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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Sources:

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: Ancestry.com
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.


Sources:

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.


Sources:

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Christ, Mark K. “Arkansas Listings in the National Register of Historic Places: Grand Army of the Republic Monuments.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 77, no. 1 (Spring2018 2018): 67-73. Accessed September 16, 2018.

O’Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. ““When Johnny Comes Marching Home”: The Emergence of the Grand Army of the Republic.” In To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism, 29-48. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

“The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies (Main Reading Room, Library Of Congress)”. Loc.Gov. Last modified 2011. Accessed September 16, 2018.

“Where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty”: The Bible as a Vessel for Remembrance, Guidance, and Self-Understanding during the Civil War

By Savannah Labbe ’19

bible
The Bible of Lewis Tway

 

Courage, guidance, family, strength, self-understanding, and survival: These are just a few of the things that this Bible represented to the soldier who carried it. For Private Lewis Tway of the 147th New York Volunteers, this Bible provided a tangible link to all these things—a way to make sense of the at-times non-sensical chaos and carnage of war, a way to grow, learn, and adapt to the infinite physical and spiritual challenges of soldiering while still firmly rooting Tway in the foundational people and principles that gave his life meaning. Tway’s engagement with this Bible was never static; the evolution of that engagement, coupled with the multiple meanings that this Bible took on throughout the course of the Civil War were instrumental in shaping, and re-shaping, the man who carried it.

21-year-old Lewis Tway enlisted in the 147th New York in July of 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and was discharged in July of 1865. The 147th saw heavy fighting in between: The Battle of the Wilderness, the Mine Run Campaign, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg were just a few of their major engagements. This Bible was carried through the carnage of those battles in Tway’s pocket. Soldiers had to carry everything with them wherever they went. Though merely a palm-sized New Testament, this Bible would have meant extra weight for Tway to carry, but he found it important enough to do so. Its black leather binding worn to brown in some places from constant use, the Bible conveys a sense of constant companionship and consultation for Tway. It has a latch in the front that Tway would have to consciously remove to open it, but he did so time and time again. On the front page, he wrote his name and his regiment, which would have served as a type of dog tag in the case of his death—no doubt a comforting notion to a soldier who would be fighting hundreds of miles away from home and family. It also had blank pages in it which Tway could use as a sort of journal and a place to reflect on his experiences of warfare.

The text of the Bible is very small, but Tway marked up a lot of the passages in it that resonated with him, even writing notes in the margins. Tway’s notes bear witness to the emotional and spiritual challenges he confronted as well as his evolving perspective on those challenges. For example, he circled in pencil, 1 Corinthians 15:20, which refers to the resurrection of Christ, and he writes the word “easter” next to it. He may have been reading this and remembering the comforts of home and how he attended Easter services before the war began, as well as how he celebrated the holiday with his family. Making such notations may have also been a way for Tway to get his mind off the horrors of war, by really thinking about and examining each verse and attempting to understand what they meant in the broader context of the Bible as well as the context of his life as a soldier. From instances like these it is obvious that Tway dedicated time to reading the small text of the Bible and reflecting on it and how its message intertwined with the realities of his daily life. As exhibited in Tway’s notations, Tway appears to have turned to the Bible for self-understanding and as a coping mechanism during some of what were likely the darkest, most confounding days of his life.

For men like Tway, the Bible was not simply a holy book, but a piece of home they could carry with them. Many men received their Bibles as gifts from family members or dear friends. While it is unknown how Tway received his Bible, he most likely got it before leaving home. Judging by how worn and well-loved the Bible looks, it was one of Tway’s most cherished possessions, perhaps one that was a reminder of who was waiting at home for him. While he was not married until after the war, he did have a sister that he was very close to and who was one of the few people he wrote to during the war. The Bible was a piece of home for Tway, a reminder of his sister and other loved ones for whom he was fighting, and who were waiting for him to come home. Along with this Bible, he also carried a picture of a little girl, possibly his sister, which would have complemented the Bible as a visual reminder of whom he was fighting for.

The weight of the Bible in Tway’s pocket also served as a reminder to keep the faith and resist the many temptations of army life, such as alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Religion, especially Christianity, was a powerful force in the lives of most 19th century Americans. They went to church every week and looked to the Bible for all forms of moral guidance and teaching. It was essential not to stray from those teachings, which was why so many soldiers, such as Charles O. Varnum of the 40th Massachusetts, were warned by their parents to be wary of temptation in camp. Such calls for caution were not unique to the Union. On the Confederate side, Carlton McCarthy’s likewise father said he would rather see his son dead than hear tales of his immorality. The army had long been known as a place of temptation and these fathers were correct in voicing concern over their sons’ moral health. The physicality of the book in Tway’s pocket served as a constant reminder from home to never stray from the teachings of the Bible that so strongly undergirded so many elements of Victorian society.

Tway also probably found himself looking to his Bible often for religious advice or guidance in the midst of a war where God often seemed quite absent amidst the constant and horrifyingly brutal deaths of friends and comrades, who succumbed not only to battle wounds but to debilitating diseases. Tway wrote in a blank page of his Bible, “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” He may have been trying to fortify his own courage by reminding himself that constant faith in the Lord would liberate his own soul, both to perform great acts of courage in battle and to reach the gates of Heaven. However, by writing this notation in the midst of war, Tway may have been suggesting that he believed the spirit of the Lord was with the Union and on the side of liberty, and thus also with Tway, as a soldier in blue. His notation also may have referred to the liberation of slaves, as he joined the army after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Thus, Tway may have been reflecting on the political aims of the war through the lens of the Bible which, for many, imbued the Union cause with a comforting sense of sacredly ordained responsibility.

Like Tway, people on both sides of the conflict used the Bible as justification of their cause. The South tended to take a literal approach to the Bible, citing its many references to slavery as proof that God condoned slavery. The North tended to interpret the Bible less literally, saying that the characteristics of God as depicted in the Bible proved that He would not condone slavery. Due to passages found in the Bible, both sides believed that God was on their side and that He supported their cause. Indeed, not only soldiers, but entire armies felt that they were carrying out God’s will. For example, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Civil War song, is a deeply religious song written by a northerner who believed that the Union Army was doing God’s work. The North was on a Christ-like mission, according to the song: “As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The Bible was proof that the war and the killing necessitated by it were acceptable to God. Thus, the Civil War transformed the Bible into much more than a book that one looked to for moral guidance. It became a moral justification for all the killing and carnage that went along with the war. For the North especially, the war took on an increasingly religious cause, with the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves raised to a holy mission. Many northerners thus ultimately interpreted the war as a conflict fought under God’s will for the North and the Union’s great “democratic experiment ” to win and the oppressed to be freed, not merely a war to reunite the states.

Similarly, Tway seemed to have looked to the Bible for constant reassurance that his actions on the battlefield were indeed compatible with, and justified, by God. He marked Mark 10:17-20 in which a man asks Jesus what he has to do to achieve eternal life and Jesus answers that he must keep the commandments, one of which is not to kill. Tway was unable to keep this commandment during the war, but he seemed to have reconciled this fact both with the comforting knowledge that the cause in whose name such killing occurred was morally justified, and with other, specific verses in the Bible that gave more personal comfort. One of these, was Luke 15:7, which reads “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” As long as he repented, Tway knew he would still have a place in heaven. Tway was not the only soldier who worried about the apparent contradiction between soldiering and moral living; many dealt with immense guilt over the fact they had to kill their fellow human beings, even if they were the enemy. For these soldiers, the Bible provided moral guidance on how one could still achieve salvation.

In addition, the Bible also provided soldiers with temporary salvation from their present mental hell. Soldiers were constantly aware of the fact that they could die at any moment, which caused immense anxiety and depression for many. Tway became so preoccupied by the eventual reality of his own death, that he even wrote his own obituary after the war was over. This suggests that the war changed Tway by awakening him to the reality and eventuality of his own death. With death being a possibility every day during the war, Tway realized that it was similarly possible after the war and he made sure to take control of how he would be remembered. Many soldiers faced this same reality of possible death, especially before a battle; some looked to the Bible, praying that they would make it through safely, or praying for the strength to accept the Bible’s teachings about the preordained nature of death. Others looked to it after battle, as a way of coming to terms with the horrors they had witnessed and the carnage in which they had participated. For those on the verge of going into battle, carrying a Bible provided a sense that God literally was “by their side,” especially if one made it out of that battle alive and in one piece, which often caused immense gratitude towards God. The moral fortitude and sense of peace that many soldiers derived from the Bible also gave soldiers courage and the strength to face the prospect of death. This was especially necessary in a society where displays of cowardice could impugn both a soldier’s masculinity and sense of honor. Although Tway survived the war, he was wounded badly enough at the Battle of the Wilderness to receive a furlough so he could recover at home. The fact that he survived such a terrifying experience likely would have filled him with gratitude toward God and deepened the sense of personal closeness he felt to his Creator. Indeed, Tway likely clung to this very Bible not only during, but after his recovering as an act of devotion to God, who had saved his life.

Bibles were also used as momento mori, objects proving the soldier had died a “good death.” Achieving the “good death” was essential for 19th -century Americans. One was supposed to die at home, surrounded by family, and demonstrating a preparedness for death. It was believed that the last moments before death were reflective of what that person’s afterlife would be like. For instance, it was thought that if a person were to die screaming, they would be sentenced to perpetually scream in the afterlife. Screaming was a sign that the deceased was not prepared for death nor resigned to God’s will, so their place in heaven was uncertain. With soldiers fighting hundreds of miles away from home, and facing unimaginable horrors and prolonged suffering , the good death was hard to come by on the battlefields of the Civil War. Thus, surviving soldiers constantly struggled to justify the death of a fallen comrade when writing to his family. Families wanted to hear that their soldier had died a heroic death, and was calm and serene at the end, accepting of his fate. When no one was around to see how the soldier died, momento mori served as hints as to if the soldier faced death with bravery and acceptance or cowardice and denial—hints that fellow comrades could convey to family to comfort them in their grief. A Bible was an important momento mori because it showed that the deceased was a believer and had held onto his Bible until the last second, proving that he had accepted God’s will. If Tway had died during the war, his Bible would have helped assure his family that he had a place in heaven. Although Tway survived the war, his Bible likely still played an important role in how he remembered and internalized his wartime experiences. An active member in postwar veteran’ organizations, Tway clearly derived great pride and meaning from his military service. Such meaning was deeply shaped by the religious lens through which he had understood his soldiering experience and the war, its causes, and its consequences. His Bible had helped him, physically, morally, and spiritually survive the war and ensured that he could help contribute to the restoration of the Union and the liberation of four million souls.

Tway
Lewis Tway

As is evident, the Bible took on many meanings for Tway and many other Americans during the war, and it helped shape the wartime experiences and worldviews of soldiers in camp and on the battlefield. Tway used the Bible, as many other soldiers did, as a lens through which to view his experience and explain what was happening to him. The Bible was able to affirm for him that, while what he was doing was technically a sin, he could still earn a place in heaven should he kill in the name of liberty, and repent sufficiently for taking a life. For many other soldiers, the Bible provided the same comfort in the face of battle and possible death. It provided them with courage to face the ensuing carnage and an explanation as to why they deserved to live when so many of their friends had died. For these soldiers and Tway, the Bible helped shape their wartime experiences and provided them with hope, courage, and guidance amidst a kind of carnage and death they had never experienced before.


Sources:

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “‘This Is My Last Letter to You’. (Cover story).” Civil War Times 47, no. 1 (February 2008): 28-35. Accessed September 3, 2017.

MacDonald, G Jeffrey. “Gettysburg Museum Looks at Faith Roles in Civil War.” The Christian Century 130, no. 17 (August 21, 2013): 17. Accessed September 3, 2017.

Miller, Randall M. “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis: A Comment.” Fides Et Historia 39, no. 2 (Sum 2007): 13-22. Accessed September 3, 2017.

MS-011: Lewis Tway Collection. Gettdigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA. Accessed September 10, 2018.