Marching in Step:  USCT Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic

By Ryan Bilger ‘19

This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead:  Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.

USCT Veterans on Parade, Easton, PA. Postcard. Black veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic were, like their white counterparts, very active in the realms of commemoration and politics. “Decoration Day,” the precursor to our modern Memorial Day, officially started with the GAR in 1868, and served both purposes. Courtesy of Special Collections and College Archives, Gettysburg College.

For many United States Colored Troops, remembering the Civil War and their comrades who fell in it became an important part of their post-war life. One of the primary opportunities for public expression of remembrance was Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day. African Americans played a critical part in the creation of this holiday. On May 1, 1865, the newly-freed black residents of Charleston asserted their place in Civil War memory by leading a parade to a recently constructed cemetery for Union prisoners at the city’s horseracing course. The procession heaped flowers upon the graves of the honored dead, after which ministers from the town’s black congregations gave dedicatory speeches. This event, known among some in the North as the “First Decoration Day,” exemplified African American interest in perpetuating the memory of the Civil War. However, the resentment of white Southerners at the time towards this instance of black agency led to the marginalization and eventual forgetting of the event in the mind of the public at large.

Continue reading “Marching in Step:  USCT Veterans and the Grand Army of the Republic”

Bearing the Battle, Binding the Wounds

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

When I arrived at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park for my summer 2016 internship orientation, I introduced myself as being from Yorktown, VA.  The ranger quipped “you must have a thing for surrender towns.”  I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose I do.  I’ve lived in and around historic towns my entire life. I was born in Richmond, graduated high school in Yorktown, attended college in Gettysburg, and completed internships in New Market, Appomattox, and in the Hampton Roads area.  I never seem to be far from a battlefield or a battle town, physically or emotionally. I love these towns and the stories of the ordinary people who fought within them.  I have some relatives who fought for the Union and others who fought for the Confederacy, and although not a family relation, I feel a special connection to James Greenleaf of Pennsylvania.

McLean House
The Wilmer McLean House in 1865, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Bearing the Battle, Binding the Wounds”

Confederate Memory

By Olivia Ortman ’19

This year as a CWI Fellow, I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking on Civil War memory, specifically that of Confederate memory. When doing this work, the question at the back of my mind is always: How should monuments, symbols, and other examples of Confederate memory be handled? This is a very difficult question, so up until now, I’ve left it alone, knowing that there would come a time in the future that I would sit down and wrestle with my conflicting opinions on the matter. A couple days ago, the Civil War Era Studies Department here at Gettysburg College sent out an email sharing the news that New Orleans had begun removing Confederate monuments and several other cities were thinking of doing the same. After reading this, I knew the time had come for me, and all of you, to join the discussion about Confederate Memory.

The first question that I ask myself when thinking about how to handle Confederate Memory is what the people want. Confederate monuments have a variety of owners. In some cases, the monuments are owned by a private organization or individual who put them up, in other cases, the city, state, or federal government may own them. The same goes for the land they are on. If owned by individuals or private groups, it’s their choice what happens. When the monument or land belongs to the local government, as is the case with the New Orleans monuments, it should be the people’s choice what happens. Although the city council of New Orleans voted 6 to 1 to remove several monuments, the residents didn’t get the chance to vote. For many issues, allowing the council to take care of matters on their own is fine; the people elected them because they trusted them to make the right decisions. In matters that generate a lot of public concern, though, residents are usually asked to vote. We vote on taxes, why not on monuments? If the majority of city residents agree with the removal of a Confederate symbol or monument, remove it and say no more. If the majority of residents are against the action, however, it doesn’t seem right to disrespect their wishes. The popular vote in New Orleans may have agreed with the removal of the monuments, but without that formal vote, we can’t know for sure.

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The Conflicting Conflict: Memorialization and Memory of the Great War

2017 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the US joining the First World War. This post will be part of a series examining the Great War in scope and in memory.

By Danielle Jones ’18

July 1st through 3rd, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. There were an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 visitors to the national park, including as many as 10,000 reenactors. The Civil War sesquicentennial was commemorated from the very beginning, and ended with a reenactment in Appomattox that saw over 6,000 people visit to re-live the end of the American Civil War. On April 9th, bells across the nation, including at Gettysburg College, tolled for 4 minutes to honor the four years the war raged on. Plans were started for the anniversary almost a decade in advance and millions of Americans in commemorating of the war that cost 600,000 Americans their lives. A collective narrative of the war began forming  before the surrender was even signed, and while each side had a different memory directly after Appomattox, the settled upon collective narrative still exists today.

WWI ffed the fighter
While the Great War had a massive impact on the American home front, the war itself has largely faded from public memory. Image courtesy of Gettysburg College Special Collections.

As I write this, I think of a different time, a different war, and a different April. On April 6th, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, joining France, Great Britain, and Russia to fight in the World War I. The United States’ entry into the war was controversial; President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2nd, and after four days of debate the Senate passed the declaration 82-6 and the House of Representative passed it 373-50. During the war, 116,516 American Servicemen lost their lives to battle deaths and disease. The Great War, as it came to be known, had a significant impact on the United States domestically and internationally. Entrance to war marked a significant change in America’s traditionally isolationist policy. The end of the war brought an economic boom to the States and a role in international politics it had not seen before. A spot at the table at Versailles, the League of Nations, and an increasingly globalized economy illustrated that the United States was not just a nation across the Atlantic anymore. It had begun establishing itself as a world power whose presence continues to define international politics today. Continue reading “The Conflicting Conflict: Memorialization and Memory of the Great War”

Appomattox: 152 Years Later

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

Just over a week ago was the 152nd anniversary of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.  Although that number may not be as big a deal as the 150th anniversary a few years ago, there was something else special about this year. For only the seventh time since 1865, April 9th fell on Palm Sunday, just as it did on the day that Grant and Lee met in the McLean House. Not only was I lucky enough to attend this commemoration, but I was able to revisit the job I held over the summer by volunteering that weekend. Arriving on Friday, I donned a volunteer uniform, attached my nametag from the summer, and walked out into the surprisingly cold air.

Names on Bags)
A small section of the 4,600 paper bags with the names of slaves emancipated in Appomattox County that lined the roads throughout the park. Photo courtesy of the author.

Luckily the weather was vastly improved on Saturday and Sunday, as hundreds of visitors flocked to the small village far out of the way of most tourists. Volunteers greeted visitors at the parking lot and helped to answer questions across the site. All weekend, interpretative programs were delivered on topics including Union General Philip Sheridan’s 1865 Central Virginia campaign, the United States Colored Troops at Appomattox, and the surrender proceedings themselves. Reenactors, both Union and Confederate, camped within the park, carrying out firing demonstrations to represent the fighting within and around the village and recreating the stacking of Confederate arms. Continue reading “Appomattox: 152 Years Later”

A Middle East Perspective: Civil War Memory in Syria and at Home

By Annika Jensen ’18

Last summer, while on a trip with the Eisenhower Institute’s Inside the Middle East program, I stood at the Israeli edge of the Golan Heights and heard a bomb explode across the border in Syria. We had spent the day within several miles of the war-ravaged nation with all remaining quiet until that moment, and while none of us wanted to admit it, we had the smallest hope that we might catch a glimpse of the conflict. However, when the sound of the detonation roared across the hills, excitement was replaced by a sense of fear and grief. I had lived a year in Gettysburg, yet I had never felt so close to a battlefield.

The wall of an abandoned hospital on the Syrian-Israeli border. Photograph by the author.
The wall of an abandoned hospital on the Syrian-Israeli border. Photograph by the author.

Gazing from the Golan Heights across the Syrian border held a certain degree of spectatorship; though it is morbid to articulate, we were all waiting for something to happen, as if conflict were equivalent with entertainment. Though it may not be just to compare our experience with the picnicking politicians at First Bull Run, waiting around for excitement and glory then fleeing in a panic, I certainly felt an observer of war. Perhaps many of us were too desensitized by the commonality of violence in our omnipresent media outlets to be affected. None of us felt particularly unsafe or even frazzled; we were too far from the sound to gauge whether any damage had been inflicted, and even if we had we never would have seen it. Nonetheless, the day was spent feeling a little more wary. Continue reading “A Middle East Perspective: Civil War Memory in Syria and at Home”

A Complex Homecoming for Union Veterans: An Interview with Lesley Gordon

Lesley Gordon
Lesley Gordon. Image courtesy of the University of Akron.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies.  Today, we’re speaking with Lesley Gordon, Professor of History at The University of Akron. Gordon’s publications include: General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and their Wives (Oxford University Press, 2001), and This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath (Longman, 2003). Her latest book, A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, was published in 2014 by the Louisiana State University Press.

CWI: What challenges and opportunities did US veterans encounter upon returning home from the war?  What was the process of re-assimilation back into civilian life like?  How did that process vary across different regions, classes, races, and ethnicities?

Gordon: Union veterans came home after the war hoping to return to normalcy. Demobilization happened quickly, especially considering how many soldiers had served and how long this “terrible” war had lasted. However, many found resuming their prewar lives difficult. Some of course did successfully return to their families, jobs and lives and blended smoothly and quietly into postwar society. We know more about those who struggled and failed—they simply left more records or drew more public attention. Some veterans were recovering from lingering wounds, physical, emotional and psychological ones. Yet, increasingly all veterans realized that they faced a changed postwar society, and a civilian population largely ready to move on. By the turn of the century, a growing perception of the Union veteran was that of the dependent pensioner, reliant on the state for care and financial support.

Continue reading “A Complex Homecoming for Union Veterans: An Interview with Lesley Gordon”

Some Small Tribute: How Modern Americans Find Meaning in the National Cemetery

By Matt LaRoche ’17

In anticipation of Remembrance Day and Dedication Day this week, we have asked our Fellows why and how they commemorate the Civil War. Read Megan’s post below, then check back later in the week for more posts on commemoration and remembrance.

In my last post, I appealed to the public to make good on the tragedies of Gettysburg in the same broad vein as President Clinton’s appeal at the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica—to make the tragedy a “sacred trust” towards a better future. Needless to say, the material of the last piece stuck with me powerfully. In my musings I realized that I had, in my own experiences, stood witness to some small but remarkable efforts by visitors at Gettysburg to take something constructive and enduring from this tragedy.

Photograph courtesy of Kevin Lavery

Living in Gettysburg, I’ve learned that the town is many things to many people. It’s the place where the Civil War most permeates the public imagination, most touches the lives of everyday Americans. It’s a tourist trap. It’s our greatest killing ground. But above all, it’s a place where seekers from all segments of society come to understand—just what have we inherited from these men, and where do we take it from here? Once visitors step onto the field and learn the stories of what happened here—once they see the graves, the white stones and the sunken hollows of burial pits strewn across the field—many cannot help but start their search by trying to understand these men: their sorrow, their intentions, the sum total of their lives and the consequence of their actions. Continue reading “Some Small Tribute: How Modern Americans Find Meaning in the National Cemetery”

No Dog in the Fight: Commemorating the Civil War without an Ancestor

By Megan McNish ’16

Luminaria. Photograph courtesy of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP.

In anticipation of Remembrance Day and Dedication Day this week, we have asked our Fellows why and how they commemorate the Civil War. Read Megan’s post below, then check back later in the week for more posts on commemoration and remembrance.

Commemoration of the Civil War has been a hot topic lately, with many discussing why and how it should and shouldn’t be done. As a student of Civil War history, I’m clearly biased in believing that the war I study should be commemorated, but, unlike many, my bias doesn’t come from the fact that I have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War. My ancestors came to the United States in the 1880s and 1890s from Scotland and settled in New Jersey and haven’t moved since. So why do I care about the Civil War? Why is it important to me that this country continue to commemorate a war that ended over 150 years ago? Continue reading “No Dog in the Fight: Commemorating the Civil War without an Ancestor”

Seeing the Sorrow Anew: Recapturing the Reality of Suffering Through Srebrenica

By Matt LaRoche ’17

Those who know death know mourning. Those who know mourning know the meaning of empty spaces that we all wish had stayed filled. But do we, or even can we, as the few members of this society who habitually reflect upon the tragedies and triumphs of the past, fully understand the immensity of the suffering we dwell upon while wandering our battlefields? In the Civil War field, whether as professors or as history buffs, we deal with the heartbreak and the violation of violence on a daily basis. However, this summer, as I worked at Gettysburg National Military Park and gave my National Cemetery tour almost daily, I quickly realized just how much of a disconnect the ages have put between us and the Civil War generation. I realized how never having known the people in the graves at your feet warps your perception of the events that took their lives. And I realized how, especially for the majority of the park’s visitors who have never known war, it is imperative that we try to connect to the reality of suffering that the war generation bore in order to understand not just our fragility as humans, but the long reach and lasting consequences of our actions.

By chance, I also discovered a lens that allowed me to do to this—that lets me reevaluate what the dead of Gettysburg mean, and what their deaths have to teach. This July, as I sat in the break room reading CNN on my phone, I saw a run of articles detailing the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia. I watched videos of crowds of mourners gathering in the cemetery-memorial to the over 8,000 murdered Muslim men and boys of Srebrenica, and I realized that this is not what we see at the National Cemetery. We see a sense of completeness, of the weight of history. The cemetery is lovely and well visited. To us—to we who have known it no other way—all is well. But we are misled. We no longer see mothers waiting—perhaps forever—to simply bury their sons. From Srebrenica, I heard the voices of people who will be struggling forever to make sense of what happened in July of 1995, their search for answers made infinitely harder because it is torturously emotional, not just an intellectual query. That conversation ended in the National Cemetery with the last person who knew the Civil War dead. Continue reading “Seeing the Sorrow Anew: Recapturing the Reality of Suffering Through Srebrenica”