The Little Civil War Drummer Boy

By Cameron Sauers ’21

Civil War snare drum. (Image Courtesy of Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College)

When I think about the battle front, I think about soldiers in uniform marching off to fight with their weapons and small mementos from home. I also think about the many doctors and nurses who provided care to men riddled with bullet holes and disease. I never thought of drummers, though, until I saw the snare drum pictured above. However, this drum and the many others like it were an integral part of army life. For the drummers themselves, their instrument represented a unique avenue of service where zealous, but often underaged, patriots could join the war efforts without being directly engaged in active combat. To soldiers in the midst of battle, listening to the drum could either inspire patriotism or fear, depending on whether the staccato taps came from their own drummers or those of the enemy. Outside of combat, the drum helped to create order in camp and in drill, as well as provide some musical relief from the dullness of a long march or extended period of encampment. Drum-based music accompanied nearly every aspect of life for Civil War soldiers.

Over the course of the war, about 40,000 men served as drummers. With so many drummers and musicians, the music industry boomed during the Civil War. The army’s need for musicians created a high demand for instruments, with companies like Stratton & Foote, the New York producers of the above drum, created by enterprising citizens. Union army guides for the drums dictated that the arms of the United States and regimental designation be painted on the drums; however, this was a rule which was hardly followed. Generally, field drums ranged from 15 to 16 inches in diameter and 10 to 12 inches in depth. The shells were generally single, double or triple ply made of maple, ash or holly. The variety of different compositions for drums was matched by the diversity of men who served as drummers in Civil War armies.

Since there were no strict age requirements for drummers, like in other forms of service, the age range of drummers who might have used the above pictured drum varied. Many of the drummers were young boys, some as young as twelve years old. Although these boys were not old enough to carry a musket onto the battlefield, they could still contribute to the war effort with their musical skills. Other men volunteered as drummers in order to avoid active combat, hoping that serving as a musician would keep them at a safe distance from the fighting. However, field musicians regularly set aside their instruments to serve as stretcher-bearers and in other roles of assistance to medical staff that still exposed them to the grisly realities of warfare. At times, musicians also did find themselves in the midst of battle. Twenty-eight army musicians received the Medal of Honor, mostly for bravery displayed while removing wounded soldiers from the field. Other musicians intentionally set aside their drums and other instruments to fight, such as George Palmer of the 1st Illinois Cavalry. Palmer was awarded a Medal of Honor for picking up a musket and taking part in a charge to reclaim an overrun hospital at a battle in Lexington, Missouri. Palmer’s service is evidence that for Civil War soldiers, musicians included, their experience was not always what they expected it to be when they enlisted.

Drummer boy, taking a rest, Culpeper, Va. (image courtesy Library of Congress)

There also was no specific requirement that one had to actually be able to play an instrument like the above-featured drum in order to join either a regimental or brigade band. Often times, drummers and other field musicians enlisted without the ability to read music or play an instrument. The resulting unpleasant music was best described as a ruckus, and sometimes even led to moments of hilarity. Timothy H. Pendergast of the 2nd Minnesota wrote about one such incident where camp mules mistook a band’s “music” for the sounds of an incoming wagon train. This poor-quality music was less amusing for officers, who simply became frustrated with the noise. In this particular instance, Colonel Adelbert Ames of the 20th Maine staged an actual “charge” upon the drum corps with his sword in order to make the “music” stop. Training a regiment of green soldiers was frustrating enough, but poorly trained drummers who bungled commands became a nuisance on the training ground and a liability in combat. However, over time, with constant practice and rigorous training, , regiments and their musicians learned how to function effectively. Despite the initial learning curve for some Civil War musicians, however, others entered the service already accomplished, such as famous band leader Patrick S. Gilmore who enlisted in the 24th Massachusetts in an attempt to attract young men to join the army with his patriotic music. Gilmore’s service manifested itself in the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a song with a recognizable use of the drum. The frequency of the drum in every regimental company meant that its music touched the ears of most Civil War soldiers.

In battle, drums were used to provide inspiration to soldiers, as well as communicate orders and direction to troops. Musicians used their instruments to play patriotic tunes that might inspire soldiers to stand their ground and perform bravely in battle. Aware of the impact that music could have, officers often ordered their musicians to strike up a patriotic song to bolster the spirits and courage of their soldiers. In perhaps the most famous instance, General George Pickett’s men stepped off on their fateful charge at Gettysburg to “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” which prompted the waiting Federals to strike up “The Star-Spangled Banner” as both a rallying call to their own troops and an attempt to douse the spirits of their attacking foe. Both songs begin with the beating of a drum. One can imagine the wide range of emotions of a Confederate drummer, perhaps a young boy, solemnly playing his drum as friends and comrades slowly marched off towards their fate. The Union drummers likely watched the approaching Confederates with renewed determination but also apprehension, aware of the destruction that was about to ensue, yet in awe of the enemy’s martial courage. Solders clearly understood the impact that music had on their courage, as one told the Sanitary Commission, “I can fight with ten times more spirit, hearing the band play some of our national airs, than I can without the music.” At Dinwiddie Courthouse on March 31, 1865, Phillip Sheridan ordered his musicians to stand directly behind his men and play patriotic music. One band continually played “Hail Columbia” for the duration of the attacks launched by Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederates. Seeing how the music sweetened the sounds of battle to inspire Sheridan’s men, Lee ordered his bands to play. The result was not just dueling armies, but a symphony of bullets, brass and beating drums that rang in the eardrums of all.

On a more practical level, drums were also used during battle to give orders and direct troops amidst the fog and chaos of combat. Drums were kept near the line whenever possible in order to help ensure that the correct order was sounded down battle lines. Officers relied heavily upon drummers to sound the proper orders, as wrongly communicated messages could lead to chaos – and needless casualties- in battle. Some units took advantage of this chaos, using musicians to mask the true size of a force and make the unit look larger to intimidate the enemy. On at least one occasion, music was also employed to draw soldiers away from their lines and into enemy hands during combat. Additionally, during lulls in combat, musicians often played tunes to mask the sounds of the wounded and dying that lay on the field, thereby steadying the nerves of those still fighting. For nervous or inexperienced men under fire, or even those in their fifth or sixth battle, the familiar rhythms of the drum helped to bring clarity and order to the combat confusion that could so easily stunt a regiment’s successes on the battlefield.

Unidentified young drummer boy in Union uniform. (image courtesy of Library of Congress)

Another example of the use of drums and music as a means of order and focus during combat is when George Custer had his musicians perform “Yankee Doodle,” a song played partially on the drum, when on the attack at Brandy Station. Mounted cavalry bands, like infantry bands, had drums at the center of their operations. Following Brandy Station, Custer wrote that “it required but a glance at the countenances of the men to enable me to read the settled determination with which they undertook the task before them. The enemy, without waiting to receive the onset, broke in disorder and fled.” Custer’s anecdote shows the ability of Civil War music to lead to gallantry in combat. Music steadied the nerves of anxious soldiers and calmed them down so that they could more effectively perform their duty in combat. Musicologist James Davis argues that musical performances were recognized by soldiers in the same way that they recognized the bravado of their officers. A band’s performance during battle became a public presentation of the unit’s courage, so it was imperative that bands perform properly to represent the bravado and martial masculinity of their regiment. While serving in a different capacity than “fighting” soldiers, musicians and their instruments retained the ability to inspire their comrades to acts of bravery. The tapping of the drum was more than just music; it was a gallant patriotic expression that could help turn the tide of battle. Musical instruments, like this drum, reminded soldiers of their solemn duties in combat and of the need to perform honorably alongside their comrades.

Outside of combat, this drum sounded the more mundane tasks like waking soldiers up in the morning, ordering their tasks throughout the day, and sending them to bed at night. Musicians learned eighteen different signals that helped in fundamental ways to bring daily order to a unit. Music encouraged soldiers as they marched into battle, but it also kept them company on long marches, as Confederate drummer boy Delavan Miller reminisced, “for a marching column ther [sic] is nothing like martial music of the good ol fashioned king.” Music comforted soldiers when they felt homesick and provided a sense of camaraderie and togetherness, as evidenced by the 30th New York’s use of “John Brown’s Body” and various hymns to relieve stress and reinforce their soldierly bonds, even as the unit approached its June muster out date.

Music accompanied all aspects of life during the Civil War. The drum, and other Civil War musical instruments, had an intense power over the soldiers who regularly heard its familiar beats. If played poorly, humor ensued. If played well, a wide range of emotions, from patriotic pride to solemn reflection, could be produced. Music took on heightened value during combat, reinforcing the courage of soldiers and encouraging acts of gallantry when needed. Civil War soldiers were deeply attached to the musicians that served with them and carried with them a great appreciation for the instruments they carried. This drum, perhaps carried by a boy as young as 12, looks simple. It looks like a standard, typical drum. But to Civil War soldiers, it bolstered their spirits in combat and in camp in immeasurable ways.


Davis, James A. “Union Musicians and the Medal of Honor During the American Civil War.” College Music Symposium 54 (2014).

Cornelius, Steven H. Music of the Civil War Era. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Davis, James A. “Music and Gallantry in Combat During the American Civil War.” American Music 28, no. 2 (2010): 141-72.

Manjerovic, Maureen, and Michael J. Budds. “More than a Drummer Boy’s War: A Historical View of Musicians in the American Civil War.” College Music Symposium 42 (2002): 118-30.

McWhirter, Christian. Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music In The Civil War. Chapel Hill : UNC Press. 2012

Gleason, Bruce P. “U.S. Mounted Bands and Cavalry Field Musicians in the Union Army during the Civil War-Background, Duties, and Training.” Journal of Historical Research in Music Education 27, no. 2 (2006): 102-19.


A Song for Jennie

By Claire Bickers ’20


The above-pictured sheet music is an ode to Gettysburg’s own Jennie Wade, who was killed in the crossfire of July 3rd, 1863. The simple tune was created by lyricist E. B. Dewing and composer J. P. Webster who hoped they would inspire patriotism in their female audience while they worked to become accomplished musicians. When the Civil War broke out, the young women who played the piece had been left behind on the home front, only to imagine what horrors their men were facing. The government and the warfront alike relied on the homefront to present a brave and loyal face in order to maintain support for the war effort through the fostering of a nationalistic, sentimental culture that bled into all aspects of Union life. Music was a feminine expression of patriotic devotion that many women used to empathize with those on the battle front as well as to inspire themselves and their peers toward acts of patriotic sacrifice on behalf of their war-torn nation. After the war ended and America moved into Reconstruction, music like “Jennie Wade, the Heroine of Gettysburg” continued to inspire women, who were busy honoring the dead and healing the country’s gaping wounds.

In that vein, in 1865, Dewing and Webster produced a collection that was patriotically themed. One of the songs in that collection was “Jenny Wade, the Heroine of Gettysburg,” which was a simple tune included in an educational musical collection that described itself as being “divided into two kinds of lessons—the one for musical culture and the other for muscular culture… those lessons which are designed to awaken, develop, and strengthen a love for music.” Since the performers played this piece to develop their piano and vocal skills, it is likely that many of the earliest performers were young and still early on in their musical journey. It is also likely that many of the earliest performers of the song were in fact young women. Since musical ability was considered an asset for women’s marriageability and a marker of femininity and social class, many nineteenth-century young women were musically trained from an early age. If the intended audience for this music was indeed young women, then that makes it all the more interesting that the subject matter of this song is also a tribute to a woman. The women who played the music likely saw themselves in Jennie’s story; the shared experience of being a woman in a war-weary nineteenth century was a unifying force in the lives of both the consumer and the subject of the tune.

The message that these women consumed in the lyrics that Dewing wrote tap into nineteenth century ideas of sentimentalism. Soldiers and civilians alike relied upon the framework of sentimental thinking to understand and justify the brutality and fatality of war: Sentimentalism was an ideology that promoted unfailing courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming grief and honorable sacrifice in the name of a higher cause. Sentimentalism also emphasized the deep-rooted connection between soldier and home, reminding women on the homefront of their duty to remain stoic in the face of loss. Southern historian Lisa Laskin argues that “the people to whom the soldiers looked for emotional support also proved to be the group most capable of sabotaging soldier morale.” To protect soldiers’ morale, it was vital for women to maintain their patriotism during the war, and composers and lyricists such as Webster and Dewing monopolized upon the thirst for inspirational entertainment through the rapidly expanding genre of patriotic music.

At the onset of the Civil war, the patriotic music industry boomed, featuring many different styles of music, a large amount of which was styled after the Napoleonic epic of “The Battle of Prague.” Similarly styled songs, including “The Battle of Manassas” and “Battle of the Wilderness,” were composed throughout the war and attempted to capture the horrors of the battlefield through music, even calling for vocal sound effects (The “Battle of Manassas” encourages performers to exclaim “Chu Chu” at one point to imitate a train’s arrival) and dramatic gestures. Although the patriotic musical genre was dominated by battle songs and odes to the masculine, Dewing and Webster chose to honor a more feminine subject for a predominantly young, predominantly female audience. The song employs patriotic imagery as they praise her, saying her “spirit yet shall serve Free men defending right” because she died with the “courage of a woman true, [as she] Upheld the dear old flag.” Dewing intentionally chose these words to remind women of their bravery and sacrifice throughout the war, traits they would continue to need while facing its aftermath.

The publishers included a short line at the top of the sheet music that gives a brief explanation of the events that led up to Jenny’s death, noting that “the heroic girl…was making bread for our soldiers in a house between the two armies, and exposed to the fire of both, although repeatedly urged, she would not desist from her labors, and fell victim to her patriotism.” This story must have been striking to the young musicians who were playing the song for the first time. The young women who performed the piece doubtless all knew a man who had gone to war and would never return, but they were far less likely to have met a woman in the same situation. Being presented with the story of a young woman who died a bloody, masculine death must have been a stark reminder of the heavy cost of war: Even a northern woman, who was theoretically supposed to be safe from the danger of battle’s crossfire, could be killed in an instant and that minie balls did not discriminate on the basis of gender.

However, the description that Dewing wrote about Jennie’s death sanitized her passing as much as possible, distancing her death from the battlefield and aligning it with the feminine sphere. Dewing and Webster did not specifically mention how exactly Jennie died; they simply alluded to it and allowed players to infer the rest. Instead, the two men focused on what Jennie was doing at the time of her death – baking bread. This choice in details conveyed the message that Jennie’s physical and symbolic role in the war like all other women and civilians, was meant to be separate from the front-line action. Instead, a woman should prove her patriotic devotion by selflessly serving in the feminine sphere.

At twenty years old, Jennie Wade was probably not much older at her death than many of the musicians who played this piece. The song’s attempts to sentimentalize her death by laying Jennie to rest “with our bravest,” implied to performers that her sacrifice was just as deep and meaningful as the deaths of the more than seven thousand young men who fell on the Gettysburg battlefield. Consumers of “Jenny Wade, the Heroine of Gettysburg” and its message were presented with a sentimental interpretation not of those men’s deaths, but of the death of the one and only civilian killed during the battle. The song gives a face to this feminine martyr while inextricably linking the necessary and heroic sacrifices and sufferings of both the battlefield and the home front. Dewing and Webster’s song inspired their audience with the heroism that was expected of every American, civilian or soldier, in their country’s time of need.


Laskin, Lisa. “”The Army Is Not near so Much Demoralized as the Country Is”: Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front.” In The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, 91-120. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.

Marisi, Rossella. “Female Music Making in the Nineteenth Century.” Review of Artistic
Education, no. 5/6 (September 2013): 18–24.

Morgan, Elizabeth. “Combat at the Keys: Women and Battle Pieces for the Piano during
the American Civil War.” 19th Century Music, 40, 1 (2016):7–19.

“Welcome To Jennie Wade House.” Jennie Wade House | Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Accessed  March 26, 2019.

Small but Deadly: The Minié Ball

By Isaac Shoop ’21

minie ball
Minié balls (via Wikimedia Commons)

When Claude-E’tienne Minié perfected the minié ball in 1849, it is doubtful he knew of the carnage that it would cause in the American Civil War some twelve years later. However, this small and compact bullet can teach us far more than simply the horrific bloodletting it caused on the battlefield itself. A closer analysis of the bullet’s impact on the human body also reveals a deeper glimpse into Civil War hospitals, medicine, and an entirely new scale and scope of death with which Victorian Americans were forced to come to terms as the war’s long casualty lists poured in from both on and off the battlefield. Considered by many to be a significant technological advancement in the 1840s for its supposedly marked increase in range and accuracy, this bullet was initially expected to have a revolutionary impact on battle tactics; however, as recent scholarship has shown, the ball’s impacts were most significantly felt not in the number of men it felled on a battlefield, but in the severity of the wounds it inflicted on its targets.

The minié ball was primarily the invention of two French army captains, Claude-E’tienne Minié and Henri-Gustave Dolvigue, in 1849. To provide ease of use in combat situations, the minié ball was made slightly smaller than the intended gun bore so it could be pushed down the barrel with little resistance. The bullet was made out of soft lead, had a conical shape, and had anywhere from two to four rings at the base. These characteristics allowed the minié ball to expand and engage the rifling of the gun barrel when it was fired, keeping the bullet on a straighter path. Such innovations did help to improve accuracy and slightly increased the range of the rifle musket over that of smoothbores, but the parabolic trajectory of the minie ball, combined with soldiers’ deficient training and both preference as well as skill for short-range firing, ultimately prevented any significant increase in long-range use or accuracy on the battlefield.

In 1855, the United States Army, under the direction of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, adopted the minié ball and the rifled musket. The effectiveness of the rifled musket and minié ball were proven in the Crimean War in the 1850s when French and British forces used them against Russia’s smoothbore muskets. In the United States, the two most popular rifled muskets were the .69 caliber Harpers Ferry and the .58 caliber Springfield. When the Civil War erupted in the Spring of 1861, both sides still relied on the older and outdated smoothbore muskets because of the time and money it took to produce the new weapons. However, as the war progressed, the new rifled musket and minié ball phased out the smoothbore muskets. In terms of production of this new weaponry, the North had the upper hand. By 1860, about 90% of the United States manufacturing output came from the North. During the war, the North produced 32 times the number of firearms as the South did; for every 100 firearms the South manufactured, the North produced 3,200. In addition to having superior manufacturing capabilities, the North also had the advantage of more efficient transportation. The North housed around 70% of the nation’s railroads, which meant that it could transport weapons and ammunition to the front lines faster than the South could. With superior manufacturing capabilities, the North was able to equip its men on the front lines with this new technology faster and quicker than the South, thus gaining a slight technological advantage over the South.

The evolution and expanded use of the minié ball made many military commanders believe it would be necessary to overhaul military tactics. The range of the rifled musket was 300 yards to a ½ mile, whereas the range of a smoothbore musket was only 50 to 200 yards. In reality, though, both weapons were most effective in the same range of about 100 yards. The rifled musket could not take full advantage of its increased range because of the arc the minié ball travelled on, which created two killing zones. The first killing zone occurred in the first 100 yards and the second from 240 to 350 yards. Soldiers were relatively safe from roughly 100 to 240 yards because the arc of the minié ball, which made the bullet travel over their heads. With intense training, soldiers could accommodate for this arc, but they rarely received that much training and thus they could not take full advantage of the improved range of the rifled musket. Additionally, attacking troops quickly learned how to more efficiently navigate their ways through these two killing zones, thus reducing the number of possible casualties. However, within those killing zones, the impact of the minie ball could be catastrophic, especially to long, thin lines of attacking soldiers. Although successful in numerous Civil War battles such as Gaines’ Mill and Kennesaw Mountain, frontal assaults, if not properly executed and coordinated, could become suicidal in the Civil War, as can be seen through General Burnside’s attack on Marye’s Heights, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862, and Pickett’s Charge, at the Battle of Gettysburg, in July 1863. At Fredericksburg, attacking Union forces suffered 12,500 casualties and in Pickett’s Charge alone, Confederate forces suffered over 6,000 casualties.

The improved military technology also led to evolution in the care offered at Civil War hospitals in order to keep up with the thousands of casualties that resulted when the minie ball did indeed hit its target. The soft lead of the minié ball caused the ball to flatten out upon hitting its target, and when the target was a human body, the bullet shattered bones and destroyed tissue in catastrophic ways. The increasingly grisly damage of the minie ball led to the high number of amputations performed at Civil War hospitals. Also, when a minié ball entered the human body, it could carry with it any foreign matter it picked up from the uniform, which meant a greater risk of infection. Although, over the course of the war, doctors developed a greater sense for some of the underlying causes of the rampant diseases that claimed the majority of Civil War soldiers’ lives, gangrenous wounds often spelled a death sentence for many men. Thus, the minié ball was responsible for a majority of combat casualties, with minie ball-induced amputations responsible for 3 out of 4 operations performed at Civil War hospitals.

Although the minié ball did not change military tactics as much as anticipated, it would be hard to argue to soldiers that the ball did not have a tremendous impact on their lives. For the many soldiers who were hit by a minié ball, or who lost comrades to the small scrap of lead, their lives were forever changed. Wounds caused by the bullet were often severe and, in many cases, required amputations, which left Victorian Americans, both civilians and soldiers, with the difficult task of coping with horrific and disfiguring injuries and long casualty lists. When added to the seemingly endless deaths soldiers succumbed to through disease, torturous, minie ball-inflicted fatalities further challenged Victorians’ conceptions of “the Good Death” and their reckoning with the graphic suffering they were forced to endure for four long years on behalf of cause and country. Wounded soldiers also faced the difficult task of integrating back into a post-war society. The minié ball may seem small and insignificant, but it had many far-reaching impacts that extended well beyond the battlefield and that still fascinate scholars and the American public today.


Arrington, Benjamin T. “Industry and Economy during the Civil War.” National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior.

Hess, Earl J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth. Lawrence, KS:
University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Howey, Allan W. “The Rifle-Musket and the Minié Ball.” HistoryNet. World History Group.
Oct. 1999.

Reimer, Terry. “Wounds, Ammunition, and Amputation.” National Museum of Civil War
Medicine. Nov. 9, 2007.

The Civil War in America: April 1862-November 1862.” Library of Congress.



Cutting Through the Ranks: the Navy’s Forgotten Legacy

By Cameron Sauers ’21 The bearer of this sword was a member of a United States Navy that rapidly grew in power during the Civil War, increasing its enlistment 500% and developing the first ironclad ship. However, even as the Navy was in the midst of its transition, one thing remained in place: The U.S. … Continue reading “Cutting Through the Ranks: the Navy’s Forgotten Legacy”

By Cameron Sauers ’21

For all officers, Swords shall be a cut-and-thrust blade, not less than twenty-six nor more than twenty-nine inches long; half-basket hilt; grip white. Scabbards of black leather; mounting of yellow gilt. – 1864 US Naval Dress Regulations (photo via Smithsonian)

The bearer of this sword was a member of a United States Navy that rapidly grew in power during the Civil War, increasing its enlistment 500% and developing the first ironclad ship. However, even as the Navy was in the midst of its transition, one thing remained in place: The U.S. Model 1852 Navy Officer’s Sword. The sword is still used in the Navy today, albeit for ceremonial purposes. Yet, for all that this sword symbolizes, very few scholars have given much attention to it or the sailors who used it in the Civil War. The common soldier has received much more attention than the common seaman and his officers. While there were considerably more men serving in the Army than the Navy (the Navy started the war with 7,600 sailors and grew to 51,500 by the end, whereas the Union Army boasted about 2.2 million enlisted men), the Navy was still an important part of the Union war effort and therefore deserving of attention. An analysis of the U.S. Model 1852 Navy Officer’s Sword provides a window into the complicated power dynamics between naval officers and enlisted seamen. Furthermore, such an analysis also highlights the naval officers’ often contentious relationships with officers from other military branches, who frequently clashed over who was in command of joint naval-army operations. The sword also begs the question as to what types of individuals may have possessed, or fallen under the authority of, such swords, why they joined the Union Navy in the first place, and the challenges of command that confronted naval officers.

During the Civil War, change happened in nearly all aspects of the Navy, from the types of ships deployed down to the small arms used by sailors, all with the aim to transition the Navy from a small force into a global power. One of these changes was a move away from heavier broadswords towards a new cutlass modeled after the French naval cutlass, which would be the last naval sword issued to common sailors. However, the new naval cutlass lacked the beauty and authority of the 1852 Naval Officer’s Sword, which was not altered during the Civil War. The sword was one of the few holdovers from the weak antebellum Navy, which would be transformed into a powerful force during the Civil War. When Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles assumed his post in March of 1861, he needed to rapidly mobilize ships and men to serve on them. The officers and seamen who served on naval ships created a unique maritime culture and experience different from what soldiers serving in the Army experienced. Enlisting in the Navy was an individual activity and lacked the theatrical or grand patriotic displays of enlistment traditionally associated with the Army. Army regiments marched off to war with flags made by wives and sweethearts and often participated in parades through hometowns before they went South for battle. Historian Michael Bennett argues that since ships were only able to be operated by collective groups of men, and not a singular individual, naval warfare clashed with the public’s belief that a singular individual could turn the tide of battle with their heroism. Thus, there were no grand send-offs for Union sailors. Enlisted sailors also represented a slightly different demographic from those in the Army. The “common sailor” was 26 years old and hailed from a major city along the Atlantic coast. He was also likely an unemployed worker from the laboring class seeking relief from an unemployment crisis among the skilled trades. The Navy also had significantly higher percentages of African-Americans and immigrants than did the Union Army.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (via Wikimedia Commons)


In contrast to his men, the naval officer who would have carried this sword with him was likely a native born, middle-or upper-class man who understood that the Navy was a hierarchy that functioned much like aristocracy. Unlike the Army, the Navy was not beset by problems of politically appointed officers because no politician was brazen enough to believe they could adequately command a warship, let alone a fleet or squadron. Commander J. A. Winslow wrote that the Navy would not accept “useless officers” in exchange for enlisted men. The Navy thus saw itself, especially its officer corps, as a uniquely professional service where experience was necessary. Graduation from the antebellum Naval Academy could take between 5 and 7 years, and with the first class of graduates joining the Navy in 1854, it was clear that experience could not be compensated for. However, the difference in background between officers and common seamen made it difficult for them to understand each other, leading to clashes and tests of authority.

This sword was a key symbol of authority for naval officers who continually found themselves in a struggle to maintain power over their men. Since officers and enlisted sailors came from different social classes, they frequently clashed over behavioral habits. Officers hated sailors’ penchant for rum, swearing, and brawls because such habits were unacceptable in the polite society to which they were accustomed. This disapproval, in turn, made officers appealing targets for the oaths of seamen – the phrase “swear like a sailor” fit in the Union navy. The two groups frequently complained about each other, with sailors snarking that officers were incompetent and officers lamenting that their sailors were inefficient with their labor. Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter complained to Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote that “they send us all rubbish here; we want good men.” The clanging of this expensive sword, however, would have sent procrastinating sailors back to work, perhaps with an ensuing string of oaths about their upper-class officers. Even just sitting at the officer’s hip, this sword acted as a stark reminder of the status difference between the wealthy officer and the poor seamen he commanded. This sword is 39.25” inches long and, unlike the standard naval cutlass, was manufactured by Ames. The grip is wrapped in sharkskin and the blade is etched to show a fouled anchor, acanthus leaf, and U.S. shield. The elaborate designs continue onto the scabbard, including the drag of a dolphin. This sword is substantially more ornate than the traditional naval cutlass and would have cost much more than the average sailor could ever afford—a fact that intimidated some sailors into compliance, while making others bristle at the aristocratic displays of their officers. While army officers regularly clashed with some of their enlisted men, they truly feared any serious attempts to undermine authority onboard their naval vessels, as such behavior could spark a mutiny that could prove especially dangerous for the entire crew. Thus, it was imperative that naval officers remind the seamen, by action and by sword, that they possessed unquestionable authority, through experience, class, and social rank, over the ship.

sword detail
Sword detailing (via The Horse Soldier)

While an officer’s sword would help him assert his authority over sailors, it was less effective in asserting naval authority when performing joint operations with the Army. At the start of the war, there was no protocol for who was to command joint naval and army operations, which hampered Union efforts because neither branch’s officers were willing to concede their own authority. This often left both parties in an uncomfortable dilemma. Some of these standoffs were either awkwardly or aggressively resolved, as was the case in 1862 during the joint Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase watched the initial contest for Hampton Roads stagnate because neither the army nor naval officers would concede authority in rolling out the campaign plans. The stalemate was resolved only when Chase subsequently received permission from President Lincoln to order the operation forward by invoking President Lincoln’s name, as the President is the sole individual with inherent authority over both Army and Navy. Historian Craig L. Symonds argues that for joint operations, cooperation was encouraged and perhaps expected, but it could never be mandated from officers, who were held accountable for their actions alone. Ultimately, the success of such operations was more dependent on the meshing of personalities than on any one side’s material or behavioral display of authority.

Unlike many Army officers, Union Naval Secretary Gideon Welles believed firmly in running the Navy as a meritocracy where officers were “energetic, resourceful, uncomplaining and ruthlessly aggressive,” which contributed to Army-Navy tensions. Naval officers’ inclination toward risk-taking produced a near-Navy-wide disdain for Army colleagues who received their postings through political jockeying instead of achievements in battle. Hence, when it came time for joint operations, naval officers felt they deserved command because they had the experience necessary to make important decisions about bold battle plans. Meanwhile, politically appointed Army officers may have felt they deserved command because they raised entire regiments of men themselves, and thus felt that their subordinates deserved to go into battle under the command of the man they signed up to fight under. Army officers also resented the fact that, if they made a mistake in battle that sacrificed the regiment they had raised, they would likely be cashiered or court martialed from the service. But if a naval officer had one of his ships sunk, his men would likely still survive, as they could simply be rescued by nearby boats or escape to land, as often happened, and, naval officers were more likely to simply be reassigned after such a failure, rather than discharged. No matter their politics, or wherever their command was, naval officers had a sword representative of their station. Unlike for Army officers, these swords were an unmistakable symbol of an individual’s military merit and not their political connections. Even so, naval officers routinely found that the authority invested in them through their swords, and all that these prized possessions symbolized, was tested at nearly every turn, on land and at sea, by army officers as well as enlisted seamen.

Admiral David Dixon Porter (via Wikimedia Commons)

As the Navy moved forward into the age of ironclad ships, traditional naval blades were eventually left behind alongside the outdated age of wooden battle ships. With the military efficiency afforded by ironclads, there was no longer a need for boarding parties, or for a blade to cut rigging down, and so the cutlass was phased out. The regal naval officers’ sword, however, remained, and is still used for ceremonial purposes today. Long celebrated as a “gentleman’s weapon,” the naval sword resisted retirement partially due to the reverence its bearers held for its symbolic appeals to uniquely naval traditions, as well as its symbolic celebration of military merit, social rank, and class distinction. The cold steel of the sword has been permanently enshrined in marble at the Naval Peace Monument, which was erected in 1877 on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building. A dove (now missing) on the monument “once nested upon a sheaf of wheat in a grouping of a cornucopia, turned earth, and a sickle resting across a sword.” The sword is part of a monument that reminds viewers that “They died that their country may live.” Although the authority of the sword’s bearers was consistently tested, both on land and at sea, the sword’s featured placement on the monument stands as a lasting testament to the authority, influence, and distinction with which navy officers and the men they commanded served in order to ensure the successful prosecution of the Union war effort.


Bennett, Michael J. Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Eng, Matthew. ““Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”: The Civil War Navies in Public Memory.” In The Civil War in Popular Culture: Memory and Meaning, edited by Kreiser Lawrence A. and Allred Randal, 117-34. University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Peace Monument.” Architect of the Capitol. Accessed March 21, 2019.

Straw Hats, Sword and Scabbard, Sword-Belt, Sword-Knot, Buttons, Cravat.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Accessed March 21, 2019.

Symonds, Craig L., ed. Union Combined Operations in the Civil War. Fordham University, 2010.

Taaffe, Stephen R. Commanding Lincoln’s Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009.


To Remake a Man: Disability and the Civil War

By Cameron Sauers ’21

disability certificate.jpg
James Murray’s disability certificate. (via Gettysburg College Special Collections)

The above-pictured oversized sheet of paper changed the entire world of its possessor. With a disability certificate and discharge from the military in hand, disabled citizens who had not long previously been abled bodied servicemen went through a period of emasculation followed by a return to waged labor which redeemed their sacrifice. These disability certificates were issued in large quantities by the sprawling northern bureaucratic machines created by the Civil War. The above-pictured certificate, issued to James Murray of the 56th New York, discharged Murray from service because, according to his regimental surgeon, he would “never be able to discharge his duty as a soldier.” Murray stood 5’8″ when he re-enlisted for three more years in the unit on February 17th, 1864 at Beaufort, South Carolina. This certificate was issued to him less than a year later. Murray had fulfilled Victorian notions of manhood by serving in the military and satisfying his patriotic duty; however, this certificate ensured that James Murray never finished out his term of service, thus leaving his patriotism and manhood questionable to outsiders, and perhaps even to Murray himself. Disabled Civil War veterans faced much uncertainty when they reentered the civilian world with these certificates in hand. The Civil War had the power to make men, but it also had the power to break men. Disability certificates were a common piece of Civil War paperwork. They were issued in depressingly high quantities that must have taken a physical and emotionally high toll on clerks who had to create and fill out the form, but which fundamentally changed the ways in which their recipients and non-combatants viewed and interacted with former soldiers .

Federal disability certificates marked the end of military service and of individuals’ direct association with the federal government. Dischargement via this certificate was likely an intensely emotional experience as soldiers sought to wrestle with their new identities and new relationships with civilian society. However, these certificates also created a comforting sense of community for their many recipients who could bond over their shared journeys from soldiers to disabled citizens. Such certificates would be churned out following battles like the one at Deveaux Neck, South Carolina that ended Murray’s service, or the battle at Honey Hill just prior, which claimed 50 of Murray’s comrades as casualties. An office clerk had to sit and painstakingly produce stacks of these certificates as the post-battle casualty lists rolled in, escalating further the enormous amounts of paperwork generated by the war. Upon receiving this certificate, Murray may have been relieved that he was never again going to be thrown into the maelstrom of the killing fields, or alternately, perhaps he felt guilty that he was alive and receiving the disability certificate when many of his comrades had died on the field of battle. For some, the issuing of these certificates by clerks and surgeons confirmed the emasculation of soldiers who had been wounded. Murray had reason to be proud of his service, but he also may have felt guilt for not being able to serve until the completion of the war.

George W. Warner of Co. B, 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment with his wife, Katherine, and six children, Alice, Charles, George, Ettie, William, and Ruby in front of painted backdrop. (via Library of Congress)

Following the receipt of a grievous wound and the enusing disability certificate, many soldiers faced the question of how to inform their families that they were coming home. Some veterans who may have lost an arm had to rely on others to write the letter home from them. Such reliance symbolized the dependency on others that threatened to emasculate disabled veterans. Victorian values placed an emphasis on a man’s ability to contribute to society and perform labor, as well as a man’s ability to bring home wages that would provide for their dependents; yet with prosthetic technology still rudimentary, the disability certificate guaranteed nothing but uncertainty and doubt. Nonetheless, it was in everyone’s favor that disabled veterans be reintegrated into society. Without a guarantee of receiving Federal aid following their discharge, disabled Union veterans often sought out employment in whatever sectors of the regular workforce were willing to take on maimed men. When these certificates threatened to emasculate men because they prevented them from performing their traditionally masculine roles, disabled veterans instead often pointed to their war-inflicted disabilities to validate their heroic sacrifice, thereby recrafting their own narratives of war-time and postbellum masculinity.

Historian John Casey argues that Civil War veterans often used a return to employment as a way to push past the changes that had fundamentally altered them both physically and emotionally. Even though they had been issued a certificate labeling them disabled, veterans sought to prove that they were still masculine enough to work and provide for their household. Northern Civil War veterans sought to use wage labor, particularly autonomous professional identities such as farmer or salesman, to demonstrate that they were still capable of contributing to society and the enrichment of the nation and the free-labor society for which they had sacrificed so much. Individually, being able to work meant security for veterans’ dependents who had been rendered vulnerable by their patriarch’s physical disabilities and discharge from the federal payroll. More than just wages, work was a way for disabled veterans to regain a sense of self, dignity, and self-mastery over one’s household. Thus, while the disability certificate labeled veterans with a physical weakness over which they could have felt shame, many chose instead to combat that shame and the societal stigmas associated with physical disabilities by returning to the work force.

Disabled Vets
Group of veteran soldiers, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. (via Library of Congress)

For those who were unable to return to work, the disability certificate was just the first piece in a seemingly unending stream of paperwork. Following the disability certificate came all of the documents necessary to prove one’s worth of receiving a pension, which was a critical (if meager) piece of income. Federal pension benefits expanded greatly after the Civil War due to the larger number of veterans rejoining society who advocated for financial reimbursement for the sacrifices they made as soldiers. The first pension system paid a completely disabled – meaning they could perform no labor – private $8 a month, an amount that was continually increased to pacify veterans advocating for increased benefits. In 1879 Congress passed the Arrears Act, which allowed disabled veterans to receive in a lump sum all the pension money they had been eligible to receive since their term of service. The Arrears Act was a great relief to men like James Murray who had received a discharge on account of disability because it allowed them to regain money they missed out on due to delays in the pension system. For those who sought a disability pension, the original disability certificate was one of the important pieces of paperwork needed to prove that they had indeed been disabled and required the assistance of the federal government. The sheer number of disability certificates and the growing pension system created an expanded reliance on the federal government as a provider for its citizens while also solidifying the contractual agreement between veterans and the federal government that promised veterans (and their families) protection in return for service and sacrifice on behalf of their country. The 1890 Dependent Pension Act expanded the umbrella of disability to include disabilities suffered post war and old age, which further strengthened citizen and veteran relationships with the government.

Recognizing that pensions could never fully replace the potential loss of wages, the federal government embarked on its first program of hiring disabled Civil War veterans, which significantly opened opportunities for the disabled. For instance, Samuel Decker, who lost both arms in an explosion, found post-war employment as a doorkeeper at the House of Representatives. Decker had once been a wounded, young soldier receiving a certification of disability without a guarantee that his future would be secured. Similarly, The Sanitary Commission sought to secure for disabled veterans occupations that were less physically demanding, such as cigar making, mail delivery, hat manufacturing, newspaper sales, and teaching. Perhaps these jobs were not the arduous farm labor that many had experienced before the war, but they did produce wages to bring home to one’s family as well as a return of a sense of dignity and self-sufficiency, while still fulfilling a man’s desire to perform service to their government.

Samuel Decker (via Harvard Medical School)

When James Murray received his Certificate of Disability, his future was uncertain. While no record of Murray’s postwar employment can be found, perhaps he attempted to overcome his disability and rejoin the workforce. Perhaps his disability certificate helped him gain his much needed pension. With the disability certificate came the realization that the nation must aid, in some way, the Union veterans who had served the nation in its time of need. The realization that disabled veterans could still be functioning, contributing members of society helped shape the pension system and preferential hiring that serves as the foundation for modern day veterans’ benefits. The large number of disability certificates issued across all theatres of the war necessitated the creation of such a support system for veterans. Even though this certificate labeled men as “disabled,” the disabled veterans themselves were quick to prove that disability did not equate to uselessness or being a burden. As disabled northern veterans had to swap their military uniforms for civilian suits, they validated their manhood in the form of contributions to the free labor economy, household, and nation on whose behalf they had sacrificed dearly. Disabled veterans returned home to a rapidly changing world, one that threated to leave them behind. However, the post-war period experienced remarkable change as disabled Civil War veterans challenged existing cultural values of manhood and created a social safety net that attempted to prevent further degradation of disabled veterans and granted federal protection to, and validation of, those men who had sacrificed their bodies on behalf of the Union.


“56th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.” The Civil War in the East.

Casey, John A. “Veterans, Artisanal Manhood, and the Quest for Postwar Employment.” In New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late-Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, 48-73. New York: Fordham University, 2015.

Casey, John A. “The Glorious Burden of the Aging Civil War Veteran.” In New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late-Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, 104-29. New York: Fordham University, 2015.

Clarke, Frances M. “Suffering in Victorian American” and “Honorable Scars.” In War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North, 8-27, 144-174. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Civil War Index – 56th New York Infantry. Accessed February 15, 2019.

“Civil War Veterans.” NPR. Accessed February 23, 2019.

Goler, Robert I., and Michael G. Rhode. “From Individual Trauma to National Policy: Tracking the Uses of Civil War Veteran Medical Records.” In Disabled Veterans in History, edited by Gerber David A., by Shay Jonathan, 163-84. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.

Gorman, Kathleen. “Civil War Pensions.” Essential Civil War Curriculum. Accessed February 23, 2019.

Handley-Cousins, Sarah. “Come to the Dark Side: Disability as “Dark” Civil War History.” Nursing Clio. January 27, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2019.

Skocpol, Theda. “America’s First Social Security System: The Expansion of Benefits for Civil War Veterans.” Political Science Quarterly 108, no. 1 (1993): 85-116.

Fact or Fiction: African American Confederate Veterans

By Isaac Shoop ’21

black confederates
Photo of African Americans from a U.C.V. reunion in Tampa, Florida in 1927. (Courtesy of The National Civil War Museum.)

As an intern this past summer at The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I came across many intriguing artifacts. One of the artifacts that stood out to me most was the photo above, which I discovered when the museum’s CEO conducted a behind-the-scenes tour. When I look at this photo, I see, on the surface at least, a group of 13 African American men who are presumably Confederate veterans. Several of these men are dressed up for the occasion. Many are wearing ribbons, one man has a Confederate flag, and another has a trumpet. There are also two white men standing on the right side. Looking at this photo, I was fascinated by the possibility that Africans Americans would fight for the South.

The stamp at the bottom of the photo states it was taken at the United Confederate Veterans reunion in Tampa, Florida held from April 5th-9th, 1927. The South was still under the influence of Jim Crow in the 1927, and the two white men served as a reminder to me of the social, political, and economic control whites wielded over African Americans on a daily basis, as well as at UCV reunions such as the one captured in the image. As I continued looking at the photo, I couldn’t help but wonder who these men were and what story the photo was supposed to tell. The men may have been proclaiming that they were veterans of the Confederate Army, army musicians, or they possibly were ex-slaves attending a reunion at the behest of their former masters. The photo itself may have been orchestrated by white men to show the loyalty of slaves during the war and as proof that they supported the Confederate cause. Today, some people would use this photo as evidence that African Americans fought for the South and thus the institution of slavery.

Slavery was one of the major underpinnings of southern society on the eve of the Civil War, forming the foundation of the southern economy and political structure, and infiltrating the lives, either directly or indirectly, of nearly all classes of whites. When war broke out in April 1861 after the firing on Fort Sumter, the status of these slaves and their role in southern society expanded. Slaves were now not only instrumental on the home front in keeping plantations running and maintaining the economic backbone of southern society, but they were also a key component in the labor force of the Confederate military. As the white South rushed off to war, it was not uncommon to see a master take his slave to war to serve as his own personal aide-de-camp. The military also employed a large number of slaves to work as teamsters, hospital workers, cooks, and laborers who did anything from moving supplies to building fortifications. While these slaves accompanied the Confederate armies on their marches and battles, they were not considered soldiers or true defenders of the cause.

However, in the years since the Civil War, claims have arisen asserting that African Americans did fight as soldiers in the Confederate Army, and photos like this one have been cited as evidence. The earliest of these claims seemed to be offshoots of the Lost Cause mythology. By stating there were black Confederates, claimants attempted to show that the African American population of the South supported the Confederate cause, thus proving that the war was over states’ rights, and not slavery. Citing states’ rights as the cause of the Civil War then cast the South as righteous and moral. Historians often disagree with this argument, though, because numerous southerners themselves explicitly cited slavery as the cause of the Civil War. One only needs to look at Alexander Stephens’s infamous Cornerstone Speech for perhaps the most blatant example of such claims.

Although photos like the one above have often been used as evidence of black Confederates, scholars have been skeptical of them. Photographs like this one often raise more questions than answers when it comes to African Americans fighting for the Confederacy. To start, this image does not indicate what regiment these men supposedly fought in. That seems odd given someone painstakingly inscribed when and where it was taken. Although the 13 men seated on the bench are wearing medals and one is holding a Confederate flag, the sixth one from the left is wearing a ribbon that reads “Ex Slave.” Next to the “Ex Slave” ribbon is an American flag, which is quite intriguing considering these men were attending a U.C.V. reunion. The American flag may have been handed out as a symbol of the reconciliation between the North and South. A common thread of the Lost Cause involved Northerners and Southerners putting aside their differences and uniting under one flag; the American flag.

It is possible that these men were simply ex-slaves rather than Confederate veterans. These ribbons were likely handed out by whites to emphasize the African Americans’ formerly enslaved identities and to create the image that they were proud to be former slaves. Making this statement would play into southern whites’ argument that slavery was a paternalistic institution. We can see this racial divide in the photo by noting the whites are together in one corner of the photo and the African Americans take up the rest of the photo. There is no intermingling of the races in this photograph just like there was supposed to be no intermingling of the races in the Jim Crow South.

Close-up of “Ex Slave” ribbon. (Courtesy of The National Civil War Museum.)

The presence of Steve Eberhart, who is seated fourth from the left, is another indicator that these men were ex-slaves and not veterans. According to George Magruder Battey’s A History of Rome and Floyd County, Eberhart is a “slavery time darkey” who served with his master, Colonel Abraham Eberhart, on the west coast of Florida during the Civil War. Battey claims that Eberhart was the “mascot” of Confederate veterans in Rome, Georgia and that he entertained the crowds at Confederate veteran reunions. Why Eberhart and other ex-slaves went to Confederate veteran reunions is a mystery. They might have felt they could curry favor with the white population by attending and playing the compliant role of an ex-slave or maybe they were coerced into going. It is also possible that ex-slaves were able to make money from attending Confederate reunions and acting happy to be with former masters. Whites may have been accepting of these ex-slaves at reunions because, through them, they could reminisce about the days of slavery and what life used to be like. Some whites may also have seen this photo as proof of the loyalty of slaves, which again casts the Southern cause as moral and righteous.

Photos like this one have a lot to tell us in regards to the connection between African Americans and the Southern cause in history and in memory. It also raises numerous questions about the politics of Civil War photography that were often involved in the highly crafted staging of and iconography captured in images such as this one. While this photo poses still unanswered questions about the specifics who, exactly, the black men were who are featured so prominently in the foreground and why, for certain, they participated in this fascinating photo, the surrounding context of the image provides provocative and telling clues about the multiple uses of and meanings ascribed to the image by both its subjects and its viewers, past and present.


Battery, George Magruder. A History of Rome and Floyd County. Atlanta: The Webb and Vary Company, 1922.

Berry, Mary F. “Negro Troops in Blue and Gray: The Louisiana Native Guards, 1861-1863.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 8, no. 2 (Spring 1967): 165-190.

Coski, John. “Myths & Misunderstanding: Black Confederates.” The American Civil War

Smith, Sam. “Truth and Legend.” American Battlefield Trust.

Stephens, Alexander H. “Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861” in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc. vol. 1, ed. Frank Moore. New York: O.P. Putnam, 1862.

Getting In Touch with the Civil War: An Interview with Jason Phillips

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2019 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Jason Phillips, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University. He is the author of Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future (Oxford University Press, 2018), Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (University of Georgia Press, 2007), and the editor of Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South (Louisiana State University Press, 2013). His current research explores the material culture of Civil War America.

Jason Phillips[36311]
Dr. Jason Phillips
CWI: What windows into the long Civil War era does material culture open for us? How can material culture complement, or challenge, the knowledge that we can mine from more traditional elements of the historical record, such as primary source documents?

PHILLIPS: Studying material culture puts us in touch with Civil War Americans and their world in unique ways. The conflict and its aftermath created, circulated, and destroyed a vast material world of possessions, resources, buildings, and other things that people cherished, stole, lost, gave, or saved, because those objects signified their lives and sacrifices. When we visit museums and gaze at Civil War artifacts, we encounter these things. Each of them has a story to tell, a narrative that can be as compelling and human as any diary or letter. Of course, things cannot speak for themselves; their stories are not as forthcoming as documents. So we ask them questions. If we’re interpreting a bowie knife for example, where and how was it made, what was its purpose and design, who owned it, was it perhaps a gift or a battle trophy, did someone pose for a picture with it and why, where was it carried, what history did it “witness,” why was it preserved, and what did it mean to its owners? Answering these questions deepens our understanding of Civil War America by teaching us how people related to their physical surroundings, how they valued personal objects, and how they used the material world to forge relationships, express ideals, and fight enemies. These insights remind us that the Civil War was more than a clash of cultures and causes. It was a physical fight over tangible things.

CWI: What role has material culture played in your own personal research of the Civil War era?

PHILLIPS: My new book, Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future illuminates the material culture of Civil War America by studying things that people gathered and interpreted as portents of the coming conflict. When I started this project, I assumed visions of the future rested upon intangible fantasies or abstract fears. What could be more immaterial than the future? But as I started to research how Americans thought about the looming war, I learned that popular visions of the future relied upon material foundations. Worrying about and contending for real things, especially weapons including knives, pikes, and rifles, grounded Americans who fixated on tangible futures. Opposing sides of the sectional crisis stole and showcased their enemies’ weapons to disarm and unman the opposition and to prove their opponents’ malicious designs for the future. Diverse people coveted these weapons as omens and relics of the coming war. In the process, antebellum groups grasped these things to prove their prophecies of the looming conflict, just as postwar groups relied on historical artifacts and monuments to substantiate their memories of the past war.

John Brown Pike smithsonian[36312]
One of John Brown’s pikes (courtesy the Smithsonian)
CWI: Can you give us a preview of your upcoming conference talk on John Brown’s pikes?

PHILLIPS: John Brown brought almost a thousand pikes to Harpers Ferry, intending to circulate them to the slaves that he expected would gather and fight for his cause. When that army did not materialize and Brown’s attack failed, diverse Americans scrambled to acquire the pikes as historical artifacts, battle trophies, and portents of a looming civil war. As my research on the pikes deepened and I asked questions about them, I uncovered a much bigger story that began years before Harpers Ferry and continued long after Brown’s death. In each chapter of this larger saga, some form of the pike foretold a different kind of looming conflict—a frontier war, a class war, a race war, and a revolution—depending on who possessed it when and where. This tale contains a host of characters who encountered the pikes, some of them famous folks like J.E.B. Stuart and P.T. Barnum and others obscure but equally fascinating.

Overpriced Stamps and Mystery Pies: The Complicated Legacy of Civil War Sutlers

By Savannah Labbe ’19

A Civil War Sutler’s “Fruit and Oyster” Shack (via Library of Congress)

In every story, including ones about historical events, there are people who inevitably end up in the background. These people are ever-present but deemed unimportant to the story, like the Union Army sutler depicted next to his makeshift store above. Sutlers were merchants who would follow the Army around, selling the soldiers things they were not issued but might have wanted, such as paper and envelopes for writing home. The reason why the sutler is often left out of history is not just because they were only indirectly related to the fighting, but also because they were greatly disliked by most Civil War soldiers. Sutlers are commonly depicted as scum because they sold goods at exorbitant prices and often took a lien on a soldier’s pay. Soldiers saw sutlers as horrible people who were just trying to take advantage of the suffering and loss of war in order to make an easy profit. While this was true of many sutlers, they still provided an important and invaluable service to an overtaxed Union Army and their complicated legacy deserves to be discussed.

Although sutlers had been a feature of the U.S. Army long before the Civil War, they became significantly more important to army life during the 1860s. Prior to the Civil War, the sutler’s role was not as prominent in army life because the army was rather small, so providing enough supplies for the men was easier. Sutlers were also much more regulated in that they were subject to the articles of war and the rules and discipline of the army. For example, they were unable to sell alcohol to soldiers or keep their shops open during church services. However, this all changed during the Civil War. The army grew from under 20,000 men in the beginning of the war to over 2 million by the end of the war, and the war department was unprepared to supply all these soldiers. Sutlers stepped in to fill that gap, providing the soldiers with supplies that either the army did not provide them with or that the army just did not have enough of for every soldier. In the Civil War, sutlers provided soldiers with necessities for the first time instead of just miscellaneous goods. The sutlers were also now considered civilians who were not subject to army discipline or regulation, allowing them full control of what they sold and how much they sold it for.

Now free from army interference and enjoying a monopoly on the market, sutlers quickly began supplying soldiers with products at high costs. There was supposed to be only one sutler per regiment, although this was not strictly adhered to in practice. They were usually appointed by colonels, the secretary of war, or a political influence such as the governor of the state the regiment was from. Being the sutler of a regiment was a highly sought-after position and sometimes sutlers would even pay for this privilege since it was so lucrative. A sutler in the 15th Wisconsin reportedly made $100 to $150 in a day, a profit that could easily total $12,000 a year. Since Sutlers were the only ones who could sell goods to soldiers, they could essentially charge whatever they wanted. The sutler in the photograph above would have probably charged exorbitant prices for his goods, especially tobacco. Tobacco was highly coveted in the Union Army because most men smoked or chewed it, but the army did not issue tobacco rations. The Confederates were issued a plug of tobacco, but that was because tobacco was grown in the South and was more easily accessible. Since it was harder to come by in the North and it was not issued by the Union Army, sutlers would sell it to soldiers for ten times the normal rate. They also overcharged for postage stamps, which was highly illegal. Although the War Department attempted to put a stop to it 1862, sutlers continued to sell overpriced stamps. If the sutlers did sell stamps for the correct price, they would just increase the cost of paper and envelopes to make up for the lost profit.

Not only did sutlers overcharge, their goods were often of terrible quality. The sutler in the photo above is selling fruit and seafood, and it was important that the soldiers had access to fruit to prevent disease. However, the fruit and other foods sutlers sold often did more harm than good. For example, the sutlers were especially famous for their “pies.” These pies contained mystery meat and were often fried in condemned lard or grew rancid with age. One sutler made pies with meat from cats and dogs and sold it for 25 cents, $6 in today’s money. These pies not only landed soldiers in the hospital but sometimes even killed them. Due to these pies and other lethal products the sutlers sold, the doctors in the army became highly vocal against the sutler system because of the damage it caused to so many soldier’s health. However, despite being so dangerous, the soldiers loved these pies and it would have been a slow day if a sutler only sold 650 of them. The soldiers were often so starved of good food in the army that they would resort to eating whatever the sutler sold, even if it had the potential to do significant harm to their health. The sutler knew this and made sure to take advantage of it, not caring how it harmed the soldier.

While it may seem that the sutlers were just scum trying to make a quick profit, they did provide some important services, often at a great danger to themselves. Not only did they provide soldiers with necessities they could not get anywhere else, their establishments often provided a social center where soldiers could relax, gossip, and even gamble. This social center was important to the soldiers in that it allowed them to escape army life and the horrors of battle for a little while. The sutler’s shack in the photo above was probably one such establishment. It was made from wood, with a canvas top, indicating that it was a more permanent establishment in a place where the Union Army was camped for a long period of time. If the army was camped less permanently, sutlers would set up in tents or even sell from the back of a wagon. Sutlers would move along behind the army when it was on the march, risking their products to exposure, weather, and spoilage. They were also subject to the dangers of battle and raids, sometimes becoming casualties of battle or even taken prisoner by the enemy. Even if the sutler managed to escape unscathed, the enemy often raided sutlers’ stocks and took everything. They were also subject to raiding by their own troops. Soldiers regularly became angry with the sutlers, who could lien up to 1/6th of their monthly pay, leaving the soldier with even less money to pay for the sutlers’ overpriced goods. Often, soldiers would surround the sutler’s tent, cut the ropes holding it up and, in the confusion, grab everything they could. Commanding officers would seldom reprimand their men for this activity. For example, the 20th Maine raided its sutler’s tent and ate everything except for some nails and were not punished for it, due to the perceived necessity and justification for the “raid.” Now the sutler was out of stock and had lost a great deal of money. While it may seem that the sutler charged exorbitant prices just to make as much money as possible, in fact they often did it to counteract the great dangers they faced and the possibility of losing all their products.

The sutler in the photo above was part of this complicated history. He sold fruit for the soldiers, which if in good condition was something they needed desperately to supplement their army diet. However, the fruit and other goods that this sutler sold were overpriced and most likely not of good quality. For this reason, sutlers were often hated and are now largely forgotten about in today’s history. However, they were an ever-present part of the Civil War Army and because of this they deserve more attention in our studies of the war. The sutler was an integral part of the typical Civil War soldier’s everyday life in the army, even if they they maintained an ambivalent place in soldiers’ hearts. In unpacking their complicated legacy, we can more fully understand the intricacies, texture, and challenges of soldiering in Civil War armies.


Delisi, James T. “From Sutlers and Canteens to Exchanges.” Army Logistician 39, no. 6 (November 2007): 46–47. Accessed November 10, 2018.

McCormick, David. “Merchants Traveled with Civil War Troops.” Army Magazine 67, no. 1 (January 2017): 30. Accessed November 10, 2018.

Spear, Donald P. “The Sutler in the Union Army.” Civil War History 16, no. 2 (June 1970): 121–38. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Tapson, Alfred J. “The Sutler and the Soldier.” Military Affairs 21, no. 4 (1957): 175-81. Accessed November 11, 2018.

A Complete Transformation of Medicine: John Letterman’s Ambulance Corps

By Savannah Labbe ’19

A Civil War Ambulance Corps (via Library of Congress)

At first glance, the photo above does not seem to really depict much of any importance. It simply seems to be a photo of soldiers transporting a wounded comrade into a wagon. While these men were doing important work and giving wounded soldiers the chance to live, it does not seem as if they are doing anything revolutionary. However, the picture actually shows a radical improvement in medical treatment brought about by the Civil War. Looking back on the practices of Civil War Americans, many people tend to believe the Civil War was a particularly dark time in medical history, a time when doctors sawed off limbs to solve any problems and often did it with dirty instruments and no anesthesia. This idea of Civil War medicine is a misconception because most amputations were, in fact, done with anesthesia and the Civil War did introduce many improvements in the medical field. In fact, the Civil War can be seen as a turning point from more ancient practices of medicine to more modern practices. The fact that the Civil War was a turning point in medical history is evident in the Union’s development of ambulances and the ambulance corps, one of which is depicted in the photo above. The Union’s ambulance corps radicalized battlefield medical treatment, allowing the majority of soldiers to receive care much more quickly and efficiently, something the South never accomplished.

While the Union Army eventually developed efficient battlefield treatment like what is being displayed in this photograph, at the beginning of the war the medical department was disorganized, chaotic, and in need of much improvement. After the First Battle of Bull Run, wounded soldiers were left scattered over the field and most of them were eventually captured by the enemy. Although there were only 1,011 Union wounded, much fewer than in later battles, many of these wounded remained on the field for days and some were forced to walk all the way back to Washington D.C. just to receive treatment. Those who were unable to walk had to face days of suffering, exposure, and thirst, that would eventually lead to their death. This disaster within the Union’s medical department and its failed care for soldiers was not limited simply to Bull Run, but continued throughout the entire first year of the war. Doctors lacked supplies, many soldiers suffered from scurvy, and the wounded piled up waiting for transportation to northern hospitals. In addition, doctors and quartermasters were responsible for the management of the ambulance teams, which was not practical during battles as doctors could not attend wounded men and supervise the ambulances at the same time. Also, the quartermasters were often more concerned with supplies or providing transportation for high-ranking officers than providing the ambulance corps with the necessary wagons and horses they needed to perform their job. The early ambulance teams would have been nowhere near as organized and efficient as the team pictured above.

The significantly improved orderliness depicted in the photo was largely due to Jonathan Letterman, who was appointed medical director of the Army of the Potomac on June 23, 1862. He realized that an efficient system of care was a matter of life and death for the soldiers. The men in the photograph above were key players in the crucial first step in this system, rescuing the soldiers from suffering in the field and bringing them to doctors. This task of putting the medical department in order was a hard one. Out of an army of 103,000 men, Letterman found that 29% were listed as ill or unable to fight, most due to easily treatable illnesses. Letterman started by asking General McClellan for more medical supplies for doctors and a greater variety of foods for soldiers in order to prevent malnutrition based illness, like scurvy. McClellan not only granted these requests, but also issued a general order dictating that the quartermasters keep the soldiers well supplied with vegetables. While this was an important first step in the right direction, Letterman would soon radicalize the entire system for treating wounded. He set up a triage system, started the ambulance corps, and instituted standard operating procedures. The men carrying the stretcher and driving the ambulance in the photo above were taking part in this ingenious system. They were not only a part of an important moment in medical history, but they also ensured the efficiency of Letterman’s system, giving wounded soldiers a greater chance at survival than ever before.

Dr. Jonathan Letterman and his medical staff. Letterman seated furthest left. (via Library of Congress)

More soldiers were able to survive due to Letterman’s methods of organization, triage, and specialization. Once Letterman had obtained more supplies, he began reorganizing the ambulance corps to create teams such as the one in the photograph above that worked like a well-oiled machine. On August 6, 1862, he created an official ambulance corps in which the men therein were dedicated solely to ambulance work. Previously, soldiers just simply rotated through ambulance duty and were not specifically assigned to an ambulance team. Letterman structured the ambulance corps similarly to the army itself, with a captain as commandant of each of the infantry corps’ ambulance teams. A lieutenant would direct the ambulances for each division and brigade and a sergeant directed ambulances for each regiment. This organization solved the problem of who was in charge of the ambulances and allowed the doctors to focus on treating the wounded. Each regiment was allotted one transport cart and two ambulances and the officers of these ambulance crews were responsible for the training of crews, maintenance of vehicles and equipment, as well as the welfare of the horses. With the ambulances now under the sole control of the ambulance crews, the men in the photo above could focus on the most important part of their job: Healing the wounded and saving lives.

Not only were the ambulance crews better led, they also practiced improved care techniques, like the new triage system. Letterman designed this system to be three-tiered. First, a wounded soldier would be removed from the field on a stretcher and then loaded onto a wagon, as shown in the photo above. The soldier would then be brought to a field station close to the battlefield to receive initial treatment, which would be very simple, akin to first-aid treatment today. If the wound was not very severe, the soldier would just be administered to here and then sent back to his regiment. If a soldier needed more advanced treatment, he would be transported to a divisional hospital at the rear of the lines, which was the second phase of treatment. At this stage of the system, doctors would perform surgeries, extract bullets, amputate limbs, and anything else that the soldier needed, depending on the wound. The final stage was recovery, and many soldiers stayed at divisional hospitals for short-term rehabilitation. However, if the soldier’s recovery was going to be long-term and they needed more intense care, they would be moved to a general hospital in a nearby town or city. Patients could rest and recuperate in these hospitals that had more resources and better ensured the soldier’s recovery than a divisional hospital that was always swamped with critical injuries.

In conjunction with this system of care, particularly the second stage, Letterman also began the practice of medical specialization by mandating that only highly qualified and experienced doctors could perform amputations and surgeries. This specialization was important, as no matter how hard the ambulance crew in the photo above worked, it meant nothing if the doctor was not experienced enough to actually treat the wounded. Letterman’s new system of specialization and organization was first tested in 1862, after the Battle of Antietam. The system functioned well despite the vast amount of casualties. Ambulance teams cleared 12,410 casualties in less than 48 hours, which was a drastic improvement from Bull Run, when many wounded remained on the field days later even though there were fewer wounded. By the Battle of Gettysburg, the system was perfected and the Union ambulance corps was able to evacuate 14,193 Union and 6,802 Confederate wounded, providing treatment for them within three days of being wounded. Not one wounded soldier remained on the battlefield the morning after the battle concluded. This system’s success is evident in the fact that the Union Army’s mortality rate for those who died of wounds reduced drastically from 25.6% in the first year of the war to 13.3% after Letterman’s changes. This system was so much more effective that it was soon adopted by all Union armies as well as some European armies. In March 1864, Congress passed a law that officially established Letterman’s system for all Union armies.

War often has a significant impact on medicine, and the Civil War was no exception. With Letterman’s guidance, an efficient practice of battlefield care was established for the first time in the Civil War and the basic principles of this system would be used in many wars to come. For example, Letterman’s three-tiered system of field treatment, divisional hospital, and then general hospital was used extensively in World War II, with soldiers who were most seriously injured often being transported to Great Britain or even the United States to recover. The men in the photograph helped ensure the success of this system, and the actions they are performing are still performed today: Wounded soldiers are still removed from the battlefield on stretchers with critical efficiency and transported to hospitals for better, and often times life-saving, treatment. John Letterman revolutionized the field of medicine, and soldiers of the Civil War and all wars after are indebted to him. Letterman’s innovation is why this photo is so important. It shows the successful working of that system as well as an important moment in the history of medicine. The photo is also important for its multi-dimensional meanings and the many different feelings it evokes. The photo displays the inherent suffering and pain of the wounded soldier, surrounded by the chaos and confusion of the battlefield. However, the photo also symbolizes hope and healing; the opportunity for a wounded soldier to live another day. It is a testament to the efficiency and innovation of Letterman’s system, and the evolution of medical practice as a whole, ironically borne out of the widespread death and unnecessary sufferings inflicted by war on a nation unprepared for such brutality, that has come to save thousands of lives around the world since its inception.


“EMTs, Civil-War Style.” Civil War Times 45, no. 1 (February 2006): 74. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Place, Ronald J. “The Strategic Genius of Jonathan Letterman: The Relevancy of the American Civil War to Current Health Care Policy Makers.” Military Medicine 180, no. 3 (March 2015): 259–62. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Smith, Dale C. “Military Medical History: The American Civil War.” OAH Magazine of History 19, no. 5 (September 2005): 17–19. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Weirt, Jeffry D. “Dr. Letterman’s War.” Civil War Times 45, no. 7 (September 2006): 7–8. Accessed November 8, 2018.

Making Photographs Speak

By James Goodman ’20, Benjamin Roy ’21, and Cameron Sauers ’21

It has often been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Making that picture spit out those mythical thousand words, as we can all attest, is no easy task. Over the course of the first half of the fall semester, the three of us were tasked with developing brief interpretive captions for two Civil War photographs each, with the end goal to display our work at the Civil War Institute’s 2019 Summer Conference. What initially appeared as a simple project quickly revealed itself to be a difficult, yet rewarding, challenge that taught us all important lessons concerning history, photography, and writing that we will not soon forget. Producing the photography exhibit enhanced our skills as historical writers, introduced us to the challenge of writing for a popular audience, and deepened our understanding of Civil War photography.

Benjamin – The first image I worked with was taken by Alexander Gardner on the Rose Farm a few days after the battle. In the photograph, four South Carolina officers lay in a rubbish heap, set on the edge of the Rose property, far away from the home and outbuildings. In a grotesque state of bloat and mutilation, the four bodies are unidentifiable, which highlights the importance of the headboards that lay atop and beside the dead. The haphazard nature of how the bodies and headboards have been laid out offers important insights into the struggles of civilians after the battle. After the Battle of Gettysburg, civilians had to deal with mass casualties and the challenges it posed to their ideologies about death and warfare. Primary accounts from visitors to the Rose farm after the battle reveal that these four soldiers were likely originally buried near John Rose’s well. John Rose disinterred the four corpses in the image and relocated them away from his water supply to ensure its safety. Already swamped with some 500 dead scattered about his property, Rose did not immediately rebury them, but placed them alongside the rest of the refuse to be dealt with later. This was far from the proper 19th-century burial, which was a Christian burial effected by loved ones or comrades and culminating in a quiet, unassuming funeral centered on the memory of the individual. John Rose’s discarding of these attitudes, graphically captured in Gardner’s image, is indicative of how the horrors of war, exhaustion, and pragmatism came together in the decisions of civilians like John Rose that broke from strict 19th-century traditions for treatment of the dead.

My second image was another photograph of South Carolina dead on the Rose farm. Three rebel officers lay exposed in an incomplete grave. Horse-drawn carts on a sloping hill occupy the background and the bodies are slightly hidden by the walls of the grave, but viewers’ eyes are drawn to the headboards. 19th-century beliefs about death placed heavy emphasis on personal identification and the humanization of the dead. Comrades of the fallen sought to ensure a proper battlefield burial by identifying the fallen’s remains so that they might be retrieved, or even brought home for burial with all the correct ceremonies that 19th-century sentimentalism required. Although these dead soldiers were not buried by their comrades, nor were their graves mourned over by loved ones, the headboards and Gardner’s choice to feature them speaks volumes about the resilience of sentimental attitudes about death. The headboards and the identities scrawled upon them stand like lighthouses of sentimentalism amid a sea of the impersonal destructive forces of war. A 19th-century viewer could take this horror and comfort in equal measure in the image of these three South Carolina dead, knowing that although these men had died far from home and loved ones, they would be remembered.

Frequently while developing these captions, I confronted ideas about mortality and identification after death. The South Carolina soldiers must have confronted these questions regularly in the lead-up to their fate at Gettysburg. This same morbid reflection must have consumed most Victorian Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, as images like this hasty grave became commonplace and challenged some of their most cherished cultural tenets of death, as well as the meaning and cost of war. My thoughts also turned to the families of the soldiers, and what their reactions would be if they ever saw these images. Would they be outraged that their son had become the object of a northern voyeuristic curiosity? Working on these captions left me with more questions than answers. This project illustrated to me that it is impossible to comprehend all the questions these images ask, and that I can only provide the best answers from the sources at my disposal. Similarly, I may never fully understand the overwhelming experiences of John Rose in the wake of a great battle, nor how a broader northern audience made sense of the horror they confronted in the twin images of South Carolina dead from the Rose farm.

The three authors working with Ron Perisho, who generously provided the photographs for the project.

Cameron – For me, Civil War photography was what sparked my interest in the Civil War, so the opportunity to work on a photography-based project was truly an opportunity to relish. This project challenged me to look closer at these images and to dig deeper into the stories of the individuals photographed, both known and unidentified. The first of the two images that I worked with was from Alexander Gardner’s collection of death studies done near Devil’s Den. The image features one lone soldier lying on his back, with noticeable brain matter spilled out from his head and a posed rifle next to his side. The only background in the image is a rock. I had to piece together what I could about this individual: What unit was he from? When did he fall in the fighting? I only knew for certain that the soldier was a Confederate who died near the Slaughter Pen; everything else would have to be informed speculation based on Victorian norms.

At moments, it was emotional writing about the life of a soldier who might have been no older than myself when he fell in battle. When I finished the final draft of the caption, I went and found the location of the image. It was powerful and moving to visit the site of the image I had spent so much time with. That portion of the Slaughter Pen will never be the same for me when I visit the battlefield. Thinking about this image and all the other scenes from Gettysburg viewed by northern audiences who were so curious to catch a glimpse of the “real war” on camera, I wondered if they ever realized that the corpse captured in the image was someone’s loved one? Did they think about who this man was before the war and what led him to Gettysburg? Northern audiences may have seen the photo and thought they had experienced the war. Doubtless, the graphic image was profoundly troubling to many who held cherished ideas about the romance of war and the “Good Death.” Yet, as unsettled as these viewers may have been after gazing upon this gory image, the reality was that only those who participated in the fighting could truly understand the brutal experience of war.

The second image I worked with is a lesser known image taken by Frederick Gutekunst of a field hospital following the battle. The challenge of that image was an interesting juxtaposition to the other image. So much was already known about the numerous figures who appear in the image and who have published works about their experiences. Determining what narrative I wanted to focus on in my caption was difficult since there were numerous stories I could have honed in on. The experience of being able to explore the primary sources of individuals whom I had never previously considered, such as surgeons and nurses, provided a new depth to my understanding of the battle of Gettysburg and its impacts. The caption encouraged me to think about the experiences of those who were not traditional, rifle-carrying soldiers nor helpless civilians caught in the crossfire. They were humanitarians who willingly exposed themselves to danger to provide aid to soldiers on both sides of the battlefield. After the armies marched away, the army surgeons stayed with volunteer nurses to care for the wounded.

This photo also forced me to think more deeply about the specific message the photographer was trying to convey by depicting the hospital scene as he did, as well as the reaction he sought to provoke from his viewers. By photographing an array of tents and medical personnel milling about instead of the countless corpses lying on the battlefield, Gutekunst was trying to galvanize public support for Union soldiers and their caretakers: Many of Gutekunst’s images sought specifically to appeal to northerners’ patriotism as well as their purses in order to inspire civilians to donate money and supplies to the Union war effort. Such medical supplies and volunteers were essential to aid the brave wounded. By capturing the heroic surgeons and nurses, who stand in between the viewer and the gruesome scenes of a field hospital, Gutekunst showed the public the patriotic sacrifice of civilians, while sparing them the direct sensory affronts of the interior hospital scenes, in the hope that such an image might inspire others to similarly patriotic and self-sacrificing action.


James – This project presented a unique set of challenges for me. I tend to write in a leaner style and therefore needed to develop a more elaborate and interpretive writing style. I was also pushed to think more interpretively about my photographs, which had an extra layer of difficulty in that they were of landscapes, not people. I worked with two images photographed by Samuel Fischer Corlies, an amateur photographer from Philadelphia who did not arrive in Gettysburg until November 1863. The images I chose depicted destroyed landscapes at East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. In order to do justice to these photos, I needed to go beyond simply what was shown in them to what Corlies intended his audience to feel, including the pain felt by civilians and soldiers alike in the aftermath of the battle. Due to the lack of actual bodies extant on the battlefield by November of 1863, he allowed the natural landscape to speak for those impacted by war, with the scarred landscape embodying the long-lasting pain and destruction upon bodies, families, and livelihoods alike.

Corlies’s image of East Cemetery Hill depicts a war-torn, devastated landscape. The focal point was a trench dug by Federal troops, with pieces of lumber strewn haphazardly along the earthwork. The land around the trench, which was probably vibrant with healthy grass and vegetation before the battle, was desolate and trampled. Looking at the image, I could only imagine what the aftermath of the battle was like for the people of Gettysburg. The field in this photo looks as if it were completely destroyed. Huge quantities of earth were moved to create the defenses or for artillery fire. Crops were eaten or trampled by marching troops. With their homes, fields, and livelihoods ravaged and forever changed by the clashing of two great armies in July, the people of Gettysburg faced a new, somber reality. This point was even more poignant when I learned Corlies’s images were from November of 1863, four months after the battle was fought. At this point, the land was ripped apart once again as citizens of Gettysburg began exhuming the bodies of dead soldiers and relocating them to their final resting places in the National Cemetery or the South. By exhuming the soldiers’ bodies, the town essentially reopened its only recently closed wounds. It must have felt like the nightmare would never end, and yet that disruptive burial process, compounded by Lincoln’s address that same month, also sought to provide healing, comfort, and a higher meaning for the suffering endured by soldiers and civilians alike.

In the image of Culp’s Hill, Corlies again captured the battle’s long-lasting destruction. Culp’s Hill looks like a barren wasteland filled with the trunks of trees. The trees were either intentionally cut down to be used as defenses or fell victim to the Confederate attempts to take the hill. As with East Cemetery Hill, this devastation occurred on someone’s property. A private citizen was forced to clean up the carnage left behind. They saw trees that had been growing for decades cut down in mere hours. The image of bullet ridden and devastated trees on Culp’s Hill reflected a common sentiment in the Victorian Era to find human symbolism in natural landscapes, and in this case, compare the decimated trees to slain human bodies. As the trees were destroyed or felled in some way, it made sense that Corlies attempted to replace the bodies of soldiers that would have been present on the landscape months prior with these trees. It truly represented how quickly and deeply the battle’s destruction was inflicted on Gettysburg and how long it would take for the area to heal.


We have learned much from developing these captions. Our skills as writers have been keenly developed, as we confronted and surmounted the challenges of creating attractive and digestible captions for a public audience. Furthermore, we gained a deeper appreciation for an interdisciplinary approach to history, as it allowed us to make the unspoken contents of each photograph visceral again. As we struggled to piece together the background stories for these photos, we often wondered how future generations will view our own pictures. Will they get the story 100% right? Only time will tell. Our hope is that on this project we were able to successfully capture the stories that are represented in each photograph.