Competing Memory: Camp Colt’s Place in Gettysburg History

By Anika Jensen ’18

I recently came face-to-face with the issue of relevance in my research on Camp Colt for a public history class, and in studying the tankers’ noble intentions—preserving democracy, stemming German militarization, progressing American innovation—on an equally noble battlefield, I came to an troubling impasse: should America’s first tank school, which operated on the same ground where men fell in droves during Pickett’s Charge roughly fifty years prior, be recognized to the same degree as the Battle of Gettysburg? Is there a way to justify discussing Eisenhower’s command over the fledgling tank corps, which never saw combat, in the same light as the Civil War’s costliest land battle? To me, of course, the answer is yes. With my interests lying in the First World War, I think the Camp Colt experience proves imperative to understanding Gettysburg as a place, but I also see it as more than a neat anecdote. The training that occurred on the battlefield in 1918 paved the way for America’s participation in modern, armored war and established Dwight D. Eisenhower as a notable leader. Moreover, the camp’s trainees looked to Civil War era values of bravery and duty, memorialized in stories about Joshua Chamberlain and Pickett’s Charge, to establish a new martial masculinity for the 20th century.

That said, I understand the opposition. Gettysburg is the holy of holies, a national shrine, and the ultimate signifier of honor, duty, and sacrifice. To place its memory and its venerated dead beside a group of recruits who never saw combat, never really impacted the course of the Great War, would be to trivialize the battlefield that for so long has served to remember and consecrate. I understand the argument that they simply cannot be compared in scale and experience. If Gettysburg can only hold one group’s memory, then, it should be those that fought and fell there in 1863.

 

ft-17
Camp Colt recruits trained with the Renault FT-17. Photo credit: Eisenhower National Historical Site, Gettysburg National Military Park

The debate is one of static versus continuing history. Static history, in this case, focuses on Gettysburg as a Civil War site, a logical idea, given that the majority of this town’s visitors are more interested in learning about the Bloody Angle than the Renault FT-17. Static history certainly evolves, evident in Gettysburg’s increasing importance in Civil Rights and African American history, but it prioritizes singularity over collectivism. Here, many of us establish a sense of place based on a single battle and its aftermath, often overlooking any events or cultural phenomenon that do not connect to the Civil War directly. It makes it easier to understand the town in which we live.

But there is much to be said about continuing history, too. By studying Camp Colt and the Great War alongside the Civil War, we create a bigger picture of American history that absorbs both the 19th and 20th century and helps us understand things as they are. This approach works with history as a continuum. It uses the Battle of Gettysburg to interpret the Camp Colt experience, emphasizing the importance of both while creating a more complete, whole idea of “Gettysburg.” While I recognize the necessity of preservation, I firmly believe that it can survive alongside a more continuous, all-encompassing historical narrative.

When I delivered an interpretive program on the Camp Colt experience, placing the summer of 1863 beside the summer of 1918, I received positive feedback (from Civil War buffs, no less). I realized that focusing on Camp Colt does not detract from the collective Gettysburg memory or trivialize the battle but rather enhances the sense of place and timelessness this town holds. It was this same sense of place, after all, that motivated Eisenhower’s tank recruits to emulate the bravery and comradeship of Gettysburg’s dead. By 1918, the young tankers knew what they would face in France, but they remained willing to serve, motivated by the ground on which they trained. It does not matter, then, that they never made it into combat; their willingness is enough to warrant their memory.

Eisenhower’s tank recruits, selected specifically for their bravery and competence under pressure, build upon the Gettysburg we know and expanded our understanding of war, memory, suffering, martial masculinity, and duty. In a sense, the men of Camp Colt were casualties of war, as 150 died of the Spanish Flu, a testament to the truly global nature of the First World War. This point is combated; can we really call them casualties of the war if they never suffered in the trenches of France or the mountains of Italy? That is the tragedy and revelation of the Great War: there were no more illusions about nobility in death, no more Victorian ideas of grand self-sacrifice, no more ars moriendi as was perpetuated during the Civil War era.

Moreover, we cannot separate the two wars entirely. The Civil War was fresh in American minds in 1918, as demonstrated by a number of newspaper articles and editorials noting the importance of remembering the country’s bloodiest conflict in the midst of global war. Furthermore, over the course of five years the battlefield had witnessed a fifty-year anniversary, the dedication of the Virginia memorial, a boom in tourism, and a tense attempt at reconciliation. With the Great Migration just beginning and an unwelcome atmosphere greeting African American soldiers returning from the front, it is clear that the race issues that impacted the Civil War were far from resolved. Moreover, many monuments erected from 1914 to 1918 spoke directly to the Great War; speeches, inscriptions, and the monuments themselves drew on Civil War stories and culture heroes—Bobby Lee, Chamberlain, Grant, and the like—to encourage steadfast patriotism amidst the threat of German militarism.

If Camp Colt has taught me anything, it is that memory is not exclusive but collective. Its space in the Gettysburg narrative may be contentious, but I hold that it is essential. In the same way that the memory of Pickett’s Charge motivated young tankers to train harder and inspired them to serve on some of the world’s deadliest battlefields, our memory of Camp Colt can be used to further consecrate Gettysburg and understand it as a place both remaining in history and continuing in time.

Preservation or National Necessity? Gettysburg National Military Park During the World Wars

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

The great battle in 1863 was not the only time that soldiers occupied Gettysburg. As a National Military Park, the land was administered by the War Department for decades before becoming part of the National Park Service in 1933. As such, the department could use the land for whatever purpose was deemed necessary. During both World Wars the government made use of the historic landscape where Pickett’s Charge took place, and mandated the registration of monuments for potential removal as scrap metal for the war effort. The government saw the threats posed by 20th century warfare to outweigh the value of a preserved landscape.

A Renault tank cresting a dirt hill near the Bliss Farm in 1918. Courtesy of Eisenhower National Historic Site.

In 1917, the fields briefly hosted a mass mobilization camp, but that was short lived. The more major encampment came in 1918. The fields of Pickett’s Charge had become home to Camp Colt, a training camp for the newly formed Tank Corps. Soldiers under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that the sounds of war again echoed through Gettysburg. Infantry carried out drill, and trucks with machine guns and 3 inch naval guns used the Round Tops for target practice. Once tanks arrived, drivers honed their skills on the battlefield, accidentally plowing through dirt as they maneuvered over historic landscapes, including the remnants of the Bliss family’s farm. After the war, the buildings were demolished, but the camp still left a physical mark on the landscape. Years later, William Redding, a farmer who had leased his farm from the government prior to the war, filed a complaint that, despite the fact the government had promised to return the land to the original condition, “sewers, water courses, trenches, and other excavations” remained in the fields.

In 1944, enemy soldiers again arrived in Gettysburg. Instead of invading Confederates, these new soldiers were German prisoners of war, mostly captured in North Africa. Chosen for the isolated location, local labor deficiencies, and remaining infrastructure, the former grounds of Camp Colt became home to an unnamed POW camp. Many Gettysburgians were angered by this, but not necessarily because of the use of the battlefield. Instead, their complaints primarily focused on fears of violent German escapees or anger that jobs vacated by their loved ones in the armed forces would be filled by the enemies the former workers had gone off to fight. These prisoners worked in businesses around Gettysburg, filling American soldiers’ vacant jobs by cutting wood, picking apples, and working in canning plants. Interestingly, many of the work crews also helped clear brush from the battlefield, helping to restore the historic landscape that their camp was intruding upon.

The tents that comprised the WWII prisoner of war camp on the fields of Pickett’s Charge in 1944. Courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park.

During the Second World War, Gettysburg’s landscape also paid a price during the scrap drives. Fences, markers, and even parts of monuments were split into categories based off “importance.” These categories would determine at what pace they would be removed if the situation became so desperate that the government absolutely needed the metal. Luckily, the situation never became so desperate to call for the removal of monuments, but Gettysburg did sacrifice “750 spherical shells, 14 iron guns, 1 bronze gun, 8 bronze howitzers, 26 bronze siege guns, and 38 bronze guns.” These were of post-Civil War manufacture, and deemed expendable. Modern visitors can still see the places where the spherical shells were once placed, such as the concrete foundations next to Cushing’s Battery at the Angle.

Ultimately, Gettysburg sacrificed parts of the historic and commemorative landscape during the World Wars. Fields were occupied by soldiers, weapons were discharged towards the Round Tops, military vehicles drove over previously preserved fields, and commemorative objects were removed for scrap drives. Were these sacrifices worth it? Should the government have found different places for military camps and different sources of metal, or was the integrity of Gettysburg’s landscape worth partially sacrificing in order to achieve military success? Imagine if modern prisoners from the War on Terror were brought to live on the fields of Pickett’s Charge today. During the World Wars, Gettysburg and the historical community were willing to consent to sacrifices for the war effort, but it is far less likely that these sacrifices would be accepted today.

The fields near Emmitsburg Road as they appear today, having mostly recovered from military occupation. Photo by author, 2017.

Sources:

“Camp Colt Damages.” Gettysburg Compiler, May 1, 1926.

Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Hartwig, D. Scott. “Scrap Drive 1942.”

Murray, Jennifer. On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

A Usable Past: First World War Training Camps on Civil War Battlefields

By Sarah Johnson ’15

When visitors flock to America’s National Parks, the battlefields from the American Civil War are perennially popular. Every summer, thousands come to walk over the serene fields and forests where men suffered unimaginable carnage. These sites have become sacred in the American psyche, places to remember and honor the dead, educate the public, or engage in quiet personal reflection. The rolling plains, dense forests and impressive mountains of Civil War battlefields inspire awe and reverence for what author Robert Penn Warren tagged America’s only “felt history.”

Such attitudes towards our Civil War battlefields did not always exist. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of the battlefields were owned by the United States War Department. The War Department’s attitude toward the land was entirely pragmatic. Much of the land over which Civil War armies fought was tactically important terrain, hence the reason why generals chose to fight there. Studying historic battles has always been an important part of military instruction, and the War Department took a hands-on approach to training America’s future fighters, literally creating a usable past by recreating, drilling, and practicing tactics on Civil War battlefields. During World War One, battlefields became training grounds. Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Petersburg, huge sites in the Civil War world, also played a role in the First World War. Gettysburg became home to Regular Infantry in the summer of 1917 and was named Camp Colt to train the newly formed Tank Corps in 1918. Camp Greenleaf, located in the heart of the Chickamauga battlefield, housed the Army Medical Corps. Camp Lee, near Petersburg, trained infantry.

Medical Officer's Training Corps at Camp Greenleaf in 1917. Library of Congress.
Medical Officer’s Training Corps at Camp Greenleaf in 1917. (click image for full view)
Library of Congress.

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Before He Was Supreme: Eisenhower’s WWI Days in Gettysburg

By Avery Lentz ’14

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a man of many talents. He served as one of America’s most distinguished presidents and possessed an abiding love for the military, a passion that led him to become General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII. He was the man behind the “Liberation of Europe” and led the way for his forces to rid the world of tyranny. However, before he was a president and before he was a general, Ike was a captain fresh out of West Point who wanted to achieve fame and glory on the battlefields of World War I. Instead of being sent abroad to active duty, Ike was assigned the domestic duty of training potential tank crews at a new army camp on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Lentz -- Eisenhower Paint

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