The Shifting Meaning of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road

By Lillian Shea ’21

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

The part of the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road running through Appomattox Court House holds various meanings for those that have used it through the years.  The early 19th-century inhabitants of Appomattox Court House viewed it as the source of prosperity for the town.  By connecting the two wealthy cities of Richmond and Lynchburg, it ensured a steady flow of traffic that would spur construction of the town’s first building, the Clover Hill Tavern, in 1819.  Without the road, many of the non-agricultural businesses in the community could not function, thus making the road instrumental to the town’s success. In 1854, a railroad stop was established 3 miles west of the town.  The road which had once been a source of prosperity spelled the town’s death sentence as people chose faster and smoother train travel over the stage road.  Taverns went out of business and the population of 100 people in the 1860s decreased to just 10 by the 1890s.

Shea Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road
The author speaks to a tour group along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road. Photo courtesy Lillian Shea.

The Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road held a different meaning for the Federal and Confederate troops that followed it into the village on April 8th, 1865.  The road saw two days of fighting starting on April 8th and ending on the 9th with Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.  For the men involved in these last, desperate battles of the Civil War, the road reminded them of the deaths of their comrades along with the battles that they had fought throughout the entire war.

Beyond being a place of death, it was also a site of acts of respect.  On April 9th, the road literally led both generals to the surrender meeting that ensured generous terms for the Army of Northern Virginia. On April 10th, Lee and Grant met for a second time on horseback, this time on the road.  In this meeting, Grant offered Lee’s men parole passes to ensure safe passage home, rations, and transportation.  April 12th saw the Stacking of Arms ceremony.  Fifty-five thousand Federal infantrymen lined the stage road and saluted the Confederates as they laid down their guns.  The Confederates returned the salute.  Exhausted by the fighting and grateful for the generosity displayed on the stage road, these men were ready to go home along that same road and prepare for reunification.

Even though we at the park focus on the road’s former uses, it is still active today as a pathway into the past, leading visitors through the town’s history. No longer connecting two major cities, it now connects the past to the present. Rangers describe the deep ruts and blood red mud which characterized it 150 years ago, much different from the level, tan gravel of today.  Rangers use the soldiers’ own words to describe the men weeping from relief and others embracing one another in the middle of the road as brothers, no longer enemies.  Each detail about the road adds nuance and makes the soldiers’ experiences more tangible. The Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road acts almost like a river.  Its function constantly changes, ebbing and flowing with fortune and failure, peace and war. Now it allows visitors to walk up and down its length, retracing the steps of those long forgotten so they can be remembered once again.

Antietam’s Dunker Church: Meaning in the Viewpoint of the Beholder

By Ryan Bilger ’19

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. 

Antietam National Battlefield’s venerable Dunker Church stands out today as one of the battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. While visitors to the park commonly seek it out as a place to explore today, the church has held several different meanings for those who have interacted with it over the years. These varying perspectives on the simple white brick structure provide great insight into how material objects influenced the attitudes and beliefs of historical actors. Across the decades, the Dunker Church has remained a key object in this regard, even as its meaning has changed depending upon the viewpoint of the beholder.

Bilger Dunker Church
Dunker Church is one of Antietam National Battlefield’s most recognizable landmarks. Photo courtesy Ryan Bilger.

When Sharpsburg farmer Samuel Mumma donated the land on which the Dunker Church would be built in 1851, he surely intended for the new place of worship to become a peaceful refuge and a communal gathering place. The Mumma family occupied a position near the center of the tight-knit local community, which included several of members of the pacifist German Baptist Brethren church, better known as the Dunkers. In its first decade of existence, the church filled its intended niche as an anchor for the local congregation. Its simple design and sparse furnishings reflected the devout religious beliefs and relative focus on austerity held by those who met there each Sunday, further contributing to its status in the community as a place of peace and solemnity. This meaning largely defined the Dunker Church in its early years. However, the arrival of two powerful armies at its doorstep would alter that meaning for some, and change overall perspectives on the structure forever.

On September 17, 1862, the Dunker Church stood in the center of the single bloodiest day in American history, and assumed totally different meanings for those who fought at Antietam. For the Union generals and soldiers attacking Robert E. Lee’s Confederates, the church became a landmark to guide their advance. Their hopes and goals for the day, in many cases, fixated upon it as the symbol of the victory they desperately desired. After the chaos and carnage of battle ravaged the fields of Sharpsburg, the Dunker Church transformed once again. It became a hospital aid station for wounded Confederate soldiers desperately in need of treatment, and, according to one account, an embalming facility for Union dead. The pacifist meeting house became a scene of suffering and death, creating experiences that surely shaped how the soldiers and surgeons who passed through it thought about the maelstrom of war. The Battle of Antietam radically altered the meaning of the Dunker Church for those who interacted with it in September 1862.

Today, Antietam National Battlefield works effectively to stimulate visitor thinking on the different meanings ascribed to the Dunker Church and how people have interacted with it throughout history. The church occupies the position of Stop #1 on the battlefield auto tour, ensuring that visitors take time to observe the structure and reflect on its significance. Additional related artifacts in the Visitor Center museum highlight the dichotomy of uses and meanings, and interpretive signs and markers, as well as the Battlefield Ambassadors program on weekends, further contribute to promoting visitor reflection on the variation in the relationship between the Dunker Church and those who used it across the years. Overall, this targeted interpretation contributes well to ensuring that visitors remain mindful of how historical objects interacted with the people who used them in different, nuanced ways, and it should continue to do so into the future at Antietam.

Doors into the Past

By Emily Vega ’19

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. 

Vega Magazine Doors
A view of the magazine door. Photo courtesy Emily Vega.

Submerged into the side of a grassy hill are two large white doors. As one looks at Fort Stevens from a distance, the doors seem misplaced. They randomly appear in a visitor’s line of sight as he/she examines the curves and dips of the earthwork before them. But these doors tell a much more interesting story than might be expected. To the left of these doors once stood the home of Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, a free African American woman, whose family originally owned eighty-eight acres of land in the Brightwood area of Washington, DC.  At a time of few economic opportunities for the African American community, having this land was an important part of being self-sustaining. On this high ground, Thomas’s family farmed and sold parts of their holdings to relatives and other African American families.

Due to Washington’s position between Virginia and Maryland, it made the city an incredibly vulnerable and easy target during the Civil War. With the Confederates approach looming, the Defenses of Washington went into motion and made it one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world.

Ms. Thomas had a small cottage approximately twenty feet away from the cellar doors where she lived prior to the Civil War with her six-month old daughter. But with eminent threat to the city, Union troops took possession of Ms. Thomas’ property and dismantled her home. They used her land to construct Fort Massachusetts, which was later renamed Fort Stevens.

Vega Fort Stevens

During the war, the white cellar doors actually served as the magazine for the Fort. Fort Stevens is the only location within the city limits to face a battle to protect the capitol. Nothing survived on Ms. Thomas’ original property after the Civil War and there is great debate about whether she ever received the compensation she had been promised.

More broadly, Fort Stevens served not only as protection from opposing forces but also as a safe haven for enslaved people. This movement of African Americans to the area during the Civil War can be seen in the cultural landscape of the city today. Today, the majority of the 68 forts constructed to defend the city during the war have been lost to the growing urban city and built over. The National Park Service is preserving the few forts that do still maintain their shape but to a visitor’s eye, they are often hard to spot in the brush of parks.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington’s mission is to educate the residents of the capitol about the fortifications that once existed in their neighborhoods and the Civil War history that is found in their parks. But one struggle that CWDW faces is finding effective ways to engage the local communities who do not know the historical value of these green spaces. While many visitors see the fort locations as a place to enjoy the sun or walk their dogs, they often fail to connect with the history of these spaces. Through public programming and events, CWDW hopes to get the community more interested in the history that exists in their neighborhoods. These white cellar doors were once a part of a home, then a part of battleground, and now exist as an artifact of Washington, D.C.’s own Civil War history.


Emily Vega on the job during the 154th Battle of Fort Stevens Commemoration. Photo courtesy Emily Vega.

Of Rocks and Revolutions

By Benjamin Roy ’21

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

Roy firing a musket
The author firing a flintlock musket at Minute Man NHP during a black powder demonstration. Photo courtesy Benjamin Roy.

It is difficult to explain how the most advanced military technology of the 18th century relies upon a rock to function. Examined with modern eyes, the flintlock musket is as absurd as the macaroni fashion of the era. A petite vise grips a hunk of flint, which when thrown upon a steel battery, showers sparks on a criminally unmeasured amount of black powder. This produces a blinding flash, ushering a jet of flame through an eighth inch wide hole in the barrel. The powder condensed behind the ounce ball of lead is transformed from inert sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate into instant leviathan strength. The bullet careens down the barrel until its ejection from the twelve gauge bore, destined for whatever organic matter may halt the progress of this thoroughly unnatural reaction.

The Flintlock musket is itself a metaphor for the era of change it helped affect. It is not quite ancient, yet not thoroughly modern. It is a prime example of the enlightenment’s infantile understanding and dangerous fascination with science and nature; and it had an undeniable power to upend the natural order. The flintlock musket was the final expression of Colonial dissent leading up to the American Revolution. Concord’s Reverend Emerson spoke for many Provincials when he thundered to his flock, “Arise my injured Countrymen, and plead even with the Sword, the Firelock and the Bayonet, plead with your Arms.” The roaring plea of the flintlock musket would register with seismic power, upending an entire Empire. The firelock was the engine of revolutionary social and political change, and every aspect of its use was involved in the buildup to Revolution on April 19th, 1775.

Reloading begins with tearing the paper cartridge to expose the black powder. Exhibiting Puritan thrift, old newspapers were often recycled into paper cartridges. Those repurposed newspapers would be twice formative in the story of the Revolution. High literacy rates in Massachusetts meant that most of the Militiamen who were tearing these cartridges could read what was written on them. And there was no shortage of newsprint. Tory newspapers were outnumbered in Massachusetts four to one, their voice drowned out in the popular clamor for liberty. The same incendiary words that pushed the people of Massachusetts further to the edge of revolution would contain the powder they would use to ignite it.

A draught of powder is poured into the pan, the piece is cast about, and the rest is unceremoniously dumped down the throat of the gun. Without this source of energy, the weapon is impotent. Powder, and other supplies of war, were what the British marched on Concord to find, looking for the “35 half barrels of powder” hidden there. Powder had long been a critical point of contention. When the British seized gunpowder from The Cambridge Powder House on September 1st, 1774, the response commanded respect. The alarm brought 20,000 militiamen from all over New England to Boston to see just what the British thought they were doing. In the mass of armed humanity that choked the roads to Boston, a poor countryman with flintlock musket laid over his shoulder, met a haughty, well known Tory on horseback and defiantly taunted, “Damn you, how do you like us now, you Tory son of a bitch”? Resistance to British rule was rapidly becoming an engine of social change, the muscle of which was the flintlock musket.

The steel rammer drives the whole cartridge into the claustrophobic breech. Even this steel rammer is an important aspect of the coming war. Steel rammers were a technological innovation that allowed the soldier to load faster; yet some British regiments were still equipped with older, wooden rammers on April 19th. In contrast, the town of Lincoln, among others, provided each of its Minutemen with steel rammers, demonstrating that this local democratic force was on an equal, if not better technological footing with their opponents. British arrogance concerning the “raw, undisciplined cowardly men” of the Provincial Militia, would shatter against the hard front of burnished Provincial steel.

Loaded, the musket is ready to emit its deadly articles. The charge in the pan is ignited with a terse hiss, followed by the baritone detonation of the main charge. The different sounds of gunfire that erupted on April 19th speak eloquently of the dispute that aroused them. The ordered volleys of Lord Percy’s relief column garnered cheers from the bludgeoned Regulars of Lt. Colonel Smith’s original force signaling that help had arrived, that the omnipresent might of the Crown would escort them back to Boston. Alternatively, the scattered, peppering fire of the militia, like a chorus of voices speaking at the local meetinghouse, alerted the British that they had blundered into another ambush. Those shots, the ubiquitous “shot heard round the world,” resounded like a thunderclap across the thirteen colonies. In New York, a disgusted Loyalist observed a band of Patriots celebrate the news “with avidity” and “paraded the town with drums beating and colours flying, (attended by a mob of negroes, boys, sailors, and pickpockets) inviting all of mankind to take up arms in defence of the ‘injured rights and liberties of America.’” The gunshots fired on April 19th reverberated in Patriot ears as a universal call to arms.

The flintlock musket was simultaneously ornate and savagely simple and brutal. The weapon of both Empire and Revolution, it would destroy an old order, and enforce a new one. Nearly 250 years removed from the American Revolution, the flintlock musket, and the war it won, still produces awe. Like the modest stone that slew Goliath, a small, sharp flint, thrown against steel, would topple an Empire.


Borneman, Walter R. American Spring: Lexington, Concord. and the Road to Revolution. Boston: Back Bay Books. 2014.

Darling, Anthony D. Red Coat and Brown Bess. New York: Museum Restoration Series. 1977.

Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994.

Galvin, John R. The Minutemen: The First Fight, Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. Dulles VA: Potomac Series. 2006.

Gross, Robert A. Minutemen and their World. New York: Hill and Wang. 1976.

Tourtellot, Arthur B. Lexington and Concord: The Beginning of the War of the American Revolution. New York: W.W Norton and Company. 1959.

C. Keith Wilbur, The Revolutionary Soldier: 1775-1783. (Guilford CT: Rowan and Littlefield, 1993).

The “Bloody Books” of Special Collections

By Laurel Wilson ’19

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. 

L Wilson bloody book

Gettysburg College’s Special Collections and College Archives is home to a wide variety of incredible items, including many items that are related to the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the Battle of Gettysburg related items in the collection, few demonstrate just how intimately the battle affected the College better than the so-called “Bloody Books.” These books, whose presence in Gettysburg predated 1863, remained in the College’s libraries during the battle and bore witness to the College’s transformation into a Confederate field hospital in the aftermath of the fighting on July 1st. They have remained in the College’s possession ever since, and contain reminders of the battle within their pages to this day.

At the time of the battle, the College had three relatively small libraries located on the second floor of the main College building, now known as Pennsylvania Hall. In addition to the main college library, the two student literary societies, the Phrenakosmian and Philomathaean, each had their own libraries as well. All three of these libraries would be pressed into service as hospital rooms, which may have led to some of the books in their collections becoming bloody or otherwise damaged. One relatively early reference to bloody library books can be found in E.S. Breidenbaugh’s The Pennsylvania College Book (1882), which states: “Many blood-soaked volumes in the Library still remind of the use to which it was put.”  Later publications seem to have taken this description of “blood-soaked volumes” in the College library and run with it, as A. R. Wentz did in his book, History of the Gettysburg Theological Seminary (1926). Wentz details: “The southern troops were very indignant at ‘the Dutchmen’ for having shot down so many of their men. As if to express their indignation, they carried their wounded into the library room of the College building, supported the heads of some of them with volumes of old German theologians, whose pages thus were sealed together by the blood that flowed from the hearts of dying heroes.” .

As it pertains to the books in Special Collections, the nickname “Bloody Book” is admittedly a slight misnomer. Unlike the books so colorfully described by Wentz and Breidenbaugh, the books that the nickname currently refers to do not, to the knowledge of Special Collections staff, actually contain any bloodstains. Instead, these books contain the signatures and notes of wounded men who were likely trying to stave off the boredom that came with being stuck in the hospital. There are two books in Special Collections that have such notes and signatures either within their pages or scratched into their covers. The more well-known and well-documented of the two books is an 1847 Patent Office Report from the Philomathean Society library. It contains the signatures of three Confederate soldiers from 42nd Mississippi: J.B. Blackwell, Co. E., John Rogers, Co. H, and John A Womack, Co. H.

L Wilson signatures
Signatures in 1847 Patent Office Report book. Photo courtesy Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The other book, a 1768 copy of Letters from the Marchioness de Sevigne, was also in the Philomathean Society Library during and after the battle. It was discovered recently by Special Collections’ book conservator, who noticed that there were names and notes scratched into the cover. The names and notes are a bit difficult to make out, but one of the notes reads fairly clearly: “H. Campbell is Dead.” H. Campbell may refer to Harmon Campbell, a soldier from the 23rd North Carolina who was wounded in the back, thigh, and head on July 1st and died on July 13th. The 23rd NC was virtually decimated on nearby Oak Ridge, so it is entirely likely that Campbell was brought to the College hospital to be treated for his wounds, from which he later died.

L Wilson Campbell book
The second “Bloody Book,” bearing the notation “H. Campbell is dead.” Photo courtesy Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

The books that remained in the College’s libraries during the battle would bear witness to the battle’s bloody aftermath as the College was transformed into a makeshift hospital. It is for this reason that they have earned the nickname “Bloody Books,” even if they are not literally bloody. These books are currently used to teach students about the role of the College as a hospital and to give insight into what it would have been like for the wounded soldiers who were sent there. They show in a very tangible way just how the history of the Battle of Gettysburg and the history of Gettysburg College intersect and intertwine with each other, making them an incredibly valuable resource for students and researchers interested in exploring those connections.



Breidenbaugh, E. S. ed. The Pennsylvania College Book, 1832-1882. Philadelphia: Lutheran  Publication Society, 1882.

Fortenbaugh, Robert, “The College and the Civil War.” In The History of Gettysburg College, 1832-1932. Edited by S. G. Hefelbower, 178-229. Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 1932.

Wentz, Abdel Ross. History of the Gettysburg Theological Seminary of the General Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States and of the United Lutheran Church in America, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1826-1926. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1926.

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!

Raising Questions: Gettysburg Rising’s Confederate Flag Forum

By Olivia Ortman ’19

On March 3, Gettysburg Rising–a group that encourages civic engagement by sharing information–hosted a forum on the Confederate flag. It drew a modest, yet eager crowd. The goal of the event was to create an opportunity for people to come together and share their thoughts and feelings about the flag. After Professor David Hadley delivered a brief history of the flag, the attendees took the mic.

The March 3rd event sought to provide an open forum for discussion on the Confederate Flag and its legacy. Image courtesy of Gettysburg Rising.

One of the big themes during the ensuing discussion was time and place. While everyone disagreed on the specific circumstances, all agreed that the flag’s display was appropriate in some situations and unacceptable in others. Flags in museums were universally accepted by the group, as museums present a controlled setting where the history can be shared via accompanying informational plaques. On the other side, the flag’s use by white supremacist groups was deemed always inappropriate and offensive. When carried by these groups, there was no mistaking the flag’s message of hate. Everything in between – reenactments, historical sites, private property, merchandise – fell into different categories of acceptability for each person.

The question of whether the flag could be separated from Confederate ideals was also discussed. Anyone who reads the Articles of Secession must admit that slavery was a central factor in causing the Civil War. That’s not to say that individual Confederates weren’t fighting for other reasons, but the Confederacy itself was dedicated to slavery. As a symbol of the Confederacy, the flag necessarily championed slavery. However, many people in the room questioned whether the flag could be dissociated from the Confederacy and therefore from slavery. Take the case of using the flag to honor a dead Confederate ancestor: that ancestor is not the larger Confederacy, and the living relative is evoking a sense of personal history, not advocating for slavery. The group grappled with the question of whether the flag could be dissociated from slavery in this instance, or if the full sense of the flag’s symbolism must always be present.

When asked for suggestions on how the flag controversy could be solved, the room seemed to largely agree on the same tactics. The first proposal was that people needed a better education on the flag’s history. It’s hard to understand the full significance of something without knowing its background. The second proposal was societal shunning. The group also largely agreed that the government should not be involved in deciding when or where the flag is displayed. The public should thus decide when it is appropriate and essentially, perhaps relying on peer pressure and boycotting to keep people from using the flag inappropriately. It would be like society’s shunning of the N-word; although it is still used in some instances, that word has become mostly unacceptable in our world.

The most significant idea shared that night, however, was the importance of listening. When Professor Scott Hancock took a turn speaking, he explained how important it was to talk to each other about the flag. Although Professor Hancock’s research has led him to certain conclusions and opinions, he still actively seeks out other people’s thoughts. It’s important to listen to everyone’s views, even if those views go against your own, because this is the only way to truly understand the full meaning of the flag. Understanding is key to moving forward together in the flag controversy.

In the spirit of understanding, which was the motivating goal behind the forum, I hope that any of you that feel comfortable will use this post as an opportunity to share your own thoughts. I do want to set a few ground rules, though. Be respectful, no profanity, and no personal attacks. Also, this is a conversation, not a debate. You aren’t trying to prove each other right or wrong, simply exploring different thoughts on the flag. Here are some questions to get you started, but by no means do you have to answer all or any of them.

  • When and where do you think displaying the flag is appropriate?
    • Reenactments? Battlefields? Cemeteries?
  • What are your thoughts of Confederate flag merchandise?
  • What thoughts pop into your head when you see a Confederate flag?
  • Can the flag be separated from the Confederate Cause in some situations?
  • Any ideas of how we can move forward together on the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag?

The Howell Brothers: A Costly Sacrifice on the Altar of Freedom

By Jonathan Tracy ’19

This semester, I have been working on the Killed at Gettysburg digital history project, which aims to tell the story of soldiers who died at Gettysburg while also tracking their movements on a map so that they can be followed. I was given Hannibal Howell of Company C of the 76th New York Infantry, and his story proved to be a lot more than I expected.

76th Monument
This granite monument, dedicated by the State of New York on July 1, 1888, stands near the intersection of Reynolds Ave and Buford Ave. This monument marks the first line of battle where the 76th NY lost over half the regiment as killed, wounded or missing in only twenty minutes.

His story is one that cannot be understood without contextualizing it by discussing his family. In 1861, he was a 34-year-old married painter with several children. His wife, Charlotte, was pregnant with their fifth child, though he likely did not know that yet. He does not exactly fit the stereotypical image of the 18-year-old unmarried soldier, so why did he enlist? The answer probably lies within the fact that his two younger brothers Byron and Tappan joined up. All three enlisted together on September 16, 1861, serving in the same company. Byron was made a Corporal, which certainly must have elicited some teasing and jokes between the brothers. Byron did not last long in the army; he was discharged for an unknown disability in April 1862. He likely had no choice in the matter, but potentially would have felt guilty for leaving his brothers, neighbors and new friends behind. Soon after, the other two brothers first saw combat. Tappan would be mortally wounded at the Battle of South Mountain a year after enlisting, and Hannibal was now alone. Hannibal was killed on July 1st, 1863, when his regiment took over 50% casualties in a mere twenty minutes. Only days before. he had passed within a mile and a half of South Mountain.

Of course, the story does not suddenly end when he was killed at Gettysburg. Almost all the personal information I could gather about Hannibal was found in his pension record which was over thirty pages long. Charlotte was caught in a bureaucratic nightmare in order to receive a pension she so badly needed to raise five children, most of whom were under the age of ten. She had even been forced to move closer to Hannibal’s parents after he had enlisted so that she could have a support network. The town in which they had been married in changed counties, and the Reverend who performed the ceremony was missing, so Charlotte could find no written record of their original marriage, despite the marriage lasting fourteen years. This is where Byron re-entered the picture. Trying to help his sister-in-law, he traveled across New York trying to find records. Though he was unsuccessful, Charlotte did receive the pension in 1864. After the war, when the government instituted increased pensions based off the number of children, Charlotte applied for the increase with Byron acting as her attorney for free. Byron also appears as the attorney for numerous other pension records for Union soldiers, especially for others who served in the 76th NY. Perhaps this was his way of redeeming himself for leaving the army, his friends, and his brothers so soon.

76th Position 2
After pulling back to reorganize, the regiment formed a second line of battle. From here, they could see their dead and wounded. Perhaps Hannibal had already been killed, or perhaps he was forced to watch comrades that he couldn’t help suffer while he was still fighting for his own life.

The story of Hannibal Howell can only be understood through the lens of family, and that makes his story still relevant over 154 years later. It is timeless. The story of brothers enlisting together, the story of a wife left alone to raise children, and the story of one brother working tirelessly to help his sister-in-law can all connect with someone in a different way. The story continues from there. Hannibal is listed only as having been buried on the field, with no records beyond that. It is unclear if he remains somewhere on McPherson’s Ridge, or in an unknown plot in the National Cemetery. His name is also on a stone he shares with Charlotte at the Hector Presbyterian Church Cemetery in New York near many other family members. He may have been brought home, or maybe that stone is simply a way to remember a man who left home and never returned. This is a story that people can relate to, and this is a story that lay mostly buried for countless years. Hannibal, Charlotte, Tappan, and Byron all had their own struggles during the Civil War, and it deserves to be remembered. To quote Lincoln’s famous Bixby letter, the Howell’s surely had solemn pride “to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

We may never know what compelled the Howell brothers to enlist. They might have believed in an in-dissolvable Union of states, they may have had abolitionist beliefs, or maybe they just saw it as their generation’s chance for adventure. Nonetheless, whatever expectations they had upon signing up were far from what they saw. Their experiences with disability, death, and disease shattered the Victorian ideal of “the Good Death,” and Byron and Charlotte were left behind after to pick up the pieces of a shattered family after the war. Their experience are important, as they remind us that behind every regimental marker, every unknown plot in the Gettysburg National Cemetery, every stone in the Antietam National Cemetery, and every family plot in a local cemetery is a story. The stones are not stones; they are people. They are people with real lives, real stories, and real pain.