are still people who visit Providence Spring and believe that a miracle took place there. Providence Spring has many different meanings to those who visit it; for some it shows that the prisoners’ prayers were answered when they felt abandoned by their country, letting them die in prison. Others see how minimal improvements to the conditions at Andersonville – such as clean water – saved many lives. Whether or not Providence Spring is an accurate representation of Andersonville (could it better be represented by the reconstructed Stockade?), it has become one of its most popular and up-lifting stories in a place where 45,000 men suffered and 13,000 paid the ultimate price.

The Remnants of the Crater

By Claire Bickers ’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. 

In the final years of the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac laid siege to Petersburg, Virginia.  Petersburg was the center of supply for both the city of Richmond and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and Grant understood that he could cripple the Confederate army by capturing the city.  He hoped to end the battle quickly, but through a series of missteps and complicated battle scenarios, the siege lasted more than nine months—longer than any other Civil War battle.

The most notorious battle during this campaign was the Battle of the Crater.  On land that had once been part of the Griffith plantation, Union soldiers dug a mine and detonated black powder underneath Confederate lines to create a gap through which Union troops could march on the city.  The situation quickly deteriorated as unit after unit charged into the Crater.  The Confederates were enraged to realize that many of the troops they were fighting were USCTs (United States Colored Troops), and treated them with particular cruelty.  The men who charged into and around the Crater were in frenzied disarray; the battle devolved into hand to hand combat and bayonets were used with abandon.

Many men did not survive that battle.  Neither did their rifles.  What remains of their weapons are shattered, bearing the scars of the savagery of the fighting.  Many are still loaded, Minie balls ready for the assault that will never come.  They are the remnants of a brutal battle unlike the noble picture that Lincoln painted at Gettysburg.  The men who died July 30th, 1864 in the Crater didn’t nobly sacrifice their lives for a comrade, breathing their last breaths in the arms of a friend.  Instead, they died frantic and alone, a teeming mass of men trying to escape disaster.

After the end of the war, the Griffith family moved back to their plantation.   Seeing an opportunity to capitalize upon the relic hunting that was already becoming commonplace, they created a small museum (of sorts) on their property, featuring the vestiges of the most notorious battle of the siege.  The Griffiths preserved rifles that were cracked in half, bent and splintered, or otherwise destroyed by the trauma of battle.  Not long after the Civil War finally ended, people lined up to see these remnants from Petersburg that they already understood to have been sanctified by blood; Frederick Douglass himself visited the Crater and Crater Museum in October of 1878.  When the National Battlefield was eventually created, the Griffith collection changed hands.  Many of the same artifacts that they chose to display are still exhibited by the park to this day.

At most Civil War sites, weapons such as rifles or cannons provide visitors a tangible link to the past.  To ensure the continued survival of these  important Petersburg artifacts, many of these Crater rifles were sent to conservation treatment last year, from which many of them just returned.  This care will help ensure that their voices can remain poignant reminders of the brutality of battle for generations to come.

Bickers rifle
A remnant of a Crater rifle, after conservation treatment. Photo courtesy Claire Bickers.


Bowery, Charles R., Ethan Sepp Rafuse, and Steven Stanley. Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014.

Kidd, Sherry Williams. “Petersburg National Battlefield Opens New Exhibit Honoring Frederick Douglass
.” The Prince George Journal, March 13, 2018.

“Pretty Well Swiss Cheese”: The Innis House and the Battle Of Fredericksburg

By Zachary Wesley ’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. 

A sea of houses and alleys covers the bloody path taken by seven Union divisions during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Nevertheless, a silent witness remains before the Sunken Road: the Innis House, one of two wartime properties owned by Martha Stephens is still standing today. It is not an impressive structure at first glance. The building stands at only one-and-a-half stories tall and consists of three rooms. The wall between the former parlor and the entryway, however, proudly bears its scars: more than 58 bullet holes. This bullet-riddled wall presents a clear message of the horrors of the Civil War while also revealing a layered narrative of a home and the civilians and soldiers who intersected around it.

Built between 1856 and 1861, the simple structure sat on the outskirts of the town of Fredericksburg, and its owner was just as much on the edge of society as the home. Martha Stephens was – and is – mysterious. She lived in the long-gone Stephens House next door. Intriguingly she owned the two houses under  different names, which popular lore attributes to an attempt to avoid the loss of her entire property in a lawsuit (lawsuits being a relatively frequent occurrence for Stephens). Rumors swirled that she ran an illegal bar or brothel out of her home and that she took a formerly enslaved man as a lover later in life. Mrs. Stephens did not fit into the ideals of traditional Southern womanhood. Nevertheless, perhaps in an effort to warrant inclusion in this group, she claimed that she tended to wounded soldiers during the Battle of Fredericksburg, even though no Confederate soldiers remembered her presence.

The Innis House’s renters wisely vacated the premises before the fighting started. The home has no cellar and, as the structure would soon bear witness, would not offer sufficient protection from the hail of lead that crashed into it. Confederate sharpshooters occupied the upper half-story of the structure during the battle, leaving behind graffiti and drawing ample fire from frustrated Union soldiers. However, the bullet holes in the parlor wall appear at virtually every angle, including from behind, revealing that Confederate soldiers on Marye’s Heights and in the Sunken Road also fired into the home. Friendly fire into the Sunken Road, and thus the Innis House, presented a serious problem for Confederates throughout the battle – despite the assumption that the Confederate forces were perfectly protected behind the stone wall. The home’s walls – inside and out – were pretty well swiss cheese once the fighting stopped.

Wesley Innis House
This picture of the parlor wall of the Innis House shows the bullet holes that still scar it. These were made by just some of the thousands of bullets that flew through the air each minute during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Photo courtesy Zach Wesley.

The Innis House continued in its pre-battle capacity as a private residence into the early 1970s, when the National Park Service acquired the property. After peeling back layers of wallpaper from the parlor wall, park personnel encountered far more bullet holes than they expected. Even today, the number of bullet holes (and one Minie ball that remains in a ceiling joist) elicits amazement and shock from visitors. Although the damage of war is an essential piece of the home’s story, the full picture is far richer, weaving together the lives and experiences of people both on the fringes and in the mainstream of the Civil War Era South. Just as to find more bullet holes, all one must do is peel back the layers to reveal them, the same is true for the stories the house can tell.


O’Reilly, Francis Augustin. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Pfanz, Donald C. War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Richmond, VA: Page One History Publications, 2003.

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.