Ideology on Trial: A Common Cavalryman Goes to War

By Abigail Adam

This past Fall, the Special Collections & College Archives of Gettysburg College’s Musselman Library received, through the generous donation of Kerry Cotter of Easton, Maryland 21 letters penned by her ancestor, Private Eli S. Knowlton of the 3rd New York Cavalry. Over the course of the Fall semester, CWI Fellows Abigail Adam (’22) and Ziv Carmi (’23) transcribed these letters for future researchers and interpreted them through additional contextual information from census records, pension files, and secondary source reading.  The following is a post authored by Abby offering her reflections on some of the main interpretive themes and take-aways she gathered from her transcription work with Knowlton’s letters.

View the Knowlton letters through the GettDigital Database

Like many Civil War soldiers, throughout his nearly two-and-a-half years of service in the Union army, Private Eli S. Knowlton of the 3rd New York Cavalry penned numerous letters to his family. Some of the letters from January of 1863 through December of 1864 still survive. Eyeing the yellow pages and faded ink, modern readers can imagine the scent of campfire smoke while Knowlton sweated in the North Carolina and Virginia heat. Many times, Knowlton’s military obligations left him exhausted by the time he picked up his pen. Other times, he complained that sitting in the shade and writing was the only thing to do amidst the monotony of camp life. He talked about daily life as a soldier and his battle experiences, and reacted to the news his family shared with him. He openly relayed his opinions about army life, his comrades, the Confederacy, and the war as a whole, and was not afraid to let his emotions direct his writing. Anger, homesickness, happiness, and disgust pepper his accounts. Through such candid writing, modern readers can examine, among other interesting features of Knowlton’s life, the motivation behind his initial enlistment in the army, his sustaining motivations for remaining on the front lines, and his own evolving views of the continuously evolving Union war effort.

Eli S. Knowlton was born around 1843 to Seneca and Polly Knowlton. The Knowltons owned a family farm in Clarkson, New York. Though Eli attended school when he was young, he later admitted to being a poor student. His lack of attention to formal education is also evident through the spelling in his letters: ‘Any’ became “enny”, ‘month’ became “munth”, and ‘guerillas’ became “Garilleyes,” to name just a few examples. Modern readers can imagine him sounding out particularly difficult words, carefully penning them exactly as they sounded. On August 13, 1862, Knowlton enlisted in Company M of the 3rd New York Cavalry. He would serve for two years and nine months. But why did he enlist, and why did he wait until sixteen months into the war to do so?

In his letters, Knowlton appears unenthusiastic about serving, demonstrating that he did not enlist for glory or adventure. He also makes numerous racist and disparaging comments about African Americans, forcefully declaring that he did not enlist for the abolitionist cause, and lamenting being forced to fight for the freedom of the slaves. On January 28, 1863, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation (which made it legal for black men to join the army) went into effect, he wrote that he would rather be captured by the Confederates than serve alongside African Americans.  Such a declaration is revealing, considering how dishonorable and shameful many soldiers regarded allowing oneself to be captured by the enemy! Knowlton’s stance on race was certainly common amongst numerous Union soldiers, most of whom enlisted to restore the Union, and not out of any affection for African Americans or any strong inclinations toward emancipation or abolition. However, Knowlton’s home community was notoriously in favor of emancipation. Many community members were even abolitionists. As such, Knowlton’s views may have caused some tension within the regiment. Or, perhaps Knowlton knew his opinions were unpopular and thus saved them for his letters.

Interestingly, while Knowlton may have fancifully wished, in early 1863, to be captured by the Confederates rather than serve alongside black soldiers, his notions of martial masculinity, duty, and honor appear to have ultimately helped to sustain his commitment to remaining in the Union army as the months wore on. Knowlton wrote strongly about his disgust for army deserters. In one instance, he called a deserting man a “Coward” and a “pisspot,” and regularly disparaged the manhood and courage of those who left the front lines. 

However, as was true for many other soldiers, Knowlton’s views on matters such as duty and desertion were not necessarily one-dimensional, and at times, came into direct conflict with each other. Throughout his army career, Knowlton was perpetually homesick. On January 28, 1863, he wrote of his wish to enjoy cider and donuts in his parents’ new house—one of the countless references to his longing for home, family, and familial traditions. He followed this statement with a rather dejected message: “the old Saying is I cant allways be with you”. Sometimes, Knowlton would address parts of his letter to his younger brother, Randolph “Ran” Knowlton. Eli clearly missed Ran. He asked him to relay how the neighborhood “Gals” looked that spring, emphasizing that he wished he could be there, too. He also asked Ran to relay local adventures with friends. As he wrote, “tell me what for a time you had and all about it for as I Cant take a peace of that fun I wood like to hear how the rest of you take it”.  Such longings for home at one point caused him to toy with the idea of deserting the army. At the very least, he wished he could do it. On January 28, 1863, Knowlton wrote that some of his friends had “dug out” of the army, reflecting that “all I have to regret is that I had not dug to”. Nevertheless, Knowlton’s desire to leave simmered down as time went on. He became increasingly interested in seeing Union military success, as well as connecting his honor and masculinity to the success of his regiment.” Knowlton himself directly addressed this change in his attitude. He admitted that, in the past, he would have considered desertion. However, by August 13, 1863, he would not even entertain the idea. In a spirited flourish, Knowlton ended that same letter in which he called a deserter a “Coward” and a “pisspot” with the following crass, yet honest statement: “thay can kiss my US ass all of them.”

Another theme that runs throughout Knowlton’s letters—and a thread that sheds considerable light on why he may have chosen to enlist in the first place—is his continuous, open discussion of his finances and the money he routinely sent home to his family.  This trend suggests that he may have seen military service as an opportunity for steady employment, and may have finally chosen to enlist in the late summer of 1862 out of financial necessity, or perhaps fear of the draft, combined with community pressures to join up. One aspect of Knowlton’s life suggests that his enlistment was economically motivated. The 1860 census listed that the Knowlton property was worth $1,960. This value is the equivalent of $61,451.67 in 2020. In comparison, only 7% of homes in modern-day Clarkson, New York, fall between $50,000 and $99,000. The average home value is $150,100. Thus, the Knowltons were certainly not a wealthy family.

Eli Knowlton’s letters also had a large financial emphasis. On January 10,1863, Knowlton wrote that he sent $15 to his family and planned to send an additional $20 upon his next paycheck. This was a considerable amount, considering that he had received a total of $54.80 thus far. A few months later, Knowlton defended his inability to send more money to his parents. They presumably caught wind that John, a fellow soldier, was sending more money home than Knowlton was. Modern readers can imagine Knowlton tensing up as he defended himself through his writing. He was quick to explain that he was ill over the winter and thus needed to buy nutritious food. He also iterated that John gained his money from sources outside the military. If anything, Eli and John were paid the exact same amount. Eli, perhaps feeling guilty or under pressure, finished his tangent by promising to send more money upon his next paycheck. Such continuous, and sometimes quite passionate, references both to his own finances as well as to the economic viability of his parents and the family farm seem to suggest that economic stability may have loomed large as a motivating—and sustaining—factor for Knowlton’s army service.  Again, such motivation was hardly unique among Union soldiers, and often times it was a blend of reasons—economic, political, social, cultural, and ideological—that shaped men’s decisions to enlist, and helped, alongside commitment to comrades, to sustain them through the dark days of the war.

            Eli S. Knowlton’s letters provide fascinating insights into the daily life of a Union cavalryman during the Civil War. But, his surviving letters also highlight his humanity as a loving son and brother who cared deeply about his family. He was a complex man of numerous opinions, many of which shifted and changed throughout the war. Those opinions were complicated, sometimes contradictory, and could even cause conflict among his fellow soldiers. Soldiers such as Knowlton used the war to bolster their notions of pride, honor, duty, and masculinity, which, in turn, gave meaning to soldiers’ wartime experiences. Those experiences also changed many men as they navigated the horrors of war, interacted with new people of diverse backgrounds, and underwent challenges that were completely new to them. Many travelled farther than ever before and witnessed events so incredible that paper accounts could only hint at their impact. In fascinating and sometimes unexpected ways, these experiences both transformed the emotional and ideological worlds of soldiers such as Knowlton, while also reinforcing their commitment to the fight ahead.

Sources: 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. New York, U.S., Grand Army of the Republic Records, 1866-1931 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.

The Eli S. Knowlton letters

Provocation through Accessibility at Special Collections at Musselman Library

By Chloe Parrella ’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. 

Gettysburg College Special Collections is a place where the worlds of archiving, preservation, and interpretation intersect. In the climate-controlled stacks, shelves lined with volume after volume attest to the centuries of history that the college has witnessed. It is the role of the current staff and interns to disseminate the seemingly infinite artifacts, manuscripts, and other primary sources that come through the door to those who travel to Special Collections to learn, discover, and enrich themselves. As Freeman Tilden wrote, “Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information”. However, interpretation is not something that should be rigidly defined and passed from person to person without question. In places such as Special Collections, we seek to provoke interactions between the sources and those using them; we hope to facilitate an environment where such interpretations can be made.

Continue reading “Provocation through Accessibility at Special Collections at Musselman Library”

Serving the Public First: Archives 2.0

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.

By Matt LaRoche ’17

The hallmarks of contemporary archival philosophy, known casually as “Archives 2.0,” have everything to do with making archives open, attractive resources for researchers of all persuasions. These rotate around a few main assertions. First, that archivists should endeavor to make their repositories as attractive as possible to users—this means offering friendly, all-inclusive access, being responsive to user desires, being tech-savvy, and leaving some discovery and processing of collections to the researcher. Secondly, modern archiving stresses accessibility—having a standardized way of organizing collections that will be easily understood by visiting researchers, utilizing language familiar to average people for finding aides, and having the funding necessary to provide visitors the aid, attention, and resources they need.

Matt LaRoche pins a text panel in the USCT exhibit he’s been curating this summer. Photo courtesy Amy Lucadamo.

Continue reading “Serving the Public First: Archives 2.0”

Archives 2.0: Defying the Stereotypes

By Mikki Stacey ‘17

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

Everyone had a picture in mind when I said I’d be doing archival work for the DuPont library at Stratford Hall over the summer. Often, that picture included me amid stacks of dusty books and old documents, sitting in silence and solitude, frantically typing away with my glasses glued to the top of my nose. Each time I got a reaction to this effect, I had to laugh and ask, “Relying a little heavily on a stereotype, aren’t you?” Quickly, I would go into my spiel about why libraries are not at all antiquated, not realizing that there is a term for what I was trying to explain: “Archives 2.0.”

Mikki Stacey defies stereotypes of archival work in her Pohanka internship at Stratford Hall: The Home of the Lees. Photo credit Mikki Stacey.
Mikki Stacey defies stereotypes of archival work in her Pohanka internship at Stratford Hall: The Home of the Lees. Photo credit Mikki Stacey.

Partially out of necessity and partially out of nature, libraries and librarians have evolved, and currently, we are in the period of Archives 2.0, which Kate Theimer distinguishes from other periods of archival work by its “spirit of flexibility and the willingness to experiment and collaborate.” a spirit that has brought interrelated changes to the field. More than gathering information, modern archivists want to disseminate information. This desire has resulted in an (maybe unexpected) embrace of technology to create a more user-friendly experience. Continue reading “Archives 2.0: Defying the Stereotypes”

Pohanka Reflection: Special Collections & Archives, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College

By Bryan Caswell ’15

The reading room of Gettysburg College’s Special Collections is one of those singular spaces where the denizens of academe encounter the uninitiated yet insatiably curious members of that nebulous group known as the public. Indeed, many summer afternoons on the fourth floor of Musselman Library witness researchers diligently pouring over primary source material and rare books while intrigued visitors study the numerous displays of artifacts with equal dedication. While my duties in Special Collections are mostly confined to working with the collections themselves, I have upon occasion received the opportunity to observe our visitors as they interact with the history that is on display.


The author in his habitat. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College

Continue reading “Pohanka Reflection: Special Collections & Archives, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College”

The Fragility of History: William H. Harris’ West Point 1861 Album

By Logan Tapscott ’14

Musselman Library’s Special Collections & College Archives  at Gettysburg College is a center for undergraduate student and faculty research and houses and maintains several types of primary source materials, including rare books, letters, diaries, maps, works of art, and photographs. Carolyn Sautter, the director of Special Collections, said, “one of the best ways of learning about historical eras is to actually see the images of the time period.” Special Collections provides researchers and visitors opportunities to visually engage with objects through either the exhibit cases in the Collection’s Reading Room or on the GettDigital website, a venue on which poeple can explore the Civil war by seeing peoples’ faces. Especially with fragile materials such as William H. Harris’ West Point 1861 Album, Special Collections’ online resource provides access to objects that would otherwise be inaccessable to students and faculty.

Tapscott -- Image 4

Continue reading “The Fragility of History: William H. Harris’ West Point 1861 Album”

Stories from the (Gettysburg) Basement

By Rachel Hammer ’15

Last time I interned at the Gettysburg National Military Park, it was January of 2011. And if anyone needs reassurance that not many people visit Gettysburg in the dead of winter…not many people visit Gettysburg in the dead of winter. So, having the opportunity to spend a summer, especially the summer of the 150th, at Gettysburg was quite the culture shock. Not that my primary job involved much interaction with visitors, which personally is how I enjoy working. Five days a week, I worked in museum services in the Visitor Center lower level (aka the basement).

I’ve had an interest in the archival and curatorial side of museums since high school. I now work in Special Collections at Musselman Library at Gettysburg College, and it’s the general direction I hope to go with my life. I greatly respect interpreters for what they do, because they’re passionate enough to go out everyday and hype up visitors with a story that hopefully will stick with the visitor for a long time. For me, I like being able to prepare behind the scenes and let the visitor interpret the object, exhibit, etc. for themselves. This internship allowed me to see more of both archival and curatorial duties, practices, and even problems.

GETT - Mosby Scarf
Mosby’s scarf in the new “Treasures of the Civil War” exhibit.

For the first weeks of the summer, another intern and I had to go through a back log of nearly 1,000 photos from the 1990s, assign them catalog numbers, write the individual catalog number on every single photo, put them in our special archival photo boxes, and label them.  Although the grunt work part of this project was dull at times, it did lead to learning about cold storage (how photos are stored in order to best preserve them). Once the photos were in the archival photo boxes, the box is wrapped in two layers of plastic (making sure everything is sealed as air tight as possible) and put in a fridge. A humidity strip on the box and between the layers of plastic show if there’s air leaking into the box. Continue reading “Stories from the (Gettysburg) Basement”