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 the author)

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 1851 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 1851 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 1851 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 Clauberg-Solingen of Germany. 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.

Detailing on the sword (photo via the author)

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.

Recording the Ruckus: Field Desks and Battlefield Administration

By Elizabeth Hobbs ’21

For most people, the American Civil War calls to mind images of artillery, bayonet charges, waves of blue and gray uniforms, and daring acts of bravery and heroism. What we forget, however, is that behind every shift in an army’s position or deployment of troops was a long line of administration. Effective communication, as well as accurate record keeping of supply and personnel movements, recording the order of events of each engagement, and documenting the number of men engaged and lost, was crucial to the safety of soldiers and the success or failure of the war effort. During the Civil War, with communication and transportation methods so limited, disorganization and mismanagement of troops and supplies could (and as many scholars believe, in the Confederate case, did) lead to the loss of the war . However, given the vast distances armies travelled and the sheer quantity of troops involved in the war, the successful communication and execution of operations during the war is incredibly impressive, and proved crucial to war efforts. Perhaps the simplest, but most effective, tool in this quest for efficiency was the officer’s portable field desk. With communication considered an utmost priority for officers on both sides, the two armies took measures to ensure the accessibility of materials to aid officers’ communication, like the issuing of field desks as camp necessities.

In a situation where the frequency of movement was uncertain, the survival of Civil War era field desks, despite the need to move quickly and the potential of capture, is incredibly impressive and provides insight into the “behind the scenes,” managerial nuances of the war effort. Survival of these desks proves to be even more remarkable when one considers the sheer number of recorded occurrences of the abandonment or capturing of material by both Union and Confederate troops, especially nearing the end of the war. The museum at Gettysburg National Military Park is home to one such desk, formerly the possession of Lieutenant John Wright of the 34th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

field desk
Lieutenant Wright’s portable field desk, currently located at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Although Wright served in an administrative position which entailed much writing, and documents are what most historians gravitate towards, it is the physical desk on which he conducted business which has ironically cemented his place in the historical record. Wright, who was from Lancaster County, started the war as a commissioned officer with the 34th Pennsylvania Volunteers. In the Spring of 1863, while the regiment was stationed as defense in Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Wright was promoted to Adjutant. This new role would have come with a significant increase in administrative duties, making his field desk all the more important to him. Wright would have handled thousands of records and pieces of correspondence, managing supplies and troops, with the written fates of men crossing his desk every day. At the end of June, Wright’s regiment joined the Army of the Potomac in the field, just in time to take part in the Battle of Gettysburg in July. During the course of their service, the 34th Pennsylvania lost 141 men to death, to wounds sustained in combat, and to capture. It’s possible that Wright himself reported many of those losses while sitting at his field desk.

Lieutenant John L. Wright, 34th Pennsylvania Volunteers

Though they varied in shape, size, and level of intricacy, field desks were essential to the internal operations of field headquarters on both sides of the war. While the function of an officer’s field desk seems self-explanatory on the surface, within the context of managing armies, it takes on a more significant role. The varied administrative duties of officers during wartime influenced every aspect of the war effort. The armies kept records of every weapon issued to soldiers, of soldiers themselves, and of each movement made by the many regiments. In attempting to keep all these records, officers were essentially creating a handwritten database from which they could pull information when developing new plans and strategies. Having this information could mean the difference between an officer implementing an informed tactical strategy that won the day, and a blunder that caused the loss of thousands of soldiers’ lives.

Officers also wrote personal correspondence to loved ones at their field desks . Anecdotes from their families served, for many, as a consistent reminder of why they put their lives on the line during each engagement. Private Silas S. Auchmoedy of the 120th New York Volunteers wrote to his mother on March 23rd, 1863 on this very topic. In his letter he said, “I had not received a letter from home in over two weeks & began to be discouraged, but Mother when I came into my tent & found a letter from home one from Kate & one from Eliza, you may bet I felt all right.” He goes on later in the letter to say, “I tell you Mother which will discourage a soldier more than to have folks at home say or think Well now I must write him today… they say well I will write tomorrow & so on. That is no way. Write often.” Writing to loved ones, and receiving letters in return, created a haven of sorts amongst the chaos and destruction which accompanies war. Without that connection to home, soldiers like Private Auchmeody suffered from low morale, which impacted their ability to perform in the field. Lieutenant Wright was no doubt equally as eager to hear from his own family and would have greatly enjoyed his stolen moments corresponding with them at his field desk.

Although administrative actions were largely successful on both sides of the war, there were many instances where administration failed. Some scholars have claimed that “the Confederate leadership… neither planned nor efficiently managed the war effort,” and that this administrative failure ultimately led to the defeat of the Confederacy. Despite efforts by the Federal government and the Missing Soldiers Office (founded by Clara Barton), as well as statewide efforts in the former Confederate states, thousands of men still went unaccounted for in the years following the end of the war. The unknown fates of these men haunted their families who didn’t know what had become of their loved ones and were unable to even take solace in knowing the final resting places of their sons and husbands. Prioritizing administrative needs was not always an option, though, as the war continued years longer than anticipated and casualty counts rose, forcing compromises and shifts in priorities, such as postponing record-keeping in favor of attempting to improve conditions in the moment.

Keeping up with administrative duties not only affected the war itself, but also our memory of the war. The importance of communication during the Civil War continued into the following decades as people began piecing together histories of the war, trying to portray events in as accurate a light as possible. Records that passed over the surfaces of field desks were, and still are, studied meticulously in hopes of preserving the narrative of the war within public memory. Following the war, there was mass communication from state governments to their veteran constituents, requesting that they provide their own accounts and recollections of the war in order to flesh out regimental histories and fill holes left by incomplete government records of the war. Inconsistent records of events were often corrected by the general consensus of men who were present and able to recall specific details from battles and campaigns. Due to the hectic nature of war, though, there are still countless gaps in information within records caused either by a loss of certain records, mismanagement of administrative duties, or general chaos which prevented accurate record keeping.

Pieces of material culture, such as field desks, currently serve as tangible reminders of aspects of the Civil War which are often forgotten in favor of remembering great generals and vicious battles. However, at its base level, the war was one fought not only on the battlefield, but in the countless pieces of correspondence that changed hands at every level. Whether it be field officers sending requests to their higher-ups in search of more supplies and aid, or men like Private Auchmoedy writing to their families in search of levity and motivation to get them through their next battle, efficient communication was a necessity to the war effort.


Auchmoedy, Silas S. 1862. “Letter from Silas S. Auchmoedy to His Mother, Dated Camp near Falmouth, Mar. 23, 1863.” Silas S. Auchmoedy Collection: Papers, 1862-1865, September, 027–028.

Bates, Samuel P., History of Pennsylvania volunteers, 1861-5; prepared in compliance with acts of the legislature, by Samuel P. Bates (Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869).

Clark, John E. Jr., Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and
Defeat (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2001).

“Gettysburg National Military Park, Camp Life: Civil War Collections”, Museum Management Program, accessed September 25, 2018.

Hess, Earl J., Civil War Logistics (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

Schlereth, Thomas J., Material Culture Studies in America (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 1999).

“U.S., Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865”, Provo, UT, USA:
Operations, Inc., 2010


The Perfect Vessel of Grief: Women and Mourning Photography

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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Unidentified girl in mourning holding a picture of her father. (photo via Library of Congress)

After her father died, the girl in the photo above went through a highly ritualized and formalized process of Victorian mourning. This process radically changed with the invention of photography in 1839. Now one could record the grieving process, which is what the photograph above accomplished. The photograph is a typical mourning portrait, depicting the mourner (the little girl in this case), with the photo of her deceased loved one in her hands. Like so many other photographs, this one recorded the grieving process, allowing loved ones to keep a piece of that person even after their death. 19th-century photographs also were often used to capture images of loved ones while they were dying. Photography was particularly apt for this kind of work as it was seen as a vessel of truth, intimately connecting the past and the present. 19th- century Americans realized that photographs told stories like few other objects could, and they used this storytelling ability to convey their emotions surrounding mourning.

Queen Victoria, after whom the Victorian era was named, went into deep mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Although mourning was already an important part of people’s lives before Albert’s death, it became even more so due to Queen Victoria’s highly public and drawn out mourning process, which was aided by the invention of the photograph. Mourning was such an important process because death was a constant feature of life in the 19th century. Disease, an overall lack of understanding of how to treat illnesses, and poor sanitary conditions shortened the average lifespan to about fifty years old. Due to the constant reality of death, funeral and mourning practices became an important aspect of everyday life. When someone was expected to die, their house would be draped in black crepe to let everyone know the family was expecting a death. The family would often prepare for death by taking portraits of the dying person. These portraits would later be sent out as part of memorial cards, informing one of the funeral and providing them with a keepsake to remember the dead by. In addition, the family would often take photographs with their deceased loved ones, especially infants, to further commemorate their life and passing.

After the death, women especially became vessels of grief. Women were thought to be more emotional and sensitive, so it was particularly their job to express their emotions over the loss of a loved one. They wore black, as well as jewelry specially made for mourning which would include a picture of the deceased on it. It was also common to include a lock of the deceased’s hair in the mourning jewelry. The child in the picture above is already preparing for her role as a mourner, which would only become more circumscribed as she aged. She is dressed in all black, is wearing mourning ribbons, and holds a picture of her father, who died in the Civil War. Although she is young, she is already learning how one dresses, acts, and behaves while grieving, as well as performing a central part of the mourning process.

An integral part of mourning processes like the little girl’s was the mourning portrait. These portraits did not begin with the invention of photography. In fact, many portrait companies were created to produce lithographs of the mourning process, such as the company that would come to be known as Currier and Ives. These lithographs usually depicted women in full mourning next to a tomb, which was oftentimes topped with an urn. There also was usually a weeping willow and a church in the background. These images typically showed women in exaggerated poses of sorrow, draped over the tomb next to them. Women were in these poses because mourning was very public; one had to show they were deeply aggrieved by the loss of their loved one. If women did not show their emotion, it was thought that they were cold and uncaring about the death of their loved ones. Since it was women’s jobs to mourn and be emotional, not doing so would have been considered a social faux pas. However, a woman could not be too emotional either, as that would have been unseemly for an era which also called for personal restraint in public. Not only did they have to “perform” their grief, but they also had to record it. They would hang these lithographs, and later, photographs, on the walls next to a portrait of their loved one, forever immortalizing their loved one’s death and their own grief at the dead’s passing. The photograph of the little girl is a continuation of the lithography process in a new medium. Now all at once, the girl has a picture of her father and of herself mourning her father.

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A typical mourning print done by Currier and Ives. (image via Library of Congress)

Photographs radically changed the mourning process because people saw photographs as somehow more truthful and organic than other artistic depictions, such as paintings. While it is true that the process of taking a photograph was staged, the photographer still could only capture material realities. One could not just add things into photos that were not actually there, at least not in the 19th century. In addition, by staging the photos in a certain way, people felt like they were able to convey a deeper truth and reality, unlike they could in paintings. Victorian Era Americans also believed that by looking at a photograph of someone you could see into their soul and see what they were feeling at the moment the photo was captured. A photo could therefore authenticate a moment in history, which was why photography became so important to the mourning industry, so much so that people built businesses out of traveling and taking mourning photographs. Mourning photographs served as proof of the mourner’s deep sorrow, more so than a lithograph ever could. The girl in the photograph has a haunting expression on her face and she looks much older than she actually is. The photo served to capture her emotion and the fact that she was forced to grow up by losing a parent long before any child should. Her father will always be with her though, and will never be forgotten, as is evident by the way she clasps his photograph to her.

The photograph was also important in mourning practices because it could capture the visual attributes of the deceased, either in the process of dying, or just before. On the brink of death, people were supposed to be resolute and accepting of their fate and if their face showed this in the photograph, family members would know that their loved one was going to heaven. The photograph, therefore, became a vessel for memory and a way to remember a loved one. Before the invention of photography, people only had an article of clothing or a toy to remember the deceased by. Photography now allowed loved ones to have a memento of the loved one’s appearance, which played a role in both the public and private mourning process. The girl in the photo could always remember specific details about her father’s appearance or demeanor, as she had a photograph of him. In addition, her father’s death no doubt served as a political statement and evidence that he fought and died in the name of the Union’s just cause. Such mourning photographs of Civil War dead thus played a significant role in perpetuating key, familiar tenets of 19th-century sentimentalism—that death, and familial grief for a loved one served a higher, patriotic purpose in which those who were left behind should take comfort. Therefore, not only did this specific image allow the little girl to remember her father’s death; she could also remember how she herself felt after his death, as she also had a picture of the mourning process. The photo was a way of transporting her into the past to ensure that she would never forget her father, the higher purpose for which he died, or his guiding influence.

Mourning photography fulfilled similar needs for many other families of the deceased, especially during the deadly years of the Civil War. In this way, the technology of photography was able to radically and rapidly change the mourning tradition. People quickly noticed and took advantage of the capacity for photography to capture landmark moments in history by capturing “truth,” be it all natural or staged for even greater or “more truthful” effect. In addition to providing a window into 19th-century mourning practices, this photograph also serves as a testament to how technological innovations throughout history have helped to better connect past and present, and affect sweeping cultural changes.


Bedikian, Sonia A. “The Death of Mourning: From Victorian Crepe to the Little Black Dress.” Omega: Journal of Death & Dying 57, no. 1 (May 2008): 35–52. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Grootkerk, Paul. “American Victorian Prints of Mourning.” Southeastern College Art Conference Review 11 no. 4 (1989):276-283. Accessed October 1, 2018.

McConnell, Kent A. “Photography, Physiognomy, and Revealed Truth in the Antebellum South.” Southern Quarterly 52, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 32–53.

“The Custom of Mourning During The Victorian Era.” Nps.Gov. Last modified 2018. Accessed October 1, 2018.

To Liberty, Honor, and…Cufflinks?: The Grand Army of the Republic

By Savannah Labbe ’19

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Grand Army of the Republic cufflink. (via Special Collections at Gettysburg College)

Borne of the Civil War, one fraternal organization quickly assumed such great authority that it re-shaped cultural prescriptions of manhood, dictated the northern public’s memory of the war, and even influenced presidential elections. This organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), was formed in Illinois in 1866 by veteran Benjamin Franklin Stephenson and its number of posts in the United States quickly increased. In order to be a member, one simply had to be a Union veteran. By the 1890s, there were 7,000 GAR posts around the country; approximately 1.3 million men, half of all Union veterans, were group members. Members would have worn these cufflinks, or more commonly, the badge with the same image on it, as status symbols. They purchased these cufflinks and badges not merely so that they could have another piece of jewelry, but so they could show everyone that they were one of the heroes who fought for the Union, one of the brave soldiers who were now part of the most powerful veterans’ organizations in the United States. Being a member of the GAR meant one had participated in one of the greatest wars of modern times (so they thought). In addition, these accessories indicated that one had not only participated in that war, but that he had fought on the right side– the side of liberty and freedom. These cufflinks became a symbol of one’s martial manhood, proving that one had served with courage and honor while fighting for a just cause. In this way, the GAR promoted its own history of the war– what is now known as the Treasury of Virtue. Similar to the Lost Cause narrative, it promotes a biased interpretation of history, in this case from the northern perspective. According to this narrative, all northern soldiers were noble, honorable, and heroic men who triumphed because they fought for the righteous goal of emancipation.

The imagery on the cufflinks also served to highlight the ideas of moral righteousness and martial fraternalism that the GAR tried to foster within its members Lady Liberty can be seen in the background–yet another concrete reminder that Union veterans had fought for a virtuous cause. A soldier and a sailor clasp hands in front of Lady Liberty, which symbolizes fraternalism, one of the goals of the GAR tried to promote. These cufflinks would have made it easier for men to recognize each other as fellow brothers-in-arms: They would know immediately that the man they had just met had gone through the same experience they had and would understand it as no one else could. It is hard to relate the horrors of war to someone who has never been through it, and the GAR provided an outlet for former soldiers to express these horrors and know that those around them would understand and empathize, instead of simply pitying them. Amidst the fraternal comfort of the GAR, that strict veil of 19th century manliness could be pulled aside; veterans could realize that they were not the only ones who had felt scared in combat or had been wracked with guilt over killing a man. To help facilitate these connections between veterans, the GAR held local, regional, and national meetings in which they would sit around campfires singing war songs and telling stories. Not only did this serve as a sort of therapy for the men, but it also allowed them to reminisce and be proud of their actions and the fact that they were part of so great a cause at so important of an historical moment.

Two figures kneel before the soldiers on the cufflink. Scholars debate over who these figures are supposed to represent. Some believe they are two orphan children, while others believe they are slaves. Either one would make sense. The GAR set up a fund to help widows and orphans and they also helped set up many homes for orphans. These activities went hand-in-hand with another goal of the GAR– that of charity. The GAR believed that those who had fought and died for the Union deserved proper care for their families. The government was hard-pressed to provide pensions for veterans, let alone to provide for the families of the fallen, so the GAR took this task upon itself. By doing so, members set an example, showing that veterans and their families deserved to be rewarded for their sacrifice, and thereby declaring them members “worthy of charity.” It is also equally plausible that the figures in front are slaves because GAR members liked to promote an image of themselves as the liberators of the oppressed.

The GAR used its moral authority of being on the side of righteousness to try to control the memory of the war. The GAR funded many Civil War memorials and monuments in order to promote its version of history. For example, in Arkansas, a state divided in its loyalties and with many more Confederate monuments than Union ones, the GAR made sure to make its presence known. The inscription on one of the three GAR monuments in Arkansas proudly proclaims that the Union soldiers’ “sacrifices cemented our union of states and made our flag glorious forever.” Not only did the GAR remember the Civil War through monuments, but it also started the official tradition that came to be known as Memorial Day, (though many others, particularly Southern women, had been observing similar days since the war ended). Originally known as Decoration Day, the commander-in-chief of the GAR designated that May 30, 1868, would be a day for the decoration of Union graves. 31 states adopted Decoration Day as an official state holiday by the next year. This ensured that those who had sacrificed their lives for the Union cause would never be forgotten. In addition, it also served as a reminder that those living veterans who would proudly wear their cufflinks to these events to publicize their fraternal identity, deserved to be rewarded for their services.

In order to fight for what they believed veterans deserved, especially pensions, the GAR became a very political body. After the Civil War, it was difficult for a president to be elected or even win a primary without the endorsement of the GAR. The GAR became a political arm of the Republican party, lobbying for certain presidents and political candidates. It was not until 1885 that a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected president. However, Cleveland was not able to win immediate reelection because he vetoed a pension bill, which made members of the GAR angry . The GAR was very concerned with the welfare of veterans, and because of this they focused their lobbying efforts on obtaining pensions for veterans and their families. When politicians vetoed or opposed pension bills they were sure to feel the wrath of the GAR. Before the formation of the GAR, soldiers did not really take a large role in politics. Americans held that the ideal soldier was first and foremost a citizen and as such they should not take a role in government affairs. Americans were all too familiar with the unruly armies in Europe who did not protect the citizens but instead fought for money and power. American soldiers tended to return quietly to private life after they were done fighting because of this fear. The GAR, in contrast, was openly political and fought for what they believed they were owed.

This cufflink was much more than just a piece of jewelry. It was a way for comrades to identify each other and immediately bond over shared wartime experience . As such, it promoted camaraderie, friendship, and healing among veterans. Those who wore it were immediately identified as a member of a heroic class, and the white, northern veteran became the new model of honorable manhood. This cufflink also helped the GAR shape the memory of the Civil War. Its symbolism reinforced the idea that the Union had fought a just war that had saved global democracy and liberated an entire race of people. Additionally, the monuments and the traditions that the GAR started helped to promote a distinctly northern memory of the war, its causes, and consequences . As is evidenced by the actions of those who proudly wore these cufflinks, the post-war years were not, contrary to popular belief, all about reconciliation and a “forgive and forget” attitude; both sides tried passionately, and for many decades, to assert their own particular memory of the war. While the GAR was a veterans’ organization, it also became a political lobbying group. For the first time since the American Revolution, citizen soldiers became a tightly organized interest group dedicated to reshaping the political life of the country. No longer retreating back into their post-war private lives, these veterans but became directly involved in national politics, fighting for the material benefits and respect they believed they deserved in return for their sacrifice.


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