Finding Meaning in Land

By Keira Koch ’19

This post is the final one 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. 

This summer, I had the privilege of interning at the Civil War Defenses of Washington, in Washington D.C.  The Civil War Defenses of Washington is unique within the National Park system. Unlike most historical and military parks, the Civil War Defenses of Washington has no central location or site. Rather, the park is made up of nineteen different fort sites used in defense of the city of Washington during the Civil War. What also makes this park unique is its relationship with the land and local terrain. Most of these forts were constructed through the strategic manipulation of land. Civil War soldiers molded the land to build earthen trenches, mounds, and hills. At many of the forts, these earthworks are the only structures that link these places to the Civil War.

Throughout the summer, I was asked to think about the relationship between objects and the people who use or used them. Through different human interactions, objects take on a life of their own, carrying hidden narratives, symbols, and meanings. In the context of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, it’s worthwhile to consider land as an object. At these forts, the land has been the main force that connects these sites to the Civil War. The land has both shaped and been shaped by the people who interacted with it. Much like buildings, artifacts, and memorials, the land has a narrative of its own, holding different meanings for different people.

Koch Fort Stevens
The land upon which Fort Stevens was built on holds a multitude of different meanings. Photo courtesy Keira Koch.

Fort Stevens is one of the many forts Civil War Defenses oversees. While the fort is heavily connected to the Civil War and the battle that was fought there, the land Fort Stevens was built on holds a multitude of different meanings. During its period serving as a Civil War Union fort, the land was directly linked to the military and war. To those who interacted with it, the land served as a stronghold and defense against Confederate forces. The land was also a battleground, a place where Union soldiers held off Confederate forces, squashing an attempt to invade Washington. To many, the land is a symbol of a Union victory as well as a sacred ground, where soldiers fought and died. However, before, during, and after the war, this land was also someone’s home.

A free African-American woman, Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, owned and lived on the land Fort Stevens was built on. In September 1861, Union troops took possession of her land and destroyed her home, barn, orchard, and garden to build Fort Stevens. During the destruction of her property, a man who is believed to be President Lincoln offered her words of comfort. To Mrs. Thomas, the land held a different meaning; it  symbolized the loss and destruction of her home as well as a place of union, a place where a president forged a bond with an African American woman. Mrs. Thomas’ encounter with Lincoln forever shaped her perception of the Civil War and the president. After the war, she spoke fondly of Lincoln and sold a portion of her land to preserve the remaining earthworks and establish a park.

The Civil War Defense of Washington uses the land Fort Stevens resides on to share both of these two narratives. This year the park just recently commemorated the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens. In September, another event will be held to remember Mrs. Thomas and her contribution to the war and local community. Through Thomas’s story, Fort Stevens continues to remind visitors of the complex relationships people have with the land and the various meanings and stories hidden within it.

Koch and Vega at the Battle of Fort Stevens Commemoration
Keira Koch and Emily Vega at the 154th Battle of Fort Stevens Commemoration. Photo courtesy Keira Koch.

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!

Iverson’s Assault: A Cautionary Tale

By Abigail Coco ’19

In the fall, I had the incredible opportunity to work on developing a wayside for the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. Working on that wayside was really meaningful to me because it was an opportunity to tell the kind of story that has the potential to inspire in visitors a sense of national pride and appreciation for our past. Though my colleague and I tried to make clear that the fighting at Little Round Top was a bloody and savage fight, the story remains a heroic tale of brave men, exceptional leadership, and sacrifice for a higher purpose. This semester, when working a wayside for Brigadier General Alfred Iverson’s July 1st assault, my colleague, Zach Wesley, and I dealt with an entirely different story. We were tasked with telling a narrative not of heroism and higher purpose, but about dereliction of duty and senseless death. This story is important to tell because it is a reminder of the harsh realities that accompany war in any age.

As it stands, the park avoids much interpretation Iverson’s assault. Instead, the Eternal Peace Light Memorial dominates the landscape. The Eternal Peace Light Memorial, dedicated in 1938, served to unite the North and South on the eve of World War II. The memorial is an important part of the way we remember and make sense of the Civil War, but it also obscures the savagery that took place on the battlefield on July 1st, 1863. On that day, Iverson’s men launched a poorly-timed assault, unaware that the Union soldiers stood crouched behind a stone wall in front of them. From a distance of fifty yards, the Union soldiers emerged from behind the wall and gunned down 900 of Iverson’s 1400 men in a span of only 20 minutes. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the carnage that took place on Oak Ridge that day, but we hoped to highlight the brutality of the assault through evocative imagery and eyewitness accounts. One quote that really stuck out to me was written by Confederate artillerist Henry Berkeley. He wrote, “There were … seventy-nine North Carolinians laying dead in a straight line… They had evidently been killed by one volley of musketry and they had fallen in their tracks without a single struggle.” I think these words are incredibly powerful because they provide a visual that has the potential to leave a visitor feeling strong emotions, and perhaps somewhat unsettled.

While Iverson’s men were being gunned down by Union soldiers from close proximity, Iverson himself remained in the rear. Perhaps it was cowardice that kept him back, or perhaps he was drunk as the rumors suggested. Whatever the reason for Iverson’s failure to lead that day, his actions highlight unfortunate reality of war. Though military leaders are typically held to a higher standard than enlisted men, they too exhibit the whole range of human experience. They display bravery and cowardice; they make good calls and they misjudge situations; they coordinate effectively and they fail to communicate. In Iverson’s case, his failure to communicate with another brigade commander left his men vulnerable to the Union ambush. He was not the first military commander to fail, and he certainly would not be the last. However, Iverson’s assault reveals the devastating consequences that inevitable lapses of judgement among leadership can have. In war, the consequence of mistakes, miscommunication, or cowardice is too often bloodbath.

Perhaps worst of all, the story of Iverson’s assault appears to have no redemptive quality for Iverson’s men. They did their duty, but for what? While the Union soldiers at Little Round Top bravely sacrificed themselves for the preservation of the Union and for the freedom of millions, over half of Iverson’s men were massacred in a span of twenty minutes to preserve the right of some to own others. For Iverson’s men, the Confederate cause was a worthy one; they fought to hold onto the foundation of their society. Yet, the carelessness and negligence with which Iverson’s attack was carried out meant that they did not die a noble death. Rather, they were simply gunned down in their tracks. Not only did many of them die unnecessary deaths, they died for a losing cause and for one that history ultimately deemed ignoble. For me, the story of Iverson’s assault serves as a cautionary tale for future generations. In many cases, war isn’t about glory and sacrifice. Instead, it’s about following orders that sometimes get a lot of people killed. Sometimes war serves to make the world a better place, but sometimes history judges its cause unjust. Whatever the case, the disaster that occurred at Iverson’s Pits should serve as a reminder of the devastating impact of war.


Before The Post: The Women Journalists of The Waterford News

By Anika Jensen ’18

Long before Katharine Graham and Arianna Huffington established themselves in the traditionally male-dominated world of journalism, three women living through the uncertainty of the Civil War years broke into the field by controversial means: subversion. Lida Dutton (19), Lizzie Dutton (24), and Sarah Steer (26) were staunch Unionists of comfortable wealth living in Loudoun County, Virginia, a pocket of Unionist sentiment and abolitionist Quaker faith, in 1864 when they established the Waterford News, a pro-Union newspaper written, edited, and distributed in Confederate territory. The Waterford News provided an illustration of daily life in a southern town while simultaneously boosting morale for Federal soldiers (often in the form of editorials, riddles, and poems) and criticizing Confederate sympathizers. In May of 1864, for example, the women published a poem titled, “To President Abraham Lincoln” that consisted of a few four-line rhyming stanzas. Proceeds were donated to the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Running until the end of the war, The Waterford News  allowed these three young women to voice their dissent while directly supporting the Union cause through financial means, all while living in an increasingly hostile Southern environment.

Lida Dutton. Photo credit: Waterford Virginia 18th, 19th, and 20th Century History,

These women broke new ground by choosing to overcome traditional female domestic confinement and serve the war effort by sharing their voices publicly. Steer and the Dutton sisters were brought up in Quaker households where girls were educated alongside boys and where slavery was scorned as sinful. They held similar Unionist views as their families, which had to reconcile two Quaker sentiments: nonviolence and abolition. While some Quakers did break convention and join the army to help end slavery, James Dutton, Lida and Lizzie’s brother, chose to head north to Maryland in an attempt to escape Confederate enlistment. Before launching their newspaper, the Dutton sisters and Steer even cared for Union soldiers and hid them in their homes. Furthermore, the world of journalism–especially war correspondence–was traditionally dominated by men, so by lending their voices to their cause in the face of adversity and fear, the women of The Waterford News joined a select group of outspoken women whose rhetoric influenced the war. There were, of course, a number of women writers documenting their wartime experiences, including Mary Chesnut and Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Steer and the Duttons distinguished themselves as journalists, rather than memoirists or novelists. After the war, Lizzie and Lida married Union veterans and left Waterford, while Sarah became a teacher at Waterford’s first school for black children, established by the Freedman’s Bureau with the help of local Quakers.

Photo credit: Waterford Virginia 18th, 19th, and 20th Century History,

Despite their emboldened actions, however, Lida, Lizzie, and Sarah were not unlike most other women living through the Civil War. They endured a Union blockade which, they complained, meant they could not buy nice clothes and other fineries (though, granted, other women lived through much more extreme forms of poverty). They managed family farms and businesses while the men were hiding from Confederate recruiters, taking on new and often stressful responsibilities. They worried about the safety of fathers, brothers, and friends who were fighting or hiding from Confederate forces, and, most importantly, they had to endure four long years of war and all of its accompanying hardships. Being a Union sympathizer in a southern state was particularly challenging: Lida, Lizzie, and Sarah were at risk of violence from both sides, including partisan raids by John Mosby and Federal orders to burn southern towns. The threat of angry Confederates trying to silence dissenters was pervasive. Still, Steer and the Dutton sisters can be said to embody the wider challenges that women faced during the Civil War.

Lizzie Dutton. Photo credit: Waterford Virginia 18th, 19th, and 20th Century History,

Where, then, do we place Lida, Lizzie, and Sarah in the realm of women’s Civil War history? While they endured many of the same hardships as other women, they held a certain degree of privilege afforded to them by both their gender and their race. In the 19th century, women were not considered official political actors, nor were they believed to be publicly influential enough to warrant any legitimate threat through the written word. (Ironically, though, politicians and generals alike repeatedly appealed to women of both sides to “fulfill their feminine duties” of as “republican mothers” and contribute their “invaluable” support to the war effort through charity work, nursing, and other duties both public and private). Additionally, Victorian society emphasized gentlemanly conduct toward women, giving the Waterford women a degree of safety and allowing them to subvert Confederate authority. Unfortunately, this was not granted to all women. Black women especially were at a higher risk of violence from both Union and Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, and there are many cases of reported (and likely far more cases of unreported) sexual assault against black women by white soldiers.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, women war correspondents such as Martha Gellhorn and Dickie Chapelle covered monumental events including the Spanish Civil War, the U.S. invasion of Panama, D-Day, and the Vietnam War, paving the way for future female journalists like Lynsey Addario, who has photographed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gellhorn, Chapelle, and Addario have all faced incredible challenges as women in the field of war journalism: Gellhorn stowed away in the bathroom of a hospital ship in order to go ashore during the invasion of Normandy, and Chapelle was killed in Vietnam. Both women had to subvert authority with a certain degree of defiance to find their place in the world of war correspondence, much like Steer and the Duttons did, and while it is highly unlikely that Gellhorn, Chapelle, or Addario had ever heard of The Waterford News, one cannot help but acknowledge the progress that women war journalists have made since 1864.


Waterford News: A Pro-Union Newspaper Published by Three Quaker Maidens.” The History of Waterford Virginia: A National Historic Landmark.

MacLean, Maggie. “Women of Civil War Waterford.” Civil War Women. March 8, 2015.

To Arms! Announcing the 2017-2018 CWI Fellows

The Civil War Institute Fellows are back with replenished ranks for the 2017-18 academic year. This year, our veteran writers will be joined by green troops eagerly waiting to “see the elephant.” Armed with notebooks, libraries, and word processors, they stand united in line of battle to engage the history around them.

The Gettysburg Compiler remains the flagship of the fellowship, offering students the opportunity to showcase their hard work for the greater public. In the coming weeks and months, expect to see the Fellows tackle the past and present in new and exciting ways. As before, Fellows will share stories from the past, covering topics such as civilian life, slavery, and war and incorporating themes such as race, gender, and memory. The Fellows will be digging deep into the annals of history, examining eyewitness accounts of the often chaotic past and analyzing the ways in which people have engaged with their own versions of history. The Fellows are also keenly aware of their own place in history, so be sure to look out for their ruminations on the “living” history.

Continue reading “To Arms! Announcing the 2017-2018 CWI Fellows”