Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause

Last fall, CWI Fellow (and now Gettysburg College graduate) Megan McNish ’16 shared this reflection on the experience of commemorating the Civil War in spite of having no family members who were in America during the conflict. A few hours later, we received a notification that someone had responded to the post. 

We receive many comments on the Gettysburg Compiler, and not infrequently do they come from adherents of the Lost Cause mythology. Few comments, however, have been as detailed and historically problematic as the one Megan’s post received. We invited the Fellows (past and present) to respond with their own comments to different parts of the argument, and now we are publishing their compiled responses along with the original comment. 

The text in the gray boxes below was originally published by the commenter as one long paragraph. We have divided it into sections (though maintained the original order) so that the Fellows’ responses could be inserted immediately after the sections to which they refer. We have also changed visible URLs into hyperlinks for the sake of aesthetic appeal. Apart from these tweaks, no edits have been made to the content, grammar, style, or spelling for either the Fellows or the original commenter. Not every possible critique of the comment is included below as each student was asked to hone in on one or two parts that they thought would most benefit from further discussion and context. 

Feel free to share your own impressions and reactions in the comment section. 

The comment begins:

I commend your passion on this subject and it is truly an honor to read about a youth that studies history. I would however like to set the record straight about the Civil War and the real reasons it was fought. This War just like many others throughout history were fought over greed. The South did not betray their fellow countrymen but rather the North oppressed the Southern states with unfair taxation and think about that for a moment UNFAIR TAXATION. Does that ring a bell think the Boston Tea Party.

Ryan Nadeau ’16:  What makes a tax unfair? Certainly, the case can be made for taxation without representation, as it was during the Revolution. By our standards of representative democracy, that’s just fine. However, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the South had plenty of representation. In the Thirty-sixth Congress, which sat from 1859 to the opening days of 1861, the states of the Confederacy held twenty-four of the sixty-six seats in the Senate (two for each state) and sixty-six of two-hundred and thirty-eight seats in the House of Representatives. Admittedly, this number for the House seems unusually low– and it was. Had the South abolished slavery, they would have received significant increases to their political representation. The Three-Fifth’s Compromise, as outlined in the Constitution, recognized only three out of every five slaves towards the population of a state when accounting for representation. Continue reading “Civil War Mythbusters: Grappling with the Lost Cause”

Point/Counterpoint: Questions of Historical Preservation

By Bryan Caswell ’15 and Heather Clancy ’15

Bryan: Events of the past year here in Gettysburg have been momentous for historical preservation. On July 1, 2014 the Civil War Trust announced that it plans to purchase a four-acre plot of land opposite the Lutheran Seminary. On this land sits the original building that housed Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s Headquarters does not sit alone, however, sharing the property with a Quality Inn and an extremely popular local restaurant, the Appalachian Brewing Company. The Civil War Trust plans on removing these modern buildings and placing a conservation easement on the property in order to ensure its protection and return the landscape to a more nineteenth-century vista. The importance of such an event seems to be self-evident to many historians and so-called ‘Civil War buffs,’ but reactions in Gettysburg itself have been rather varied. This debate has intrigued me, leading me to reconsider notions of historical preservation and ask a question that may seem heretical: what is the value of further preservation?

Heather: For this particular site, preservation and the return to an approximation of its 1863 appearance is easily defensible. Lee’s Headquarters was the location of some of the key tactical planning moments of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was here that the Confederate general and his officers triggered many of the actions that would decide the fate of this small town and the armies that had gathered on its rolling hills and fields. By acquiring the land on which the structure stands, the Civil War Trust has enabled the transition of Lee’s Headquarters to the National Park Service for maintenance and interpretation. Once under NPS supervision, the headquarters will be able to be incorporated into the existing interpretive framework of Gettysburg National Military Park, enriching the experiences of thousands of visitors who come to the park to hear the story of one of our nation’s countless military turning points. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: Questions of Historical Preservation”

“Two Wars and the Long Twentieth Century:” A Response

By Bryan Caswell ’15 and Sarah Johnson ’15

Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University and renowned historian of the American Civil War, authored an article in the New Yorker recently entitled “Two Wars and the Long Twentieth Century.” Taken primarily from her remarks in the Rede Lecture delivered at the University of Cambridge earlier in 2015, Faust’s article takes advantage of the proximity of the anniversaries of the First World War and the American Civil War to advocate for a dialogue of greater continuity between the two conflicts. Faust cites the apparently similar roles of industry, suffering, national mobilization, and memory in both wars as evidence for a ‘long twentieth century’ similar to the ‘long nineteenth century’ so often used by historians to denote the period between the French Revolution and the end of the First World War. Faust argues that “A case can be made that the American Civil War anticipated, in important ways, the transformations that have so often been attributed to the years between 1914 and 1918.” This statement is highly problematic, and requires viewing the two conflicts as if in self-contained historical vacuums. As Dr. Faust’s expressed wish was to place the American Civil War in historical context, however, we have resolved to do just that.

Perhaps the most emphasized point of Faust’s article is the untold carnage of the American Civil War and the First World War. Among other things, Faust points to the unexpected nature of that carnage in both wars and the role of industry in their harvests of death. Claims of similarity based on these factors are rather disingenuous. The industrial slaughter of the First World War had never been approached by any previous conflict and truly heralded a new age in warfare. The mortal cost of the American Civil War, although high for a budding nation only seventy-six years old at the time, should not be understood as anything out of the ordinary. The last major wars in Europe, those involving Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, inflicted massive numbers of casualties. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia alone incurred more casualties than the entire Civil War solely among French forces. The high number of American casualties in the Civil War is also a misleading figure, as it is reflective of the nature of civil war in which both armies were made up of Americans. Such widespread devastation has largely been attributed to another of Faust’s points for the importance of the American Civil War, namely the mass mobilization of people along nationalist lines and the participation of all citizens, civilian and soldier, in the waging of war. The French Revolution, not the American Civil War, is the origin of this phenomenon in the modern period, and indeed the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 was largely an effort to stuff the genie of nationalism, with all its dire implications, back into its bottle. Continue reading ““Two Wars and the Long Twentieth Century:” A Response”

Playing Catch-Up: Jonathan Letterman and the Triage System

By Bryan Caswell ’15

"Dr. Jonathan Letterman (1824-72)," Wikimedia Commons.
“Dr. Jonathan Letterman (1824-72),” Wikimedia Commons.

Gettysburg has more than its fair share of heroes. While the overwhelming majority of these larger-than-life figures was intimately acquainted with the conduct of the Battle of Gettysburg, a few stand apart from tales of martial valor. The most famous, of course, is Abraham Lincoln, yet he is not the only man associated with the aftermath of Gettysburg. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, provisions for the care of the wounded and dying left behind by both armies were organized by Major Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac. Known today as the ‘Father of Battlefield Medicine,’ Letterman has been hailed by historians of the American Civil War as a great medical and surgical innovator, revolutionizing methods of efficient care for wounded soldiers in the field and inventing what has become known as the triage system for prioritizing wound treatment. I’ve been party to numerous tours and talks that have recognized and hailed Letterman for these landmark accomplishments. There is simply one problem with this widespread notion, however: it is, in fact, incorrect.

Continue reading “Playing Catch-Up: Jonathan Letterman and the Triage System”

“I am always thinking first of you:” The Chamberlains in Love and War

By Bryan Caswell ’15

Soldier. Professor. Hero. Braggart. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain has been called many things by many people. Regardless of whether one loves or despises him, Chamberlain and his role in the American Civil War never fail to evoke intense emotion. While books, movies, and the occasional painting have all immortalized Chamberlain the soldier, rare is the occasion to observe Chamberlain the husband. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I bring you the story of the Chamberlains; a story of romance and rebuttal, of peace and conflict, of injury both physical and emotional and, in the end, a deep, abiding love.

Fanny Chamberlain. Wikimedia Commons.
Fanny Chamberlain.
Wikimedia Commons.

Joshua Chamberlain was twenty-seven years old when he married Francis Caroline Adams. Three years his senior, ‘Fanny’ was the foster daughter of the pastor of First Parish Church in Brunswick, Maine, where all students of Bowdoin College were required to attend service. The two most likely met soon after Chamberlain arrived at Bowdoin in 1848, though their courtship would not begin in earnest until 1852. By this time Fanny had accepted a teaching position at a private girls’ school in Georgia, and so the bulk of their early intimacy was conducted through written correspondence. A reserved young woman, Fanny seems to have been rather hesitant in the expression of her affections, regularly testing Chamberlain with, among other things, musings on the value of a platonic relationship. As a hot-blooded young college student, Chamberlain responded by expressing his affections for Fanny in what can only be described as Victorian erotica, detailing his own sexual fantasies and what he looked forward to upon their reunion. Fanny’s homecoming in 1855 brought with it their marriage, an arrangement pursued by Fanny with dogged determination. Continue reading ““I am always thinking first of you:” The Chamberlains in Love and War”

Point/Counterpoint: Anchoring Historical Memory

By Bryan Caswell ’15 and Heather Clancy ’15

Bryan: Wednesday, November 19, 2014 saw citizens and students of Gettysburg crowd into the Majestic Theater for the fifty-third annual Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture. The audience listened attentively as Dr. Nina Silber, a renowned historian of the American Civil War, explored the nuanced application of the memory of Abraham Lincoln during the 1930s and ‘40s, especially as associated with the figure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A fascinating study of the evolution and utility of the public conception of an historical figure, Dr. Silber’s talk made manifest the common adage that each generation is possessed of their own Lincoln. Yet as I sat there in the Majestic pondering the implications of the lecture, I noticed a curious phenomenon. While Lincoln was every bit the pivotal character in Dr. Silber’s narrative, nowhere in her discussion could the historical Lincoln be found. The objective of the lecture was of course not to define the historical Lincoln but to explain the Lincoln of the New Deal era, so this absence could be understandable. Even with this concession, however, Silber’s strictly tangential references to the historical inspiration for memory continued to give me pause.

Heather: Silber’s more peripheral use of Civil War history in her exploration of the popular 1930s memory of Lincoln also sparked an initial uncertainty for me. In this particular case, though, I was ultimately reassured by the potential that a tangential discussion of history offers in the ongoing effort to make Civil War memory—and indeed perhaps all historical memory—more widely relevant beyond the confines of an otherwise very specialized subfield. In an area of academic study already so frequently criticized for what many perceive as a lack of pragmatic applications, the opportunity for a more general and interdisciplinary examination of historical memory is crucial.

Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: Anchoring Historical Memory”

Point/Counterpoint: An Insidious Cycle


By Bryan Caswell ’15 and Heather Clancy ’15

Heather.Bryan.PTCOUNTERPT.reenacting.imageHeather: In our last post, Bryan and I explored the unique challenges that the reenacting hobby poses to the interpretation and public understanding of the American Civil War. In it, we touched on just a few of the many motivations that inspire individuals to reenact. As we continue our Point/Counterpoint series below, we look to explore the relationship of the reenacting hobby with a particularly complex and problematic ideology–the Lost Cause.

Bryan: There are many breeding grounds for that despicable interpretation of the Civil War known as the Lost Cause. Perpetrated by Confederate veterans after the war, the Lost Cause teaches that the Civil War was neither caused by nor fought over the question of slavery, and that Confederates of all ranks, classes, and creeds were simply honest Americans nobly fighting for the doomed yet righteous cause of states’ rights. These claims are dubious at best; the importance of slavery in particular is universally agreed upon in academic circles due to the indisputable evidence for its centrality to the official Confederate justification for secession. One of the most interesting venues for the propagation of this questionable ideology is, I have noticed, that of reenacting. Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: An Insidious Cycle”

Point/Counterpoint: Blanks Fired


By Bryan Caswell ’15 and Heather Clancy ’15


The following post is part of a series meant to conduct and spark a friendly philosophical discussion of broadly visible themes. It is not our intent to single out any one group or person, and by no means should the points expressed herein be regarded as any kind of attack on either the reenacting community or academia.

Continue reading “Point/Counterpoint: Blanks Fired”

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”

O’er Silent Fields

By Bryan Caswell ’15

Followers of the Compiler may remember a piece I wrote in the early autumn of 2013 on the last stand of the 16th Maine Regiment of Volunteer Infantry on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I am living in Gettysburg this summer while I work as a Brian C. Pohanka intern in Gettysburg College’s Special Collections, I of course could not miss the chance to hike up to the location of that stand on Oak Ridge to pay tribute to those boys from Maine.

As I crested the ridge just north of town, I was struck by the historical dissonance of the panorama in front of me. So much has occurred in 151 years. Ribbons of tar and asphalt stretch across the gently sloping hills; great mechanical beasts wind their way around mute stone sentinels; the chatter of children lurks ever in the background.


Continue reading “O’er Silent Fields”