Finding Meaning in the Flag: Furl that Banner

By Olivia Ortman ‘19

Hello again, readers. I hope you enjoyed the summer and are now as eager as I am to jump back into our conversation about the Confederate flag. Although I spent the summer at Minute Man NHP, the Civil War was never far from my mind. Even in a northern park dedicated to the American Revolution, I still heard a lot about the Confederate monument debates, and as I spoke with visitors who were following this topic in the news, I was reminded of a similar debate several years ago concerning the Confederate flag.

After researching wartime perspectives, I wanted to write a post focusing on Confederate attitudes toward the flag after the war’s end. I wondered how losing the war affected Southern feelings towards the flag. Were there any former Confederates who rejected it? How did demographics play into this issue? While researching these questions, I stumbled across a 2014 article in the Washington Post about the removal of Confederate flags from the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. A group of students had spoken with the administration and shared their discomfort with having the flags, which they believed to symbolize racism, present on campus. These students cited the Confederate flag’s connection with the interests of slaveholders in the Civil War and its appropriation by hate groups later on. After much deliberation and discussion, the University agreed to the students’ demand and moved the flags from the chapel to the museum in the basement. As part of the justification for this action, the university president cited Robert E. Lee’s own feelings for the flag.

For many Southerners in the immediate post-war years, the Confederate flag underwent an amplification of its war symbolism. It became the ultimate representation of hope, strength, and resistance to the Yankees, who were trying to control the South through Reconstruction and brief occupation. Some Southern women would drape themselves in Confederate flags or stick them in their hats and dresses before walking by occupying Union soldiers. U.S. Army Sergeant Mathew Woodruff, stationed in Mobile, Alabama, reported one of these instances of defiance. Walking down the street one day, he saw a black woman reprimanding three girls for waving rebel flags. The girls’ mother justified their actions by saying that the South “was not whipped [and] if they got a chance would rise again.” The war may have ended, but many Southerners were not ready to admit full defeat, especially not in the face of people who used to be considered property. The flag was their proof that the South would rise again and when it did, it would finally crush the North and return to the correct social order.

Some Southerners, on the other hand, rejected the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy in the post-war years. Robert E. Lee, a man who is every bit as symbolic of the Confederacy as the flag, wanted nothing to do with Confederate memory and war memorialization. When asked by David McConaughy to return to Gettysburg in 1869 to recollect battlefield events for posterity, Lee politely declined. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war,” he wrote, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife & to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” In a letter to John Letcher, the governor of Virginia during the Civil War, Lee firmly stated that all citizens should put aside bad blood and unite in efforts to forget the effects of war.

The Confederate flag is one of the marks of war that Lee removed from his own life. In one popular story, a Southern woman wrote to Lee asking what she should do with an old battle flag. Lee supposedly responded, “Fold it up and put it away.” This has been a source of some contention, however, because no letter has been brought forward with these words. Regardless of whether Lee actually wrote these words, however, he did ask his children to keep the flag out of his funeral. He was buried in a plain suit, not his Confederate uniform, and other former Confederates in attendance were also asked not to wear their military uniforms. The Confederate flag was nowhere in sight that day. Its presence would only have served to open old wounds and forever connect him with one of our nation’s greatest failures.

William Roane Aylett, a colonel under General George Pickett , also publicly denounced the flag in a speech at the 1887 Gettysburg Reunion. “Southern men don’t care who keeps the flags; the past went down in the war,” he stated at the beginning of his speech. He continued with, “what matters who shall keep the battle flags? They passed into your hands in brave and manly combat…and we are as willing your people should keep them as ours.” He effectively ended his discussion of the Confederate flag by pronouncing it dead. This was met with great applause from the audience, which was equal parts former Union and Confederate soldiers.  During the war, Aylett had been a staunch Union hater, as were many of the former Confederates in the audience that day, but during this speech they seemed determined to reconcile with their Yankee brothers, even at the cost of their beloved flag.

Lee and Aylett were not the only ones who recommended moving away from the flag, but they were only a small minority of the Southern population. Many former Confederates, like Jubal Early, became very vocal in their support of the flag after Reconstruction. Interestingly, all of the people I found in that small group of anti-flag Confederates had been officers or clergy during the war. This could just be that these men were literate and important enough for their letters to be preserved, but I think there’s more to it. Each of these men had more to gain from putting the flag aside than honoring it. They were leaders of a failed rebellion that had generated political hostility and tension. If these men wanted any hope of holding a  in the post-war America and in posterity, they needed the North and South to reconcile. No one wants to be history’s villain, which is what you become when attached to a flag that protected slavery and stood against its country. The only way to reconcile and save the manhood/honor of defeated Confederates was by putting aside some of the more unpleasant aspects and connotations of the war. Although I do truly believe these men wanted to see the country reunite for the good of the nation, I think self-preservation was a motivating factor in their views.

If asked their opinions on the removal of Confederate flags at Washington and Lee, I believe Lee and Aylett would both express approval. The flag had a place in their lives at one point, but that ended when the Confederacy lost the Civil War. All of this has left me with a question that I’m now going to put to you: is it right for us to use the Confederate flag today when some of the men to whom it belonged wanted it put aside? To go with that, to whom does a symbol belong? Father Abram J. Ryan expresses his feelings in, “The Conquered Banner,” a poem written mere weeks after the Confederacy surrendered:

Furl that banner, softly, slowly,

Treat it gently – it is holy –

For it droops above the dead;

Touch it not, unfold it never,

Let it droop there, furled forever,

For its people’s hopes are dead


Sources

Carmichael, Peter S. “Prologue.” In The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion, 1-3. UNC Press Books, 2015. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Coski, John M. “Unfurl the Old Flag.” In Confederate Battle Flag : America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Harvard University Press, 2006. p. 45, 48-49. Accessed April 28, 2017.
ProQuest ebrary.

Cox, David. “Cox: Honoring Lee anew.” Roanoke Times. July 14, 2014. Accessed April 28,
2017.

Evidence Suggests That Robert E. Lee Would Agree: The Flag Had To Go.” Yabberz.com. July 10, 2015. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Feimster, Crystal N. “General Benjamin Butler & the Threat of Sexual Violence during the
American Civil War.” Daedalus, Emerging Voices, 138, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 126-34.
Accessed April 28, 2017. JSTOR.

Freeman, Douglass Southall. “Vol. I Vp215 Chapter XIII.” Robert E. Lee (by Freeman) – Vol. IV Chap. 13. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Pollard, H. R. “William Roane Aylett.” The Virginia Law Register 6, no. 8 (1920): 570-72.

Robert E. Lee to David McConaughy. August 5, 1869. In MS – 022: David McConaughy Papers. GettDigital: Civil War Era Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Accessed April 28, 2017.
http://gettysburg.cdmhost.com/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p4016coll2/id/841/rec/1

Shapiro, T. Rees. “Washington and Lee University to remove Confederate flags from chapel after protest from black students.” The Washington Post. July 08, 2014. Accessed April 28, 2017.

Bearing the Battle, Binding the Wounds

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

When I arrived at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park for my summer 2016 internship orientation, I introduced myself as being from Yorktown, VA.  The ranger quipped “you must have a thing for surrender towns.”  I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose I do.  I’ve lived in and around historic towns my entire life. I was born in Richmond, graduated high school in Yorktown, attended college in Gettysburg, and completed internships in New Market, Appomattox, and in the Hampton Roads area.  I never seem to be far from a battlefield or a battle town, physically or emotionally. I love these towns and the stories of the ordinary people who fought within them.  I have some relatives who fought for the Union and others who fought for the Confederacy, and although not a family relation, I feel a special connection to James Greenleaf of Pennsylvania.

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The Wilmer McLean House in 1865, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Bearing the Battle, Binding the Wounds”

The Conflicting Conflict: Memorialization and Memory of the Great War

2017 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the US joining the First World War. This post will be part of a series examining the Great War in scope and in memory.

By Danielle Jones ’18

July 1st through 3rd, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. There were an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 visitors to the national park, including as many as 10,000 reenactors. The Civil War sesquicentennial was commemorated from the very beginning, and ended with a reenactment in Appomattox that saw over 6,000 people visit to re-live the end of the American Civil War. On April 9th, bells across the nation, including at Gettysburg College, tolled for 4 minutes to honor the four years the war raged on. Plans were started for the anniversary almost a decade in advance and millions of Americans in commemorating of the war that cost 600,000 Americans their lives. A collective narrative of the war began forming  before the surrender was even signed, and while each side had a different memory directly after Appomattox, the settled upon collective narrative still exists today.

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While the Great War had a massive impact on the American home front, the war itself has largely faded from public memory. Image courtesy of Gettysburg College Special Collections.

As I write this, I think of a different time, a different war, and a different April. On April 6th, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, joining France, Great Britain, and Russia to fight in the World War I. The United States’ entry into the war was controversial; President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2nd, and after four days of debate the Senate passed the declaration 82-6 and the House of Representative passed it 373-50. During the war, 116,516 American Servicemen lost their lives to battle deaths and disease. The Great War, as it came to be known, had a significant impact on the United States domestically and internationally. Entrance to war marked a significant change in America’s traditionally isolationist policy. The end of the war brought an economic boom to the States and a role in international politics it had not seen before. A spot at the table at Versailles, the League of Nations, and an increasingly globalized economy illustrated that the United States was not just a nation across the Atlantic anymore. It had begun establishing itself as a world power whose presence continues to define international politics today. Continue reading “The Conflicting Conflict: Memorialization and Memory of the Great War”

Bringing the Past into the Present: Joshua Chamberlain’s Legacy in Maine

By Savannah Labbe ‘19

In recent years Maine’s role in the Civil War—especially in the Battle of Gettysburg—has gained increased renown due in part to movies and books such as Gettysburg and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Maine’s fame has grown mostly due to one famous figure: Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain has become almost a legend in Maine, a historical figure that most Mainers are familiar with and are proud of. His legacy can still be felt in the state today and provides a way for people from Maine to connect with the past. History is often the cause of boredom for many, but when the past can be brought into the present, and when people can really connect with history on a personal level, that’s when it becomes more tangible and enjoyable.

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A statue of Chamberlain in Brewer, Maine. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Chamberlain provides a way for Mainers to interact with the past and to enjoy learning about it. His importance and his legacy in the state are easily seen. For example, one can take a walking tour of Chamberlain’s home town of Brunswick, stopping at all the places that were meaningful to him or had something to do with his life—from the dorm he lived in while at Bowdoin College to the cemetery in which he was buried. There is even an entire museum dedicated to Chamberlain, reflecting how important his legacy is to the town of Brunswick and the state of Maine as a whole. Walking tours and museums are the kinds of things that make the past more tangible and allow people to connect with and interact with it. They are able to go and actually see the dorm room that Chamberlain stayed in and imagine him in there, bringing the past into the present by allowing people to visualize what it would have been like to see Brunswick as Chamberlain saw it. Continue reading “Bringing the Past into the Present: Joshua Chamberlain’s Legacy in Maine”

The Disquieted Heart and the Lighted Path: LeVar Burton’s Dedication Day Speech

By Matt LaRoche ’17

This Saturday past brought with it an electric sort of chill, the kind fueled by a driving breeze that lifts your jacket, steals past your socks and up your legs, worms its way through gaps in scarves and gloves, and leaves you feeling naked and afraid and alive in ways that no one else can see. The kind of wind that whisks away complicity and surety, leaving you with nothing but a burning compulsion to do something that will reignite your humanity, your belief in goodness, your claim to a kind life. For those who attended, the Dedication Day ceremony in the National Cemetery trembled with the same terrible power. This year, there was something dreadfully eerie about coming together to honor men slain in the struggle to prove that a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could endure terrible division and betrayal between its countrymen. The speechmaking, no matter its tenor, could not escape the gravity of the question on everyone’s mind: what does the future hold for America, and how can we make sure it won’t undo the already unfinished work for which our forefathers died?

That is not to say that many did not try desperately to drown out the unpleasant facts of the hour with platitudes. And perhaps that response was to be expected. These are uncertain times, and before an uncertain audience some speakers said things that would have been reassuring a year or two ago. They spoke triumphantly of the honor in the fight, of the eternal and resonating success of the Union. Of the dignity of the nation that emerged from the war, battered and bruised, but energized. They spoke of the “great work” engaged at Gettysburg through the warm lens of nostalgia like it was fairy tale, complete with the token happy ending, written just for us. Like the great work was finished, and all that remained was to remember. Like there was, conveniently, nothing to fear and nothing to discuss.

But then LeVar Burton took the stage.

LeVar Burton delivered the keynote address at the 2016 Dedication Day celebration. Photo credit: Gettysburg College
LeVar Burton delivered the keynote address at the 2016 Dedication Day celebration. Photo credit: Gettysburg College

Continue reading “The Disquieted Heart and the Lighted Path: LeVar Burton’s Dedication Day Speech”

Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon

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By Jeff Lauck ’18 and Matt LaRoche ’17

Jeff: On November 6, the small town of Gettysburg will be swarmed by runners during the first ever Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon. The event has provoked heated discussion from many in the Civil War community, bringing up many questions regarding the use of our most hallowed grounds for recreational use. In this post, Matt and I will engage in a back and forth conversation about the concerns and advantages of the race. I’d like to begin by noting that the views that we each express in this piece may not necessarily be our own and that we may merely be bringing them up to contribute to the conversation surrounding the marathon.

My first concern about the marathon is an obvious one. The Gettysburg battlefield was the site of unspeakable horror and suffering. Is it appropriate that this sacred space be used for “fun” activities like a marathon? Runners will cross areas whose names have been immortalized for pain, agony, and death: McPherson’s Ridge, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Angle. Few would view a marathon through the hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery as appropriate. Indeed, the Gettysburg marathon itself avoids the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. However, the Gettysburg battlefield is likely still a final resting place for hundreds of soldiers, so in reality, a marathon running through the battlefield is itself a marathon running in a massive cemetery. The battlefield was preserved as a memorial to those who fell. It should not now be trampled on by hundreds of runners in a spectacle marathon.

Matt: Well, Jeff, your point about the space’s sacredness is certainly well taken. However, I think the underlying question here may be what kinds of history we choose to preserve and commemorate, and why. No one can deny the world is an old and embattled place. Recognizing this begs serious questions of our traditional efforts at memorializing loss and sacrifice. First, what metrics determine what sufferings are legitimately worth remembering? For example, people the world over clearly feel a duty to remember their soldiers, but what about the civilian dead? Wars almost always cost more civilian than combatant lives, but the public’s imagination almost always centers on soldiers. Indeed, the ongoing scholarly debate as to the specific ratio is a testament to not just how overwhelming the reality of civilian deaths is, but also how little we like to think about this particularly senseless aspect of human conflict. Bringing civilians into the mix robs war of what glory it had, as one man’s honorable sacrifice is undone by a child’s meaningless slaughter. It becomes a story few really want to hear, and a serious problem for historical interpretation. And yet this is a key part of war’s story. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: The Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon”

Lessons from My European Travels: Love, Hate, and the Fate of Humanity

By Matt LaRoche ’17

I once met a man who was a dead-ringer for Joseph Goebbels. He had the same dour sort of face plastered to a gaunt skull that could only have been squeezed in a vice; the same thin hairline that had retreated in step with the Reich’s exhausted armies; the same curt manner that summed itself up in a curled finger–“come here.” Our introduction to each other began with a beep from an airport scanner in Frankfurt. With no words, he directed me to an isolation space behind the security station. I’d be a liar if I said that standing with my arms outstretched as he patted me all over with gloved hands and chemical swabs didn’t send my heart racing. I didn’t know what to expect.

But more than that, I was on my guard. This was my first time in Germany–a connecting flight to elsewhere. All I knew of Germany and its people was what my grandfather’s stories and the History Channel had accidentally made instinctual to me: they were the enemy. There was something of a reckoning in that moment. It seemed that history had left me with only one response to an nationality: suspicion.

My grandfather rode with the 2nd Armored Division from Normandy to the Rhine. At the age of thirteen, his future wife led her siblings to shelter under the stairs as the Luftwaffe bombed targets across Somerset, night after night. Her aunt lost a thirteen-month old daughter in the London Blitz. Her uncle served with the BEF in France, and, after his capture in Greece, he spent five years as a slave laborer in a Bavarian salt mine. A generation earlier, my family sent almost a dozen men to fight above and below the trenches of the First World War. While–miraculously–not one died in combat, my great-great-grandfather, a sapper at Ypres, wheezed with the effects of mustard gas for the rest of his life.

Sgt. Gerard LaRoche, 2nd Armored Division, in Holland, 1944. Photo courtesy of the author.
Sgt. Gerard LaRoche, 2nd Armored Division, in Holland, 1944. Photo courtesy of the author.

Continue reading “Lessons from My European Travels: Love, Hate, and the Fate of Humanity”

An End to Slavery in the Confederacy: One of the Civil War’s Greatest "What-Ifs"

By Jeff Lauck ’18

A few weeks ago one of our readers posted a comment on one of our blog posts asking for a “best guess” as to when slavery would have ended in the South had the Confederacy been successful in winning its independence. There is, of course, no easy answer to this question, as counter-factual history is just that: not factual. However, the question is an important one that deserves attention and at the very least can be used to explore some ways in which slavery can be contextualized in the Civil War era.

The Confederacy was founded on the idea of preserving the institution of slavery. The short-lived nation’s need for slavery was economic as well as social. Economically, the South depended on an agrarian economy driven chiefly by cotton production. Cotton, a very labor-intensive crop, required large labor forces to produce. Consequently, profit margins depended on decreasing the cost of labor. Therefore, cotton’s profitability–and thus the economy of the South–benefited immensely from slavery. A change in the workforce would have severely disrupted the status quo. Poor Southerners, who may not have owned slaves, also saw the economic trickle-down effects of slavery: wealthy planters required food, tools, and other goods to keep the system of slavery running, and of these supplies would be supplied by yeomen farmers and craftsmen. As a result, many white Southerners who were neither wealthy nor owned slaves were also economically invested in the institution of slavery.

 When discussing the institution of slavery from a wide angle lens, it is easy to forget it's human toll. Images like these remind us of the inhumanity of the practice of human bondage. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
When discussing the institution of slavery from a wide angle lens, it is easy to forget its human toll. Images like these remind us of the inhumanity of the practice of human bondage. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “An End to Slavery in the Confederacy: One of the Civil War’s Greatest "What-Ifs"”

Understanding the Civil War and Its Place in the American Mind

By Kevin Lavery ‘16

Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time with people for whom the Civil War is a life choice, but I confess, there are times when I wonder if we—myself included—sometimes get carried away by our fierce and noble passion for the past. The Civil War is, of course, incredibly important both in its own right and in the long context of American history. But I do wonder if an overly-zealous fascination with the Civil War, especially if it becomes too single-minded, can distract us from other important moments in history, as well as from other types of worthy understandings from other fields of study.

Many people have probably seen that video where college students are unable to say who won the Civil War. A frequent joke among Gettysburg College students is that a surprising number of people in other parts of the country can’t even identify the state where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. Adequate money cannot be found to preserve historical artifacts, or even to fund social studies education programs. As seriously concerning of those examples are, I’m not willing to criticize those who lack the rich conception of history that I am fortunate to have developed during my time at Gettysburg. I can’t hold anything against someone who doesn’t know as much as I think they should know about the Civil War, not when there are so many things in this world worth knowing.

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Photograph by the author.

Continue reading “Understanding the Civil War and Its Place in the American Mind”

Beyond the Battlefield: The Park That Once Was Stevens’s Furnace

By Kevin Lavery ’16

If you’re a frequent reader of the Compiler, it comes as no news to you that the Gettysburg area is historic for more than just its battlefield. From a pre-war African American community to the World War I tank camp commanded by a young Dwight Eisenhower, Gettysburg has a rich and vibrant history that the time-frozen battlefield, however majestic in its own right, all too often obscures. One of my favorite places in the region, however, is a state park located just fourteen miles west of town. Nestled amidst the ridges of South Mountain, Caledonia State Park stands on land once part of the Caledonia Furnace complex owned by the famed congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

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Evidence abounds of Caledonia’s industrial origins. Photograph by the author.

In the last two years, I have tried whenever possible to get out to the park, which serves as a gateway to some of my favorite hiking trails. The Appalachian Trail runs right through Caledonia, and just north of the park there is a vast network of trails that wind their way through the neighboring Michaux State Forest. Not only is it an excellent park for recreation, but it has a long and storied past that I’ve had the opportunity to explore for the Compiler, redoubling my appreciation for the scenic place. Continue reading “Beyond the Battlefield: The Park That Once Was Stevens’s Furnace”