Gettysburg’s Stone Walls: Restoration or Rehabilitation?

By Kevin Aughinbaugh ’18

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Wirz’s Jewelry”: Memories of Captivity

By Jessica Greenman ’20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Stuff” of History: 2018 Pohanka Interns Explore Artifacts and Material Objects

Martin photo 1

Every summer, we feature posts on the blog that provide a behind-the-scenes view of what it’s like to work on the frontlines of history. Our contributors – Gettysburg College students doing summer internships under the auspices of CWI’s Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program – share their experiences giving tours of some of the nation’s leading historic sites, talking with visitors, and working with historical artifacts, educational programs, and archival collections. This summer, our Pohanka interns will be probing the way that interactions between historical actors (people) and material objects (artifacts such as objects, buildings, etc.) shape attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Student interns will be reflecting on the diverse meanings that 19th century Americans attached to material objects, and the way their interactions with these objects may have shaped or reflected their cultural attitudes, political or religious convictions, and/or daily practices. Students will also be considering how historic sites and museums can use artifacts to stimulate visitors’ thinking on the complex relationship between objects and the people who use them. Follow our summer “Pohanka Posts” series over the next few weeks to learn about the artifacts that have captured our students’ attention!