25 Years of Gettysburg

Edited by Olivia Ortman ’19

Amongst the Civil War community here at Gettysburg College, the movie Gettysburg is very much a part of our daily lives. Quotes are thrown back and forth in witty banter, the music is played for dramatic effect, and history professors are badgered to show clips in class. Since the movie fits so seamlessly into our experience here in Gettysburg, we often take it for granted. However, Gettysburg recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special showing at the Majestic Theater, with remarks from the director preceding the viewing. Although none of the Fellows attended, it got a lot of us thinking about our own experiences with the movie. Each one of us has been touched by Gettysburg in significant ways.

Ryan Bilger ’19 –I knew the soundtrack of the movie Gettysburg before I knew the film itself. I remember being six years old on a trip with my parents, asking “where are we going?” again and again during the car ride until I saw a sign announcing the mileage to Gettysburg. In that moment, I knew exactly where we were going. My father is also a casual historian of the battle, and I had often looked at the colorful pictures and maps in his Civil War magazines. Gazing out over the fields of Pickett’s Charge that day, something clicked in my young brain, and thus was born a lifelong interest. Of course, at six years old my parents correctly decided that I was not quite ready to see the movie Gettysburg yet, so they gave me the soundtrack CD to listen to instead. They didn’t get it back any time soon.

The movie, when I finally saw it, was worth the wait and has been my constant companion since. I watch scenes like the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge or the climax of Pickett’s Charge when I need to get motivated for events. The poster for the film hangs at the foot of my bed at home. Gettysburg, for all its flaws, has remained one of my favorite movies over the years, and has acted as a gateway to my development as a historian. The film presents myriad examples of popular heroism, whether in the form of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain leading a bayonet charge or Winfield Scott Hancock exposing himself to enemy fire to inspire his own troops. However, many more heroes of the battle did not survive to tell their stories. Through the Killed at Gettysburg project, I’ve illuminated some of these stories of valor that do not receive nearly as much attention. Men like Patrick O’Rorke, Benjamin Crippin, and Franz Benda all had their own unique stories to be told, bringing greater color and nuance to the broader narratives of heroism in July 1863.

Though it may sound strange, Gettysburg has also given me a community. Living in the Civil War Era Studies House at Gettysburg College, I can exclaim “What’s happening to my boys?!” or grumble in a low voice about high ground and nearly everyone will instantly understand. We joke about Pickett’s ridiculous laugh when Longstreet tells him he will lead the assault on July 3 and bemoan the death of the glorious Buster Kilrain. The movie brings us together as a group in strange, yet often hilarious ways, and for that I am extremely grateful.

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Seven-year-old Ryan Bilger exploring the Gettysburg battlefield.

Benjamin Roy ’21 – I was born in Bethel, Maine and take great pride in bearing the identity of a Mainer. This is in no small part due to the movie Gettysburg and the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine dramatized therein. From the first time I was exposed to the movie Gettysburg at five years old, I felt deeply connected to Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. I writhed in agony as the shrieking Alabamians charged and cheered when the Mainer valiantly resisted. My heart soared as Colonel Chamberlain charged down the hill, his Maine boys following close behind with fixed bayonets. My brother and I refought this struggle for Little Round Top on hillsides countless times. When my parents asked me, at age seven, whether I wanted to go to Disney World or Gettysburg, my choice was simple: Gettysburg.

The heroic story of the 20th Maine told in The Killer Angels and dramatized in Gettysburg is what ultimately inspired me to study the Civil War and pursue history as a career. My interest in Chamberlain and his men evolved into an interest in common soldiers. The story has also instilled a sense of identity in me and a pride in coming from Maine myself, even though I now live in North Carolina. Even as I write this, a miniature bust of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain overlooks my desk, reminding me of where I come from, and where I hope to go. Whenever I need to be reminded of who I am and where I am from, I need only to watch Gettysburg.

Olivia Ortman ’19 – My own journey with Gettysburg began much later than most of my fellow CWI writers. In my family, birthdays have always been very important. My sister and I were allowed to stay home on our birthdays and do anything we wanted. For me, that usually meant trips to Mystic Aquarium or the zoo. However, after learning about the Civil War in 8th grade, I asked my parents if my birthday day could be a birthday weekend. My parents agreed, and I headed off with my mom to spend Memorial Day weekend of 2011 in Gettysburg. It was one of the most magical weekends of my life, to say the least. (My mom still shudders when she thinks about traipsing every inch of battlefield behind me so I could investigate all, and I do mean all, the monuments.)

When I heard about the annual reenactment, I knew I had to come back to Gettysburg that July. The copy of Gettysburg the movie that I picked up in the giftshop of General Lee’s Headquarters was how I convinced my father to make a family trip out of the reenactment. After getting home from Gettysburg, I put on the film and insisted my dad watch with me so I could show him where I’d been. By the end of the film, and to my sister’s immense disappointment, I had convinced both parents that we needed to go to the July reenactment. That was the beginning of the past eight years for me. When we returned to Gettysburg, I discovered Gettysburg College and knew that I would one day attend. Throughout those years, whenever someone from home has asked me why Gettysburg or why history, Gettysburg was my way of explaining. The movie has given me a way to introduce others to my passion and let them see what I’m doing here at college.

Savannah Labbe ’19 – Being from Maine, I appreciate how Gettysburg highlights Maine’s contribution to the Civil War, which I feel is often underappreciated or even forgotten about. Maine contributed the largest number of soldiers proportionate to its population of any state in the Union. However, the movie Gettysburg has risen to such fame that it seems as if the 20th Maine was the only unit from Maine that made an important contribution to the battle. This is decidedly not the case. For example, the 16th Maine made a suicidal stand on the first day of the battle so that the Union First Corps could retreat. All of the 16th Maine soldiers were either captured or killed in order to allow the Union to fight another day. On the second day of the battle, the 17th and 19th Maine helped save the Union line after General Sickles overextended it.

The film also deifies the battle for Little Round Top and Chamberlain. The battle for Little Round Top comes across as a defining moment and a turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg. Viewers think that this was the moment that decided the outcome of the three-day fighting at Gettysburg, but that’s not necessarily true. Chamberlain himself has taken on star qualities as the man who saved the day, but his conflicting reports on the battle in real life call into question whether or not he himself actually gave his famous order to charge. While Gettysburg is an important film and it has it merits, it has become so dominant in popular culture that people have put Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on a pedestal, which does a disservice to the other Union units present at the battle. However, when I watched the movie Gettysburg for the first time in my 8th grade social studies class, I took this movie at face value. While the movie motivated me to study history and piqued my interest in the Civil War, I soon learned that it had a lot of flaws and was not necessarily an accurate depiction, making me want to explore the actual history of the battle more and the role that all Maine units played.

Cameron Sauers ’21 – My introduction to the movie Gettysburg begins with Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels. I remember being infatuated with the novel, constantly reading it and carrying it with me when I was in 4th grade. I don’t remember the first time I saw Gettysburg, but I do remember watching it constantly (my parents have seen it more times than they probably wished). This infatuation with the movie sky-rocketed in 5th grade when my local historic society brought in Patrick Falci (the actor who portrayed A.P. Hill) to speak at a special event and he encouraged me to pursue my passion for history and the Civil War. Almost 10 years later, I am on the front lines of history as a Fellow here at the CWI. I think it is safe to say that I would not be where I am today without the passion that Gettysburg awakened in me.

Not only has Gettysburg inspired my future, but it has also influenced the time I’ve spent with my family. My parents were forced to endure countless screenings of the movie, and never once complained or suggested that we watch something else. They saw my love for history growing before their eyes and supported it, buying me countless books and taking day trips to battlefields and re-enactments. When my parents recently visited during Family Weekend, they agreed when I wanted to take them to museums in town and on an impromptu battlefield tour. My parents didn’t bat an eye when they heard the many Gettysburg quotes from me and my peers. Gettysburg, to me, is a reminder of my childhood and my passion for history. But more importantly, it’s a reminder of the support and love my family has given me.

Making Photographs Speak

By James Goodman ’20, Benjamin Roy ’21, and Cameron Sauers ’21

It has often been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Making that picture spit out those mythical thousand words, as we can all attest, is no easy task. Over the course of the first half of the fall semester, the three of us were tasked with developing brief interpretive captions for two Civil War photographs each, with the end goal to display our work at the Civil War Institute’s 2019 Summer Conference. What initially appeared as a simple project quickly revealed itself to be a difficult, yet rewarding, challenge that taught us all important lessons concerning history, photography, and writing that we will not soon forget. Producing the photography exhibit enhanced our skills as historical writers, introduced us to the challenge of writing for a popular audience, and deepened our understanding of Civil War photography.

Benjamin – The first image I worked with was taken by Alexander Gardner on the Rose Farm a few days after the battle. In the photograph, four South Carolina officers lay in a rubbish heap, set on the edge of the Rose property, far away from the home and outbuildings. In a grotesque state of bloat and mutilation, the four bodies are unidentifiable, which highlights the importance of the headboards that lay atop and beside the dead. The haphazard nature of how the bodies and headboards have been laid out offers important insights into the struggles of civilians after the battle. After the Battle of Gettysburg, civilians had to deal with mass casualties and the challenges it posed to their ideologies about death and warfare. Primary accounts from visitors to the Rose farm after the battle reveal that these four soldiers were likely originally buried near John Rose’s well. John Rose disinterred the four corpses in the image and relocated them away from his water supply to ensure its safety. Already swamped with some 500 dead scattered about his property, Rose did not immediately rebury them, but placed them alongside the rest of the refuse to be dealt with later. This was far from the proper 19th-century burial, which was a Christian burial effected by loved ones or comrades and culminating in a quiet, unassuming funeral centered on the memory of the individual. John Rose’s discarding of these attitudes, graphically captured in Gardner’s image, is indicative of how the horrors of war, exhaustion, and pragmatism came together in the decisions of civilians like John Rose that broke from strict 19th-century traditions for treatment of the dead.

My second image was another photograph of South Carolina dead on the Rose farm. Three rebel officers lay exposed in an incomplete grave. Horse-drawn carts on a sloping hill occupy the background and the bodies are slightly hidden by the walls of the grave, but viewers’ eyes are drawn to the headboards. 19th-century beliefs about death placed heavy emphasis on personal identification and the humanization of the dead. Comrades of the fallen sought to ensure a proper battlefield burial by identifying the fallen’s remains so that they might be retrieved, or even brought home for burial with all the correct ceremonies that 19th-century sentimentalism required. Although these dead soldiers were not buried by their comrades, nor were their graves mourned over by loved ones, the headboards and Gardner’s choice to feature them speaks volumes about the resilience of sentimental attitudes about death. The headboards and the identities scrawled upon them stand like lighthouses of sentimentalism amid a sea of the impersonal destructive forces of war. A 19th-century viewer could take this horror and comfort in equal measure in the image of these three South Carolina dead, knowing that although these men had died far from home and loved ones, they would be remembered.

Frequently while developing these captions, I confronted ideas about mortality and identification after death. The South Carolina soldiers must have confronted these questions regularly in the lead-up to their fate at Gettysburg. This same morbid reflection must have consumed most Victorian Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, as images like this hasty grave became commonplace and challenged some of their most cherished cultural tenets of death, as well as the meaning and cost of war. My thoughts also turned to the families of the soldiers, and what their reactions would be if they ever saw these images. Would they be outraged that their son had become the object of a northern voyeuristic curiosity? Working on these captions left me with more questions than answers. This project illustrated to me that it is impossible to comprehend all the questions these images ask, and that I can only provide the best answers from the sources at my disposal. Similarly, I may never fully understand the overwhelming experiences of John Rose in the wake of a great battle, nor how a broader northern audience made sense of the horror they confronted in the twin images of South Carolina dead from the Rose farm.

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The three authors working with Ron Perisho, who generously provided the photographs for the project.

Cameron – For me, Civil War photography was what sparked my interest in the Civil War, so the opportunity to work on a photography-based project was truly an opportunity to relish. This project challenged me to look closer at these images and to dig deeper into the stories of the individuals photographed, both known and unidentified. The first of the two images that I worked with was from Alexander Gardner’s collection of death studies done near Devil’s Den. The image features one lone soldier lying on his back, with noticeable brain matter spilled out from his head and a posed rifle next to his side. The only background in the image is a rock. I had to piece together what I could about this individual: What unit was he from? When did he fall in the fighting? I only knew for certain that the soldier was a Confederate who died near the Slaughter Pen; everything else would have to be informed speculation based on Victorian norms.

At moments, it was emotional writing about the life of a soldier who might have been no older than myself when he fell in battle. When I finished the final draft of the caption, I went and found the location of the image. It was powerful and moving to visit the site of the image I had spent so much time with. That portion of the Slaughter Pen will never be the same for me when I visit the battlefield. Thinking about this image and all the other scenes from Gettysburg viewed by northern audiences who were so curious to catch a glimpse of the “real war” on camera, I wondered if they ever realized that the corpse captured in the image was someone’s loved one? Did they think about who this man was before the war and what led him to Gettysburg? Northern audiences may have seen the photo and thought they had experienced the war. Doubtless, the graphic image was profoundly troubling to many who held cherished ideas about the romance of war and the “Good Death.” Yet, as unsettled as these viewers may have been after gazing upon this gory image, the reality was that only those who participated in the fighting could truly understand the brutal experience of war.

The second image I worked with is a lesser known image taken by Frederick Gutekunst of a field hospital following the battle. The challenge of that image was an interesting juxtaposition to the other image. So much was already known about the numerous figures who appear in the image and who have published works about their experiences. Determining what narrative I wanted to focus on in my caption was difficult since there were numerous stories I could have honed in on. The experience of being able to explore the primary sources of individuals whom I had never previously considered, such as surgeons and nurses, provided a new depth to my understanding of the battle of Gettysburg and its impacts. The caption encouraged me to think about the experiences of those who were not traditional, rifle-carrying soldiers nor helpless civilians caught in the crossfire. They were humanitarians who willingly exposed themselves to danger to provide aid to soldiers on both sides of the battlefield. After the armies marched away, the army surgeons stayed with volunteer nurses to care for the wounded.

This photo also forced me to think more deeply about the specific message the photographer was trying to convey by depicting the hospital scene as he did, as well as the reaction he sought to provoke from his viewers. By photographing an array of tents and medical personnel milling about instead of the countless corpses lying on the battlefield, Gutekunst was trying to galvanize public support for Union soldiers and their caretakers: Many of Gutekunst’s images sought specifically to appeal to northerners’ patriotism as well as their purses in order to inspire civilians to donate money and supplies to the Union war effort. Such medical supplies and volunteers were essential to aid the brave wounded. By capturing the heroic surgeons and nurses, who stand in between the viewer and the gruesome scenes of a field hospital, Gutekunst showed the public the patriotic sacrifice of civilians, while sparing them the direct sensory affronts of the interior hospital scenes, in the hope that such an image might inspire others to similarly patriotic and self-sacrificing action.

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James – This project presented a unique set of challenges for me. I tend to write in a leaner style and therefore needed to develop a more elaborate and interpretive writing style. I was also pushed to think more interpretively about my photographs, which had an extra layer of difficulty in that they were of landscapes, not people. I worked with two images photographed by Samuel Fischer Corlies, an amateur photographer from Philadelphia who did not arrive in Gettysburg until November 1863. The images I chose depicted destroyed landscapes at East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. In order to do justice to these photos, I needed to go beyond simply what was shown in them to what Corlies intended his audience to feel, including the pain felt by civilians and soldiers alike in the aftermath of the battle. Due to the lack of actual bodies extant on the battlefield by November of 1863, he allowed the natural landscape to speak for those impacted by war, with the scarred landscape embodying the long-lasting pain and destruction upon bodies, families, and livelihoods alike.

Corlies’s image of East Cemetery Hill depicts a war-torn, devastated landscape. The focal point was a trench dug by Federal troops, with pieces of lumber strewn haphazardly along the earthwork. The land around the trench, which was probably vibrant with healthy grass and vegetation before the battle, was desolate and trampled. Looking at the image, I could only imagine what the aftermath of the battle was like for the people of Gettysburg. The field in this photo looks as if it were completely destroyed. Huge quantities of earth were moved to create the defenses or for artillery fire. Crops were eaten or trampled by marching troops. With their homes, fields, and livelihoods ravaged and forever changed by the clashing of two great armies in July, the people of Gettysburg faced a new, somber reality. This point was even more poignant when I learned Corlies’s images were from November of 1863, four months after the battle was fought. At this point, the land was ripped apart once again as citizens of Gettysburg began exhuming the bodies of dead soldiers and relocating them to their final resting places in the National Cemetery or the South. By exhuming the soldiers’ bodies, the town essentially reopened its only recently closed wounds. It must have felt like the nightmare would never end, and yet that disruptive burial process, compounded by Lincoln’s address that same month, also sought to provide healing, comfort, and a higher meaning for the suffering endured by soldiers and civilians alike.

In the image of Culp’s Hill, Corlies again captured the battle’s long-lasting destruction. Culp’s Hill looks like a barren wasteland filled with the trunks of trees. The trees were either intentionally cut down to be used as defenses or fell victim to the Confederate attempts to take the hill. As with East Cemetery Hill, this devastation occurred on someone’s property. A private citizen was forced to clean up the carnage left behind. They saw trees that had been growing for decades cut down in mere hours. The image of bullet ridden and devastated trees on Culp’s Hill reflected a common sentiment in the Victorian Era to find human symbolism in natural landscapes, and in this case, compare the decimated trees to slain human bodies. As the trees were destroyed or felled in some way, it made sense that Corlies attempted to replace the bodies of soldiers that would have been present on the landscape months prior with these trees. It truly represented how quickly and deeply the battle’s destruction was inflicted on Gettysburg and how long it would take for the area to heal.

 

We have learned much from developing these captions. Our skills as writers have been keenly developed, as we confronted and surmounted the challenges of creating attractive and digestible captions for a public audience. Furthermore, we gained a deeper appreciation for an interdisciplinary approach to history, as it allowed us to make the unspoken contents of each photograph visceral again. As we struggled to piece together the background stories for these photos, we often wondered how future generations will view our own pictures. Will they get the story 100% right? Only time will tell. Our hope is that on this project we were able to successfully capture the stories that are represented in each photograph.

Unspeakable Suffering; Eloquent Explanations: National Civil War Medicine Museum’s 26th Annual Conference

By Benjamin Roy ’21 and Cameron Sauers ’21

On Friday, October 12th, 2018, the National Civil War Medicine Museum kicked off its 26th annual conference and began its three-day event with a series of lectures on topics ranging from Confederate medical practice to cultural understandings of cowardice. A series of unique lectures given by a professionally diverse cast of presenters illuminated the often-peripheral field of Civil War Medicine.

Our day started on a high note with coffee and a thought-provoking inquiry into the position of Confederate Surgeon General. Dr. Guy R. Hasegawa, a pharmaceutical doctor and scholar, detailed the unique history of this crucial Confederate leadership position and the men who filled it during the war. The Confederate Surgeon General, identical to his Federal counterpart but without the benefits of the massive resources at Union command, was tasked with maintaining the health of the Confederate armed forces and citizenry. Building the medical department from the ground up presented the Confederate Surgeon General with challenges not experienced by his already established Federal counterpart. Hasegawa’s presentation provided particularly interesting insights into the life of Samuel Preston Moore, Confederate Surgeon General from 1862 until surrender. The lecture detailed the challenges, successes and controversies that defined Moore’s Confederate career. Among the engaging topics were the innovations pioneered by Moore and implemented by the Confederate medical department. Under Moore, the Surgeon General’s office established a medical journal, implemented exhaustive collection and analysis of medical data, and even pursued indigenous remedies. Moore also supervised the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers, which provided prosthetic limbs to Confederate veterans. Hasegawa’s talk provided an insight into the struggles that the Confederacy faced as it tried to establish itself as a new nation.

Dr. Robert Hicks, Director of the Mutter Museum of Philadelphia, continued the theme of Confederate medical practice in his presentation on the mass vaccination efforts at inoculating both the Confederate Army and civilian populace. Hicks used Confederate efforts at inoculation during an 1863 smallpox outbreak to highlight the pioneering efforts of the Confederate medical staff in epidemiology. This insightful and interdisciplinary talk combined material culture, epidemiology, and more traditional historical records, like primary source documents, to explain the smallpox outbreak the Confederacy dealt with in 1863. The outbreak was exacerbated by Confederates who attempted to vaccinate themselves, but inadvertently gave themselves and their comrades the disease. Laid atop the solid foundation of Hasegawa’s introduction of important figures in the Confederate Medical Department, Hicks’s presentation was personable and engaging. Combining scholarship and personality, Hicks’s talk was one of the highlights of the conference. The lecture mirrored an essay he recently contributed to Joan Cashin’s new edited volume, War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era. His research into Confederate vaccination emphasized the importance of those objects in his talk, with Hicks declaring, “Working with the stuff always gives you something you didn’t expect” and “material culture always produces surprises.”

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Dr. Robert Hicks

Paige Gibbons Backus’s talk, entitled “Revealing the Chaos and Carnage of the Hospitals of First Manassas,” gave a stark contrast to the orderly medical system emphasized by Hicks and Hasegawa. The talk highlighted the disorder and panic that inhibited the treatment of the wounded during and after the First Battle of Manassas. Field hospitals were shelled, wounded were left on the field for days, and spooked Federal doctors fled mid-surgery for the safety of Washington. Backus then shifted into describing how Ben Lomond Historic Site, which served as a field hospital during the battle, interprets Civil War medicine through the sense of smell. The site contracts with a company that manufactures smell canisters that recreate the odors of a hospital, thus giving visitors a direct connection to the often-unimaginable environment of a Civil War field hospital. By using smell as an educational tool, the site provides visitors with an interpretation that moves beyond audio and visual demonstrations, allowing them to have a more immersive experience. Backus noted that she has become accustomed to the rank smell of gangrene emitted by these canisters. Like Backus, Civil War medical personnel would have gone nose-blind to the horrific smells due to constant exposure in their daily routines of aiding the wounded. (As an aside, the audience was most disturbed when Backus revealed that that same company contracts with Starbucks to manufacture the smell of coffee that permeates their locations, eliciting a common groan of disgust from all attendees).

Captain Frank K. Butler, M.D. gave the next talk on current standards of care in the armed forces, titled, “Battlefield Trauma Care – From Antietam to Afghanistan.” Butler immediately commanded attention from the audience by showing a picture of an Afghan mountain range in his title slide and remarking, “this is from when we were hunting for Mr. Bin Laden.” The talk focused on battlefield medicine in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars with high stakes in our own young lives. Remembering our friends in the armed forces made Butler’s talk one of the more personally resonant presentations for us. Using the tourniquet as the medical thread to tie Civil War soldiers fighting on the plains of Antietam to Special Forces Operators ascending the mountains of the Hindu Kush, Butler assumed a highly medical voice as he discussed the nature of military medical reform. Butler’s advocation of the TCCC (Tactical Combat Casualty Care) plan among the armed forces was the focus of the talk. The Department of Defense uses TCCC to teach Special Forces operators life saving techniques and strategies for tending to trauma injuries received on the battlefield. Often using graphic depictions of real wounds sustained by Special Forces soldiers in the war against terror, Butler’s presentation offered a sobering picture of battlefield medical care and the challenges it still poses today. Butler portrayed continuity by explaining how the use of morphine has remained relatively unchanged from the Civil War into today, reflecting a lack of innovation that mystifies Butler. Although TCCC significantly lessened the death rate for wounds to the extremities, Butler’s goal is to eliminate preventable deaths and keep innovating. Butler’s talk offered a poignant example of how professionals in their fields use material culture, like the humble tourniquet, and historical knowledge to highlight the evolution of battlefield trauma and make lifesaving innovations.

CWI Director, Dr. Peter Carmichael finished the first day with a thought-provoking inquiry into how sentimentalism shaped the way surgeons treated soldiers suffering under the pressures of Civil War combat. Very broadly, sentimentalism refers to a 19th -century belief that faith in God and strength of will would prevent moral failure. Dr. Carmichael stated that belief in sentimentalist prescriptions of manhood shaped Victorian Americans’ belief that cowardice, and the way it could manifest itself through various bodily “ailments,” was an affliction to be overcome through masculine force of will, not through medicinal treatment. Carmichael provoked the audience with passages from a war-time medical journal and engaging rhetoric that challenged conference attendees to see not the barbaric practices of early modern surgeons, but rather cultural tropes that directly shaped Americans’ views of soldiering, masculinity, and medical practice during the Civil War. Carmichael used the example of a northern surgeon who concluded in a medical journal that combat was the best cure for homesickness, as it allowed the men to drown individual sufferings and longings by expressing their manly impulses and created a community within the regiment. Using case studies of different Civil War soldiers, Carmichael nicely grounded this sophisticated talk about the complex concept of sentimentalism in the concrete reality of men’s experiences.

Jake Wynn, the Director of Interpretation at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, started the second day with a talk on the functions of the Army of the Potomac’s medical department during the Overland Campaign. The Overland Campaign was the first campaign following the departure of Jonathan Letterman from his post as Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac. Letterman had revolutionized battlefield medicine by pioneering the use of the triage system and emphasizing the use of ambulances. The campaign’s aggressive and unrelenting drive to the South and East, and the bloody battles it produced along the way, overwhelmed the medical department. During May and June 1864, the medical department had treated 40,000 wounded men. Wynn noted that ambulances became a critical part of the campaign as wounded soldiers needed to be evacuated to the main Union hospital. The difficulty for the medical department was that, as Grant and Lee continued their southeasterly drive toward Richmond, new hospitals had to be constantly established in their wake. Wynn discussed the experiences of nurses and wounded soldiers during the campaign to highlight how the department performed without its now legendary head, Jonathan Letterman. The department kept Letterman’s reforms, which are still used today in battlefield medicine, to treat the wounded.

The final lecture of the conference came from Melissa DeVelvis, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, specializing in the Civil War era, gender studies, and sensory and emotional history. DeVelvis’s talk covered the impact of the senses in Civil War hospitals, focusing specifically on the experience of Civil War nurses. One topic of intrigue was how important touch was to recovering soldiers. DeVelvis provided an example of a Confederate nurse remarking that the Union soldiers in a Confederate hospital had a higher mortality rate because the nurses were less tender with them than they were with Confederates soldiers. Another interesting point was that nurses, especially in the Deep South, had to consider the men they were treating as their brothers and sons to avoid transgressing on Victorian morality. The intimate relationships between soldiers and nurses would have defied ideas of propriety if they were not considered to be family. The final topic of the lecture covered how Civil War nurses became numb to death through their constant contact with the dead and dying. DeVelvis noted that nurses wrote about tending to the dying as a minor occurrence, reporting it in their letters home as just a mechanical byproduct of their work. DeVelvis compared the numbness of hospital workers to soldiers who became accustomed to the fighting and killing on the front lines. The combined experience of soldiers and civilians led to a reevaluation of Victorian ideals, like the notion of the “good death,” and led to a renegotiation of certain moral values.

As we left the conference, we reflected on two days of lectures, the wide scope of topics covered by presenters, and how grateful we were to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine for providing scholarships so that we, and other Gettysburg students, could attend the conference. We witnessed an exciting example of how rich history can be when it embraces interdisciplinary methods. Examples of the application of material culture, gender studies, cultural history and numerous other disciplines inspired us to apply the same to our own research for the Civil War Institute. This semester, we are curating a photography exhibit that will be displayed at this summer’s CWI Conference comprised of images taken at Gettysburg following the battle. What we learned at the conference challenged us to re-consider the images in our exhibit in a new light. The topics interweaving both science and medicine gave broader perspective to two historically minded people like us. As historians, we normally view ourselves as the antithesis to medicine and science, but the Civil War Medicine Conference provided us the opportunity to see how the fields overlap. The field of Civil War history often can seem overpopulated with histories covering the same figures and events. We left the conference full of hope and convinced that our own scholarship could be groundbreaking in unique ways, like the presentations at the conference.

 

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.

SOURCES

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).